When to take down Chesterton’s Fence

At a recent “nerd meet-up” that I attended, one of the participants asked how we explain what we are doing to peers, co-workers, girlfriends, etc.

I responded that I tell people I am going to a “nerd meet-up.”

Anyway, I’ve recently forced blog reading (and guitar-playing) back into my schedule after neglecting both for years, and, by reengaging with online content, I’ve also found myself attending real-life events based upon people who engage in online content. Funny how that works out.

The topic of the most recent Chicago Rationality meet-up was the Chesterton’s Fence principle – which is not only defined on Wikipedia, but is a key aspect of the regulation of wikis across the land:

The quotation is from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing, in the chapter entitled “The Drift from Domesticity”:

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.”

Another piece of reading for the discussion was from Scholar’s Stage on the value of tradition and how many traditions have second and third order effects that are optimized for something that may not be obvious from a surface-level examination of the tradition. Couple that with James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (and the associated essay from the Cato Institute) – which chronicles all kinds of failures and unintended consequences as governments attempt to make the goings-on of their citizens “legible” to things like censuses, tax collectors, and urban planning commissions – and you’ve got yourself a libertarian stew.

As someone who tends to disregard tradition and conventional wisdom, I find it useful to be reminded of heuristics that value tradition and “the way things have been done” over simply wiping the slate clean and starting over.

I tend to default more to the “pot roast heuristic” – as stated on Mindful Mornings:

A mother was preparing a pot roast for her family’s Easter meal while her young daughter helped. Knowing her daughter was very curious, the mother explained each step. As she was preparing to put the pot roast in the oven, the mother explained, “Now we cut the ends off of each side of the meat.” As young children often do, the daughter asked, “Why?” The mother thought for a moment and replied, “Because that’s the way it’s done. That’s how your grandma did it and that’s how I do it.”

Not satisfied with this answer, the young girl asked if she could call her grandma. The young girl called and asked, “Grandma, why do you cut the ends off the pot roast?” Her grandma thought for a moment and said, “Because that’s the way it’s done. That’s how my mom did it and that’s how I do it.”

Still not satisfied, the young girl called her great grandma, who was now living in a nursing home. “Great grandma,” she said, “Why do you cut the ends off the pot roast?” Her great grandma said, “When I was a young mother, we had a very small oven. The pot roast wouldn’t fit in the oven if I didn’t cut the ends off.”

So, how are we to make decisions? If we encounter a fence, how shall we decide its worth? Do we take it down? Go around it? Identify as “fence people” and hate all people who don’t have a fence? Or, sit upon it – forever neutral and uncommitted?

Based upon our discussions during our “nerd meet-up” and my own impulses, I would propose asking several questions and weighting the responses to decide what to do with the fence (or tradition).

Is the tradition an iteratively created response to a complex system? There’s a big difference between a rule or tradition that is top-down created by a state or government agency (like the confusing mess of dietary recommendations related to cholesterol levels and heart-disease risk that have created all kinds of negative consequences such as people replacing traditional foods with the even more dangerous trans fats) vs traditions that are iteratively arrived at over time through some sort of selection process (like the complex cassava preparation process detailed in the Scholars Stage article that removes the cyanide from the food and makes it edible). If a tradition or rule is “evolved” – meaning it was iteratively created potentially in response to selection pressure in a complex system, we should weight it more positively.

Is this a one-way door or a two-way door? This concept was popularized in one of Jeff Bezos’s letters to shareholders:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible—one-way doors—and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that—they are changeable, reversible—they’re two-way doors.

When interfering with complex systems, we often want to make small, reversible changes based upon initial feedback. In a business, for example, it’s often better to gradually implement policy changes in small groups to test them out before rolling out to large cohorts of customers or employees.

In the case of a fence in the woods, for example, we could try going around it and see what happens before taking it down.

Are you hopelessly iterating to a local maxima? This is a common problem in A/B testing methodology. You can iterate on a website and squeeze every drop of conversion out of the button placement, headline, and bullet points – but you may have much more success by speaking to customers and figuring out how to solve a problem that they don’t even know how to articulate that they have.

If you think about the concept of “trying to find the highest peak,” you could come up with a decision-making algorithm that requires you to always take steps in directions that are either neutral or higher than your current elevation. If you were to get to the top of a small hill, the algorithm would require that you stay on top of that hill, since each step that you take would, in fact, decrease your elevation – even if there were a huge, mountainous peak just a few yards away from that hill.

Traditions and processes can sometimes lock us into local maxima and we need to be willing to discard them in order to find a higher peak.

Will there be second order consequences to removing the rule or tradition?

Sometimes it’s not just about the rule or tradition itself – there may be significant second and third order consequences to adjusting a significant part of a complex system.

I’ve put algorithmic social media feeds on blast before for not just hijacking our attention but also making us into the kind of people who have our attention hijacked. I doubt anyone designing those algorithms had a serious concern that they would be modifying the brain chemistry of billions of people as they tried to increase engagement on their platforms. But, nonetheless, here we are.

Benedict Evans has one of the best articles on the web on second order consequences in relation to the future of autonomous driving. It’s not just about truck drivers and cab drivers who may have their jobs replaced nor is it just about the people whose lives will be saved that would have otherwise died in auto fatalities – what happens to the auto insurance industry? What happens to the space currently used for parking? What happens to greenhouse gas emissions?

Not all of these second and third order consequences require or deserve a value judgment – it’s just crucial to recognize that adjusting part of a complex system will have a variety of unintended consequences that can be both positive and negative.

Is the rule or tradition caused by inertia and/or entropy?

I’ve set up and built a lot of different systems to operate South Loop Strength & Conditioning – and I don’t necessarily do a great job of maintaining them. We have e-mail nurture sequences, Zapier integrations, and data tracking and Airtable that have all gotten quite jumbled as we’ve fixed bugs, added software, and scaled our business. There’s a lot of duplications of previous work or things that used to make sense based upon the scale that we used to be operating at and simply need to be removed or cleaned up.

There’s also redundancy layers added to account for likely errors and to create a sort of ad hoc QA/QC process as we’ve added more employees.

As we work on cleaning up our systems, it’s not always obvious what is essentially inertia and overgrowth and what is a functional stopgap or QA/QC process – especially since I often don’t remember how or why I set things up, nor did I used to do a very good job of documenting our processes.

Is the rule or tradition a spandrel attached to a more valuable rule or tradition?

Many times traditions or rules are created and other things come along for the ride. Religion (to this skeptical atheist – just putting my cards on the table, not intending to create value judgment) seems to be full of cultural spandrels.

It seems obvious to me that the social rituals, moral codes, and sense of transcendence that most religions create for people are an adaptive trait. To give an extreme example, it seems that taking phenobarbital and wearing sick Nikes may not be a tradition worth saving.

I’m sure there are other questions to weight when deciding whether or not to remove a traditional fence, but these are the ones that come to mind for me in my decision-making processes. Any others that I missed?

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