[Stub] The problem with Chesterton's Fence

post by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-05T17:10:31.503Z · score: 6 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 51 comments

Chesterton's meta-fence: "in our current system (democratic market economies with large governments) the common practice of taking down Chesterton fences is a process which seems well established and has a decent track record, and should not be unduly interfered with (unless you fully understand it)".

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comment by TheMajor · 2016-01-05T18:40:44.862Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

How very deep. But if I'm not mistaken the original argument around Chesterton's fence is that somebody had gone through great efforts to put a fence somewhere, and presumably would not have wasted that time if it would be useless anyway. In your example, "the common practice of taking down Chesterton fences", this is not the case. The general principle is to not undo that which others have worked hard for to create, unless you are certain that it is useless/counterproductive. Nobody worked hard on making sure people could remove fences without understanding them (or at the very least I'm willing to claim that this is counterproductive), so this principle is not protected.

comment by AnnaSalamon · 2016-01-09T06:42:02.868Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nobody worked hard on making sure people could remove fences without understanding them ..., so this principle is not protected.

This seems false to me. I agree with Stuart's opening suggestion that democracy, free markets, and the Enlightenment more generally are in part designed to make it easy to dismantle historical patterns (e.g. religion, guilds, aristocracy, traditions; one can see this discussion explicitly in e.g. Adam Smith, Locke, Toqueville, Bacon). Bostrom's "status quo bias" also comes to mind.

comment by AmagicalFishy · 2016-01-09T06:46:46.885Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Every time I read about Chesterton's fence, it seems like the implication is:

Because someone worked hard on something, or because a practice/custom took a long time to develop, it has a greater chance of being correct, useful, or beneficial [than someone's replacement who looks and says "This doesn't make sense"]

I think that's a terrible statement.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-09T16:43:04.312Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's not the Chesterton's fence at all.

In plain words, the Chesterton's fence says that if you want to remove something because you don't understand why it's there, you should first find out why is it there.

That, as you notice, has nothing to do with "worked hard" or "took a long time".

comment by AmagicalFishy · 2016-01-10T01:42:25.886Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But if I'm not mistaken the original argument around Chesterton's fence is that somebody had gone through great efforts to put a fence somewhere, and presumably would not have wasted that time if it would be useless anyway.

My response was to this statement—specifically, toward the assumption that, since someone has gone through great efforts to put a fence somewhere, it's ok to assume said fence isn't useless. I'm not seeing where my comment is inconsistent with what it's responding to (that is, I'm seeing "gone through great efforts" as synonymous with "worked hard.")

I was about to say that every time I've read of Chesterton's Fence, it seems silly, but then I decided to read Wikipedia's take on it (I do love me some Wikipedia), and came across this:

If you're considering nominating something for deletion because it doesn't appear to have any use or purpose, research its history first. You may find out why it was created, and perhaps understand that it still serves a purpose. Or if you do feel the issue it addressed is no longer valid, frame your argument for deletion.

This, to me, seems like an obvious good idea—and it also seems independent of what TheMajor was saying. My initial qualm came from the claim of why something might have unknown use (i.e. - someone "presumably would not have wasted that time if it would be useless anyway"). I don't believe this to be true, or a good thing to assume, anymore than assuming something that didn't take a large amount of effort is useless.

On the other hand, "Find out why something is in place before commenting on it, regardless of how much effort was put into it" seems much more reasonable.

[IGNORE THE ABOVE COMMENT (I don't know how to strikeout)]

Lumifer, I've interpreted your comment within the context of your implying TheMajor's statement is correct. When I think about it more, I don't think that's what you intended—and, in fact, probably intended the opposite.

Am I correct?

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2016-01-09T21:45:12.953Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If that is the case, then it is applicable even less often than it is applied, since it tends to be applied in cases where the removers have reasons that go far beyond "not knowing it is there". Invariably, they want something removed because they don't like its consequences.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-09T23:04:43.782Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Your statement doesn't look falsifiable.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2016-01-10T01:24:49.512Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe not, in the sense that most politically charged claims aren't falsifiable.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-10T02:06:21.226Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

most politically charged claims aren't falsifiable

Now that doesn't look true to me. What may be true is that many of them are not concerned with the truth of the claim, but that's not quite the same thing.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-07T16:34:58.652Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But if I'm not mistaken the original argument around Chesterton's fence is that somebody had gone through great efforts to put a fence somewhere, and presumably would not have wasted that time if it would be useless anyway.

