Fencing with Chesterton
The Tragedy of the Early Adopters
We live in a change-happy culture. We won’t admit the existence of unknown unknowns that could dampen our enthusiasm for the New. We believe in Progress!
We mock pseudo sciences of the past (eg phrenology), yet our medical schools do not have real instruction on nutrition. We sneer at people who keep paper copies while exposing our children’s birth certificates to digital thieves continents away. We pity generations who lacked air conditioning, but we have no clue how to fix our own machines.
We fail to respect the past, and we disenfranchise the dead.
And so - somewhere in the world - an HR administrator is about to make a huge mistake: Having crunched the numbers, he plans to defund the break room coffee.
Perhaps he has observed that few people actually drink the coffee. Perhaps he believes the money would be better spent on employee IRAs. Progress!
But before he sends that memo, our friend ought to remember why the coffee was there in the first place. Like all reformers, he should heed the advice of the great GK Chesterton:
There exists in such a case a certain situation or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
What is the “use” of the endangered coffee? Most obviously, as a performance-enhancing drug stimulating workplace productivity.
But ah, there is more!
Free coffee marks the office as an outcropping of civilization; it signals respect for employees; it indicates the company’s fiscal health; it covers the funk of weird foods from the fridge. Let the Reformer take note.
Right About the Wrong
Are we smarter than our forebears? Because we are later in time, are we immune to making ridiculous mistakes? Even if our intelligence outstrips our parents’ and grandparents’, our lack of knowledge of what they actually did, how they made decisions, and what consequences they encountered hampers our ability to do better.
If we would like to make real progress, we will need to develop intellectual humility. To develop intellectual humility, we need a keen awareness of current events, and we need our schools to spend less time on Language Arts and more time on HISTORY. (Ironically, but just as Chesterton would have predicted, we make better ELA gains when we make this shift.)
“Reformers” should not act in haste. Usually a problem is obvious, but it’s solution less so. Or as Chesterton put it:
The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right. (October 1922)
A Pasture without Fences
Christians are not afraid of new things, but we are not early adopters. The God who waited until the reign of Augustus to send the Messiah is not a god in a hurry. There is great urgency - for our lives are short and we really belong to one another - but we already have the most important tools - the sacraments and the works of mercy. God has already re-formed our world through the Paschal mystery! Attend, O flock, to the Good Shepherd’s voice and you won’t have to rely on fences.