Always ask why: Chesterton’s Gate

Peopl just love to think that they’re smarter than everyone else. They look at a problem they’re not familiar with for two minutes and then say, “Oh, but the answer’s obviously…” Matt will recognise this phenomenon from all the times he’s been told that macro forecasting is a waste of time and the people buying it must be idiots. Economists generally get it from physicists who think Brownian motion solves half the problems in economics. Economists themselves are terrible at it: they look at almost any policy debate and claim that if only X were properly priced then everything would be rosy.

If all these things are so obvious then the question is, why haven’t they been dealt with already? And, “because nobody else is smart enough to see the solution” is unlikely to be the correct answer. More often, the person with the ‘solution’ just doesn’t understand the complexity of the problem and the reasons why things are as they stand.

Now, that isn’t a new insight, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been bothered by the lack of a snappy name for it. After all, it isn’t a real proposition until you can name it after someone. So I was very happy to come across this article by Megan McArdle discussing Chesterton’s Gate. I’m not sure if the name is widespread, but i’m already a fan. Apparently GK Chesterton gave a fairly eloquent description of the problem:

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.

  • Bill

    I really like this — I may have to start using the phrase ‘Chesterton’s Gate’.
    Krugman has voiced the same complaint about engineers who got into economic modelling in the 1970s (?), with no recognition of the difficulties involved.

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