The idea has been extended to cases where no-one can articulate a good reason for the fence ( https://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2015/09/06/mistakes-3-breaking-chestertons-fence-in-the-presence-of-bull/ ), which is a more powerful argument.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2016-01-08T14:56:25.233Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which is not the same as nobody having put great effort into placing the fence.

comment by Viliam · 2016-01-07T15:55:17.793Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

somebody had gone through great efforts to put a fence somewhere ... In your example, "the common practice of taking down Chesterton fences", this is not the case.

You mean that no one has gone through great efforts to remove the existing Chesterton fences? Seems false.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2016-01-08T14:56:50.488Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Nobody has gone through great effort to create a Chesteron-fence-demolishing-machine.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-08T15:33:41.331Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

a Chesteron-fence-demolishing-machine

Those are usually called "revolutions".

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2016-01-05T17:30:11.692Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

...the common practice of taking down Chesterton fences is a process which seems well established and has a decent track record...

How are you measuring this?

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-07T16:32:38.248Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Very informally, by the amount of times that new innovations or changes are objected to on roughly Chesterton fence reasons, and they turn out to be ok after all. It seems that our modern societies have a certain flexibility built in that allows them to route around certain problems and take advantages of certain opportunities, in ways that pure "Chesterton fence" thinking doesn't allow.

However, this is very far from a rigorous, quantified argument (though the original argument wasn't either).

comment by buybuydandavis · 2016-01-09T01:43:02.645Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That was the same thing that struck me. What's the data for this claim?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2016-01-15T17:15:05.685Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The more effectively something does its job, the less superficially useful it appears to be.

If I have effective locks on the doors and windows of my house, as a result of which no-one breaks in, it will seem as if the locks are unnecessary. If I keep my car well maintained, so that it never breaks down, it will seem as if all that expense on maintenance was unnecessary. You don't see the casual thief who tried the door and went away, or the timing chain that never snapped and wrecked the engine. When there is no crime, it seems that the police are unnecessary; when no-one tries to invade, that the army is unnecessary. In places with clueless management, the more effectively the computer support staff do their job, the less reason management will see to employ them.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2016-01-06T00:56:52.922Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yup, the correct next thing to say is "I am entirely unconvinced that the practice of taking down Chesterton fences is a process which seems well established and has a decent track record".

But you could say "And by the above, I will remove this Chesterton fence."

comment by James_Miller · 2016-01-05T17:55:06.457Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If our current system removes Chesterton fences at the optimum rate, then at the margin the net benefit of going slower or faster is zero so there is no cost to slightly interfering with the process. Still, very clever.

comment by MaximumLiberty · 2016-01-12T19:03:04.924Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The work of Elinor Ostrom (2009 Nobel prize co-winner in economics) seems relevant. The Wikipedia page on her does a decent introduction. The relevant part of her work was in how societies use customs (other than market transactions) to regulate use of common resources. The relevant observation here is that the customs often seem strange and non-sensical, but they work. She summarized her findings, "A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory."

Similarly, the work of Peter Leeson on ordeals seems relevant. Ordeals were medieval methods of determining the outcome of what would today be a lawsuit. An example of an ordeal is (literally) trial by fire or trial by battle. Leeson shows how this facially strange and non-sensical custom actually served its purpose of dispensing justice. His research along these lines is surprising, unorthodox, and amusing.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-13T12:00:53.081Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. I suspect that Chesteron's fence arguments are stronger in traditional cultures. Markets and democracies seem to have much greater self-correcting abilities, so the argument seems to be weaker (as long as you're not touching the key parts of the systems).

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-13T15:54:16.588Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Markets and democracies seem to have much greater self-correcting abilities, so the argument seems to be weaker

I don't know about that. If you (try to) remove a useful fence, the system might self-correct by removing you.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-13T16:01:56.976Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

...and thus the system has self-corrected ^_^ and almost everyone is happy.

comment by MaximumLiberty · 2016-01-12T20:38:52.332Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And similarly, here's a quotation from economist George Stigler: “every durable social institution or practice is efficient.” ("Efficient" has a specific meaning in context. Don't over-extend it to "good" or similar ideas.)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2016-01-09T22:28:20.639Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Another version: a lot of fences have fallen unprotested, unless you are such an ultra-reactionary that you literally want to bring back witch trials.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-01-06T15:33:19.225Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When someone removes a Chesterton fence without thinking about it much, what usually happens is that after a while people begin to see that there was a reason for the fence to be there. That doesn't necessarily mean that they have to put the fence back, but they do have to develop a new way to address the issues that were meant to be addressed by the fence. I expect this to happen over time with the fences that have been taken down in our current system (i.e. I think that those fences did have their reasons.)

comment by AmagicalFishy · 2016-01-09T06:44:33.077Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In my experience, that's not what usually happens.

