Thursday, April 22, 2010

Quote of the day

Quote of the day:
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.'
-- G.K. Chesterton, The Thing
Wonderful quote. Because when it comes to change, there are a couple of different kinds of mistakes that people make with regard to changing procedures or institutions. One of them is obvious, and everyone understands the logic. The other is more subtle.

Everyone understands that "that's the way we've always done it" is not a compelling reason to keep doing something that someone wants to change. Everyone can see that. However, it's also not a compelling reason to change something, and people don't always see that.

Consider this scenario - you're walking through a nice wooded area, and in one clearing, there are a couple of planks lying side by side in the grass. Those pieces of wood may be there because that's where they fell, and no one's bothered to move them. But they also may be there because there's an abandoned well that they're covering. If you don't know that, then you can't intelligently make a decision about moving them.

Certainly, there are many conventions that we live with because someone made a fairly arbitrary decision at one point that left a legacy. But many significant institutions or conventions or behaviors developed for good reasons, reasons which are still valid even if they aren't obvious to us. It's one of my pet peeves with the gay marriage discussion. Anyone who says, "I can't think of any reason for male-female relationships to get preferential status" hasn't thought it through. It might be that society would actually benefit from modifying the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, but if you can't conceive of a reason that it might not, you haven't done due diligence. There are so many second and third-order effects of marriage that it's inconceivable that a change to the institution won't have unintended consequences, some of which are certain to be negative.

Anyway, it's a wonderful quote from Chesterton, of whose work I've clearly not read enough.

(Credit where due, I found this quote by reading Jonah Goldberg's Goldberg file today, where this is the ... quote of the day. Well, so be it...)

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