GK Chesterton wrote a mountain of books and novels and articles, but he summarized the core of the conservative worldview in his simple statement: “Don’t tear down a fence until you know the reason it was put up.” In contrast, the modern, progressive, liberal view is that, by virtue of our better technology, we are wiser than any of our ancestors. We never ask why a fence was put up; we ask how we can most efficiently remove it.

But what happens when we tear down a fence that was put up for really good reasons, and we suddenly find ourselves in need of it again? We try to build a new one where the old once stood, but it is very expensive and dangerous work. My new favorite example is our response to the coronavirus this year.

Our (much wiser) ancestors knew that targeted quarantines of certain illnesses were effective, and so had rules regarding their application. They knew most new illnesses would sweep through and then disappear for a long time. They knew some illnesses – particularly the less deadly sort – would stick around year after year like the flu.

By 2020, we had collectively decided that all of that wisdom was a fence we didn’t want. We have modern medicine. We have Science(tm). We can figure this stuff out.

And so, when a virus about twice as deadly as a seasonal flu encountered our sophisticated civilization, we lost our collective minds. We forgot that our immune system works. We forgot that when we catch a virus, our body is able to fight off the illness in the future. We forgot that quarantines don’t work very well once a virus has spread absolutely everywhere. We forgot that people without symptoms probably aren’t spreading an illness around very effectively. We forgot that viruses that spread quickly tend to be pretty mild.

And when I say we I don’t mean just average people. I mean scientists. And doctors. And especially government health officials. I mean HR staff at companies. I mean media personalities. Everyone forgot the accumulated wisdom our predecessors tested for us. We tore down that fence. Coupled with verificationism (which got some attention a few days ago), we decided we couldn’t build a new fence where the old one stood until we had an arbitrarily sufficient amount of evidence; and that could take years.

We could have avoided a lot of the damage this year if we had appreciated the fence.