Where are you getting "that's what usually happens"?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-01-09T13:24:26.144Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Technological changes can provide good examples. Many people keep saying things like "Five more years and printed books will be obsolete," because they don't see any advantages of printed books over e-books. But it doesn't happen because there are a good number of advantages to the printed books, which remain even when people do not explicitly notice them. On the other hand, given a long enough time, the transition people expect will in fact happen, because alternative solutions to the issues will ultimately be found.

I could mention a number of advantages, but just one for illustration: when you read a printed book, the fact that you are physically aware of where you are in the book, e.g. two thirds of the way through, helps you remember the book.

comment by TimS · 2016-01-08T16:46:02.591Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Appealing to Chesterton's Fence is moving away from an object level argument. Thus, the general implication of the Chesterton's Fence argument is that there is not an efficient alternative solution to the problem.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-01-08T17:36:16.451Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Chesterton himself intended to use it in the situation where people are saying, "I don't see any reason for this fence to be here." That implies that people do not see a problem at all, and therefore they do not see an alternative solution. But if there is actually a problem, although people aren't noticing it, there may or may not be an alternative solution (and usually there will be at least a few alternatives.)

comment by TimS · 2016-01-08T18:22:28.941Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The steelman opponent of the fence is "I see a reason not to have the fence, and any benefits to having the fence is outweighed by the benefits of removing the fence."

By contrast, the Chesterton's Fence argument is that there are unrecognized benefits of the fence. In practice, this easily devolves into an argument about the relative costs and benefits, but that is probably a distinct argument.

comment by SilentCal · 2016-01-14T20:05:18.341Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Exactly how established is the track record of taking down fences without an understanding of why they were put up? A great many of liberalism's target fences over the years have been readily explained by being in the interests of the powerful (e.g. monarchy/aristocracy, slavery).

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-15T08:40:22.099Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Founding the NHS, bringing in clear air and water acts, regulating minimum standards for child workers (and then all workers), extending the franchise. All these were done in defiance of precedent and with strong accusations of destroying prosperity.

The creation of the NHS is a good example. Nothing had been done like that before, and most of the predictions (both positive and negative) at the time, were very wrong (for instance, it was predicted that it would reduce medical costs overall!). This strongly implies that nobody really had any idea what was going to happen. And yet it basically worked out; and, in fact, most healthcare systems in developed countries (apart from the USA) seem to average out around the same broad categories of performance and cost, even if they seem to vary considerably in theory, This is evidence that our current systems push both revolutionary innovations and incremental ones, in the vague direction of decent performance,

On another side, many technological innovations completely destroy Chesterton fences existing in society. The whole idea of centralising and sharing knowledge across all different types of communities is something that there were a lot of fences to block; yet it seems to have kinda worked.

But the proper argument would require much more examples, and much defining of what a Chesterton Fence is.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-15T15:47:03.732Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

All these were done in defiance of precedent and with strong accusations of destroying prosperity.

Chesterton's Fence is not about precedents or maintaining prosperity. Essentially, it's about doing something without having a clue.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-19T12:09:21.630Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

? I think the definition I use of Chesterton Fences may have expanded somewhat, until it's almost equivalent with Burkean conservatism, or a general argument against "we think that changing something traditional in society will bring benefits, so let's change it".

comment by Lumifer · 2016-01-19T18:08:09.909Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

De gustibus, of course, but I prefer limited and hard definitions to ones that fuzzily expand until they're "almost equivalent" to a large and vague concept...

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-20T14:00:39.342Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I see your point, but I don't think the original Chesterton's fence is a stable concept. Knowing why the person-who-built-the-fence, built the fence, is different from knowing why the fence was built (and allowed to stand). But, as you say, de gustibus (an expression I will steal from now on).

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-01-15T12:52:35.839Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your argument seems like saying, "Look, everyone said that the Y2K bug would cause terrible problems, but nothing happened."

