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A metaphor is sometimes used by those who philosophise in favour of conservative institutions such as monarchy or English public schools. It is a picture of something like a post standing in the desert, that you encounter when travelling and do not know the purpose of. The argument - false for a number of reasons, including being based on a false analogy - runs that since you do not understand its purpose and it has been there a long time, you should not remove it. "It" being the post and "similarly" the institution.

My question is this: what is the metaphor more exactly? It has a short name that is widely recognised in some circles. If memory serves, it comes from a book written in the 1910s or 1920s, but I do not remember the title or author, or anything more about the metaphor than I have already said.

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It's called Chesterton's Fence.

Chesterton's point is that ignorance of the purpose of a law is not a good reason to change it. His point isn't that laws can't be changed; it's that we should know what the original purpose of the law was before we change it. It's just a general injunction about not acting in ignorance.

  • This is it. Many thanks. So it comes from G K Chesterton's "The Drift from Domesticity", in his 1929 book The Thing, online here. Although many who use the metaphor do so to defend "conservative institutions such as monarchy or English public schools", this was not what Chesterton was trying to do. His main example was "the fundamental human creation called the Household or the Home", and far from defending such institutions his principal concern in his essay is to defend the institution of the family. – user19558 Feb 27 '16 at 0:30

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