Chesterton’s Paradox Of The Wall

Ace at AOHSQ hits a home run, expressing something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about but couldn’t find a way to express. In a masterful post about the ex-tabloid editor, ne CNN “star”, Piers Morgan, Ace invokes G. K. Chesterton’s wall paradox:

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.

Ace then lays the lumber to the liberal “logic”:

Both Greg Sergent [and Morgan] smuggle a lot of not-quite-hidden assumptions into words like “sensible” and “dignified, edifying.” What they do not say, but which is readily apparent, is that a sensible, dignified, edifying conversation can only be had with someone who accepts nearly all of their baseline assumptions and policy preferences ab initio. That’s not a discussion — that’s a group hug. But only people who begin with these assumptions, they claim, can take useful role in the “discussion,” which means the discussion, from the start, isn’t a discussion at all.

But tying this into Chesterton’s wall: My problem with Morgan and Sergent is their ignorance. They cannot tell me why the wall exists — or, here, they cannot tell me the benefits of fairly free gun ownership. Obviously, there must be some, or the nation would not have had fairly-free gun ownership for 240 years, and the NRA would not have a 59% approval rating, and 100 million Americans would not own guns, otherwise.

But can they actually explain the other side of the argument? As they say, a good lawyer, one who really understands the issues of the case, can argue either side of it effectively. He may favor one side over the other, but he knows enough of both to make a strong case for either.

Sergent and Morgan couldn’t do that. They have a simple-minded understanding that Guns are Bad and do not have the intellectual curiosity to discover, even though it’s actually part of their jobs to do so, in what ways Guns May Be Good, or, at least, the reasons people might think Guns May Be Good.

The case for prohibition is always the same: Those advocating for prohibition always claim there is nothing good in the thing they would prohibit, and that anyone who claims or believes otherwise is somehow corrupted, morally or just mentally, and simply wrong.

But we know that’s almost never been the case in any single case of prohibition: Wine and liquor are not without value; obviously millions of people value them. Why?, the prohibitionists should have asked. And they should have further have asked, Is it civil to use the law to push our own limited, provincial view of things on millions of others?

Same with marijuana, frankly. Most of us (including me) don’t like pot, don’t like most people who use pot (or at least don’t like the pot-headed sort of culture that goes with it), and so ourselves find no value in it. But obviously millions of other people do find value in it– are we really acting in a civil fashion to use political power to essentially make our own preferences the controlling law which binds everyone?

Same with homosexuality, once upon a time, 30 or 40 years ago, when anti-homosexuality laws were occasionally enforced — it is trivially easy for heterosexuals to find no value in homosexual sex, given that we don’t like it (and in fact are repelled at the idea of taking part in it ourselves); thus it’s also quite easy to support a regime of official prohibition. After all, we find no value in it. So why not ban it? Of course, gays and lesbians might find more value in it than we are willing to credit it for.

People generally have a built-in bias in favor of the prohibition of things they themselves don’t like. From SUVs to Big Gulps, people will gladly — enthusiastically — impose prohibitions on any product they themselves don’t use or any action they don’t themselves partake in.

This is a very bad habit of people, and illiberal (in the old sense of “illiberal”), and people should be keenly aware of this bias that lurks within them, the bias in favor of government action to compel the “victory” of one cultural preference over another.

Morgan, Sergent, and the rest of the liberal blockheads all have this simple-minded and ugly belief that their culture — urban, liberal, wealthy (or at least mixing in the circles of those who may become wealthy in their later years) — is not merely a culture, with its own mix of arbitrary class prejudices and class beliefs, but the culture, the plainly superior one, the one that is so demonstrably correct that one should have no trepidation whatsoever about attempting the mobilize the coercive powers of the government to make their culture the legally mandated one.

And at no point in this process do they ever find within themselves the intellectual curiosity, or simple humility, to ask: Why do some people disagree so sharply, and is there any truth in their arguments?


35 thoughts on “Chesterton’s Paradox Of The Wall

  1. “Morgan, Sergent, and the rest of the liberal blockheads all have this simple-minded and ugly belief that their culture — urban, liberal, wealthy (or at least mixing in the circles of those who may become wealthy in their later years) — is not merely a culture, with its own mix of arbitrary class prejudices and class beliefs, but the culture, the plainly superior one, the one that is so demonstrably correct that one should have no trepidation whatsoever about attempting the mobilize the coercive powers of the government to make their culture the legally mandated one.”