Nothing happened, exactly because everybody was predicting terrible problems and so they fixed the bugs in advance. If people had been following your idea, they wouldn't have bothered to predict any problems or to fix the bugs, and it could easily have therefore caused terrible problems.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-15T14:16:18.744Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's more like saying "look, everyone said pricing sulfur dioxide would cause great problems, but nothing really bad happened, because people and the market adapted naturally to the change".

So the Y2K bug is not an argument for "do nothing if you're heavily involved with computers", but it is an argument for "do nothing if you have no connection with the computer industry (including funding, etc...) because it seems to have a decent track record of sorting out its own problems".

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-01-15T16:03:15.222Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that "taking down this fence is going to cause society to collapse" is almost always false, at least when there is any real danger of the fence being taken down.

The same thing likely applies to statements like "programming an AGI without a tremendous amount of care about its exact goals is going to destroy the world."

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-19T12:17:57.415Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd argue we have rather more experience of taking down fences which people cling to, than of programming AGI goals...

comment by SilentCal · 2016-01-15T18:52:29.778Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For the Chesterton's Fence objection to properly have applied to the NHS, it would have had to have been the case that no one could explain the historical lack of NHS. Yet I think it's pretty easily explained by governments' values over time: first kleptocratic, then libertarianish, and only becoming utilitarian roughly around the time of the NHS, to simplify heavily.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-19T12:16:59.638Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The more advance versions of the fence apply even if the reasons for the fence are unknown or bad (or badly explained).

comment by SilentCal · 2016-01-19T17:23:51.680Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I've encountered these more advanced versions. is there a link?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2016-01-15T17:04:20.705Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But the proper argument would require much more examples, and much defining of what a Chesterton Fence is.

Indeed. Your examples seem to be simply changes. Not every change is a fence, and for that matter, not every taking down of a fence is done because no-one thought for five minutes about why it was there. All of those examples were intensively discussed at the time. Those opposed spoke at length about why it was there and why it should stay there, and those for spoke at length about why it should be taken down. In particular, extending the franchise, in the UK, was a process whose major part extended across nearly a century, step by step from the 1832 Reform Act to women getting equal voting rights in 1928.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2016-01-15T17:02:21.535Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But the proper argument would require much more examples, and much defining of what a Chesterton Fence is.

Indeed. Your examples seem to be simply changes. Not every change is a fence, and for that matter, not every taking down of a fence is done because no-one thought for five minutes about why it was there. All of those examples were intensively discussed at the time, and those opposed spoke at great length about why it was there and why it should stay there. In particular, extending the franchise, in the UK, was a process whose major part extended across nearly a century, step by step from the 1832 Reform Act to women getting equal voting rights in 1928.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2016-01-15T17:01:40.815Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But the proper argument would require much more examples, and much defining of what a Chesterton Fence is.

Indeed. Your examples seem to be simply changes. Not every change is a fence, and for that matter, not every taking down of a fence is done because no-one thought for five minutes about why it was there. All of those examples were intensively discussed at the time, and those opposed spoke at great length about why it was there. In particular, extending the franchise, in the UK, was a process whose major part extended across nearly a century, step by step from the 1832 Reform Act to women getting equal voting rights in 1928.

comment by blogospheroid · 2016-01-12T08:07:05.695Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This basically boils down to the root of the impulse to remove a chesterton's fence, doesn't it?

Those who believe that these impulses come from genuinely good sources (eg. learned university professors) like to take down those fences. Those who believe that these impulses come from bad sources (eg. status jockeying, holiness signalling) would like to keep them.

The reactionary impulse comes from the basic idea that the practice of repeatedly taking down chesterton's fences will inevitably auto-cannibalise and the system or the meta-system being used to defend all these previous demolitions will also fall prey to one such wave. The humans left after that catastrophe will be little better than animals, in some cases maybe even worse, lacking the ability and skills to survive.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2016-01-12T10:28:15.602Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This basically boils down to the root of the impulse to remove a chesterton's fence, doesn't it?

Not really. A lot of fences seem to have been taken down for bad or at least objectionable reasons, and to have turned out either fine or not to bad.

I'd point to a different distinction - effective fences tend to have more defenders than bad ones (on average). So by taking down a fence that's easy to take down, you're more likely to improve the situation. And what fences get taken down the most often? The easy ones.

So my "argument" can say that it's ok to take down a fence, but that this might not apply to major/important ones that have remained untouched to date.