I am one to eschew tradition if it makes no sense. I commonly advocate new and better ways of doing things yet I also worry about throwing the baby out with the bath water.
This idiom comes from a old German proverb. Some claim the phrase originated in a time when the whole household shared the same bath water. The claim was the baby would be last bathed and the water so dirty it would appear easy to throw out the baby, hidden in the filthy bathwater.
No matter the truth of the saying. The point is when discarding old methods and thoughts we should remember there are important origins, perhaps vital lessons, hidden therein.
Beef producer Charlie Kraus from Hays, Kansas, recently shared with me a text by theologian G.K. Chesterton about this very issue.
"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."
I very much like this concept of Chesterton’s Fence but I think I must add to it a quote I once heard from Walter Williams. It is, in fact, one I’ve adopted myself because it was what I already had learned and believed.
Williams said, “Don’t look at the intent. Look at the results.”
The great reminder of Chesterton’s fence story, to me, is to recall what was being addressed in the first place and therefore what needs to be done to fix the broken system… or if not to truly fix it then to address the problems which will re-appear when the "fence" on the road it taken down.
Blend that with a realistic analysis of what has been accomplished by the new processes, what the fence on the road has caused, and you begin to see alternate solutions with more clarity.
It's hard to get folks to sit still to listen to reasons and logic today," Kraus says. "Slogans and rhetoric have more appeal."
I agree. Nonetheless, the answer is more investigation, more thought, more history should be injected into all situations and then a reasonable analysis can guide our decisions for change.