You are walking through a wide-open field far from houses and signs of civilisation. You come across an old, abandoned fence. It is in the way, but you could walk around it. You really can’t see the use of it, should you go ahead and knock it down?
Fences do not pop up left and right on their own. Another person, whoever they might be, built it for a reason. Their reason may be a good one, or it may be a bad one. But it would be reckless to knock it down without knowing for sure.
“Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.”
Chesterton's fence is a heuristic inspired by the scholar G.K. Chesterton in his 1929 book; The Thing.
“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.”
From G.K Chesterton's The Thing
When we create an institution or structure society a certain way, it is in response to a problem. We humans aren’t in the business of running around, and building fences left and right. We have reasons that drive our behaviour, be they good or bad. The shape that society takes today is the result of many such humans trying to live in this world.
We have structured our society in a way that has lead to numerous social, economic and environmental problems — yet, we did so for a reason. We have moulded the institutions that govern our lives to help address problems we have encountered in the past.