Image Credit: G.K. Chesterton, 1915, Library of Congress
By Jason Zweig | 11:30 am ET March 6, 2012
The Epicurean Dealmaker has a characteristically thoughtful post about “Chesterton’s Fence” – the scintillating argument, by the great British man of letters G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), that we should never overturn the established way of doing things without first making an honest effort to understand why our predecessors chose to do things that way.
Chesterton is rightly remembered as one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language. He’s also worth remembering as a keen observer of finance. In his chilling, sparkling short story “The Honour of Israel Gow,” Chesterton shows that it’s possible to crave wealth without being greedy. And has anyone ever summed up the absurd futility of economic forecasting better than Chesterton did here, in the opening pages of The Napoleon of Notting Hill?
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games since the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, “Keep tomorrow dark,” and which is also named…“Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.
For human beings, being children, have the childish wilfulness and the childish secrecy. And they never have from the beginning of the world done what the wise men have seen to be inevitable. They stoned the false prophets, it is said; but they could have stoned true prophets with a greater and juster enjoyment.
From the moment many years ago when I first read that passage to this day, I’ve never since encountered an economic or market forecast without telling myself, “It’s just another round of ‘Cheat the Prophet.’ ” There they go again, I think: The clever men are carefully setting up pins that everyone will recklessly knock down.
Read Chesterton, and Wall Street’s forecasters won’t make you angry anymore. They will make you laugh – the dry, detached laughter that can be yours only after you have been liberated from at least one form of belief in nonsense.