The Fallacy of the Fence

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Technology blogger David Pogue, considering a few of the more questionable decisions made by CEOs over the past year, naturally considers what Megan McArdle called the "brief and tragic life of Qwikster." In the process, Pogue reminded me of McArdle's post, whose title, "If Everyone Else Is Such an Idiot, How Come You're Not Rich?", intrigued me when I encountered it. I hadn't gotten around to reading it yet, so I did, because I saw Pogue, although not directly calling Reed Hastings an idiot, questioning how he could have reached the decision he did.

After reading the two pieces, I think McArdle and Pogue are on the same page regarding Hastings, which I would sum up as, "That was a bad decision, but one Hastings made, based on what he thought were good reasons."

But the McArdle piece brought up something called, "The Fallacy of Chesterton's Fence," which she quotes elsewhere, and which I think is worthy of consideration by people who, like myself, are interested in cultural change as a means of achieving political change. There are obvious and non-obvious reasons for thinking about this:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution 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."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
Libertarians, who see no need to understand political philosophy before embarking on reform, are guilty of this fallacy, and the liberty-endangering results are perhaps most clear when we see so many of them -- such as Ron Paul -- adopt a pacifistic "non-interventionism" in foreign policy.

People who so reflexively reject traditions that they seem unable to entertain the idea that they might exist for good reasons -- and rush to condemn anyone who upholds a tradition as, ipso facto, an unthinking boob -- also fall prey to the fallacy. Both fail to connect their abstractions with reality, failing in the process, as McArdle puts it so well, to form "a theory of the transition" between the state of affairs they "want" and the one that exists.

The scare quotes around "want" are significant. Someone who does not thoroughly understand some cause he supports risks damaging that cause, because what he means when he uses the words of that cause is highly questionable. A nation cannot have freedom for very long, for example, without a strong military and a principled foreign policy of national self-interest. Someone like Ron Paul clearly does not understand this on some level, or his praise of "freedom" and his military "non-interventionism" would not be bedfellows in his own mind.

In the realm of cultural activism, someone like Paul damages his own cause not merely by espousing notions that plainly contradict it, sewing confusion in the process. He also understandably repels potential allies (to the actual cause) by sounding like an idiot.

While people who don't know what they are talking about can sometimes accidentally lead others to discover knowledge, it is worth considering how a rational person would properly react to what such people say. "A statement isn't necessarily false because it comes from an unreliable source, though it is more likely to be false," as John Cook has rightly pointed out. Based on an implicit understanding like this, it would not be unreasonable for a perfectly rational person whose only exposure to, say, the thought of Ayn Rand, were due to the fact that he thought Ron Paul fairly represented her -- and he'd heard Paul say something patently ridiculous -- to think that Rand is a crackpot. Other exposure to Rand from other sources could cause such a person to revise his opinion later, but this will be despite Paul's insistence that he is a champion of liberty.

The kind of error that manifests as the "Fallacy of Chesterton's Fence" is thus both an impediment to thoughtful reform and to communication about why such reform is necessary, in what direction such reform must move, and in how best to achieve it. This is why advocates of Ayn Rand's ideas should distance themselves from the likes of Ron Paul.

-- CAV


Mark Lindholm said...

I think an advocate of Ayn Rand would properly distance themselves from ANY of the candidates. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't vote for Ron Paul or even support his candidacy (which I do).

I am of the firm belief that Paul is the only candidate (with the possible exception of Bachmann, who is even more misguided) willing to put a stop to the creep of unpaid-for socialism that's been growing out of control my entire life. I think it won't be long, if we continue down this path, until our civilization collapses. Who else promises (and appears willing to carry through) a trillion dollars in almost perfectly targeted government spending cuts?

Even if his isolationist theories are misguided, I'm sure many Objectivists would agree that we do not need to be expending taxpayer lives to keep troops stationed across the globe, fighting no war in most cases, doing nothing other than helping the local economies.

Aside from that, I find it refreshing when a candidate is willing to speak his mind regardless of polling data.

Sergio said...

Hey Gus,

While not exactly on point regarding your post (apologies), as a student of Objectivism that finds himself gravitating towards Ron Paul - I'm keen to understand some of your comments.


"A nation cannot have freedom for very long, for example, without a strong military and a principled foreign policy of national self-interest. Someone like Ron Paul clearly does not understand this on some level, or his praise of "freedom" and his military "non-interventionism" would not be bedfellows in his own mind."

I have always interpreted Paul's position on non-interventionism to mean that he's against the deployment of the military for any purpose other than to defend against the initiation of force. As such, I've always thought such a position was consistent with Objectivism.

I struggle with the notion of principled foreign policies built around national self-interest. Historically, such a notion has been the guise under which "great" American leaders like Wilson played at empire building and economic imperialism.

Today, it looks like the US military is more a tool of well connected businesses, creating market distortions throughout the world... all at the taxpayers' expense at a time when the national treasury isn't exactly robust.

I suppose my question to you is why you've interpreted Paul's positions to be tantamount to pacifism. I'm a long time reader and respect your opinions a great deal - so I must be missing something!

Cheers and Merry Christmas,


Gus Van Horn said...

Hi Sergio,

I don't have a lot of time to address your concerns, but I have discussed the difference between Paul's ideas on foreign policy, which treat "non-interventionism" as an axiom and apply it to other areas, even including whether we should trade with enemy states.

Regarding your problem with national self-interest as the proper governing principle of foreign policy, the fact that Wilson et al. used the phrase to justify what were, in fact, self-sacrificial policies, does not invalidate that as a principle. For more, Peter Schwartz has more at ARI.

Likewise, the current mis-use of the U.S. military for "nation-building" in barbaric areas that should be under blockade at best is neither an argument against having forward-deployed forces at all, nor a justification of Paul's policy.

I hope that helps.


Gus Van Horn said...


The problem Paul presents that the other candidates don't is that, unlike the other candidates, he holds himself out as an advocate of many of the very principles we need to adopt to turn things around. He does not, in fact, support these principles, as his support for a state-by-state ban on abortion indicates.

Not only is there no reason on earth to ban abortion before a fetus becomes an individual, even if there were, a principled stand would be that the procedure should be banned in allstates. Paul is apparently okay with (what he would see as) legalized murder in some states, but not others. So does Paul really see the purpose of the government as protecting individual rights -- or do states have "rights" that supercede yours and mine?

I stand for individual rights, not compromise with theocrats and no tyranny, rather than fifty. Ron Paul as an alleged champion of Ayn Rand's political ideas would make a mockery of my advocacy of the same if I pretended to support him AND Ayn Rand.


C L said...

Gary Johnson does, and his track record as NM Governor backs it up. I consider him a clearly superior candidate to Ron Paul.

C L said...

Hmm, looks like my attempted quote got clipped. My previous comment was in response to Mark's statement:

"Who else promises (and appears willing to carry through) a trillion dollars in almost perfectly targeted government spending cuts?"