    Oh! Wat, wait! I remember someone saying something about this. Just give me a second — oh, hell, you know I don’t need a second to play that game. Here:

    “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”

    –Thomass Jefferson


  2. That is a brilliant argument! Just because you don’t like something or can’t see the purpose of something doesn’t mean it’s totally valueless to someone else or that those who do see the value or purpose are stupid, evil or mentally ill. It applies to a whole range of topics surrounded by controversy.

    And, Joe — thank you! You’re absolutely right. Constitutionalists (of which I am one) are pragmatic liberatarians. I’ve heard us described as pragmatic anarchists as well. Anarchy, as in, a lack of government, not as in total societal breakdown. It’s not that we want NO government. It’s that we want the least we can get away with. Somebody coined “minarchist”, but that’s a made-up word and I’m not likely to use it to describe myself.

  3. An observation about Jefferson’s quote — only about 10% of US land is occupied by people and only about 25% is put into productive use including farming, timber, etc. It’s not that we don’t still have unoccupied land here. It’s that the government has locked up so much of it that we have no choice but to live piled on top of one another. Jefferson’s concern has come about by unnatural means.

    • Aurora,

      After Hitler destroyed the German currency, do you know what he used to back his new currency so it would have enough value to be accepted? ….land!

      I keep telling people, we are traveling down the same road the German people traveled in 1930, but too few care to listen. 😦

      • There was casual discussion in the back halls of Congress that China might take Alaska in exchange for the debt we owe them. Not kidding. That comes from Rep. Don Young. It wasn’t official and nobody’s voting on it, but the topic actually came up so there are people thinking about it.

        For the record, Alaskans are well-armed, we have a lot of former military living here, and we won’t go quietly unless we’re allowed to become our own independent nation. Alaska would give the Chinese dragon indigestion … for as long as three-quarter of a million of us held out.

        • Aurora,

          I’m not as lean, but still as mean and still a Marine. If that happens, can you make room for one more?

          BTW: that would be an unbalanced trade. China would owe us about 4 times what we owe them right now — probably more. It would also lead to a shooting war with Russia when they moved in to grab the oil reserves up north. Just saying.

        • If they get further with that talk…..there are other Americans who will join you in her defence…..I would proudly come !

          • Thank you! I’m sure many Americans would join us at least in spirit, but the national reaction to Sarah Palin suggests a sizeable slice of the population would gladly be done with us. Some day I’ll post on the paradox that is Alaska.

  4. The brilliance of Chesterton’s paradox and Ace’s use of it here is it’s simplicity. This is what I have been trying to get at for a couple of years when talking about root causes and getting liberals to stop dealing with symptoms and get on to the real issues.

    If they want more taxes because they want to spend more, we should be able to understand why the see the need. If they want to push the progressive tax system to a more progressive point, they should expect to explain why.If they say that our system isn’t fair, then they should be expected to define what “fair” means and how much it costs.

    If they wan to ban guns, it needs to be for more of a reason than they don’t like or understand guns because they don’t like or understand guns.

    The common phrase is “we don’t need guns any longer” but it isn’t a matter of “need”, it is a matter of CHOICE, a choice born of individual freedom. I don’t need another Glock but when I get back to the States in less than 12 days, my first major purchase will be a new Glock 23 Gen 4 in .40 caliber. Not because I “need” another weapon, because it is my choice to own one.

    There is also the converse to Chesterton’s example and it has a greater impact because it applies to all, Assume that the same road has no gate and the liberals decide to build one and lock it. While they may want the security and protection of a locked gate, it prevents the rest of us without a key from walking through even though we use that road every day. That is what gun control is – building a gate and locking it on a road that the liberals share but do not own. The should not be allowed to build the gate unless there is a compelling reason to do so and one that all users of the road agree to…and there better be a shit load of keys handed out.

    But they won’t recognize this because facts simply do not matter to them if those facts exist outside their experiences. They want to tear down the gate just because it is there…or build one simply because it isn’t.

    • The common phrase is “we don’t need guns any longer”

      When will they ever figure out that, as long as we have Liberal/Progressives in this world, there WILL be a “need” for guns?

      As for the rest, be careful boss: you’re going to get accused of being “overly simplistic” (which is really liberalese for “don’t talk to me about facts, I’m busy confusing people with bull”)

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