Invisible Cliffs and Chesteron’s Fence

Forgive me for trying your patience from the start, but I would like to begin with a lengthy quote from Diffusion of Innovations:

Rice is central to Balinese life. The steep slopes of volcanic soil, stretching down from mis-covered mountain peaks to the sea, have been ingeniously terraced by Balinese farmers over the past eight centuries so that irrigation water descends from a high crater lake, tumbling from one sall rice plot to another, inching its way downward for miles to the sea. For centuries these rice paddies have produced up to a ton of food per acre per year, with little or no added fertilizer. Because of the ample rice yields, the small, densely populated island of Bali supports several million people. The high rice yields are made possible by a complex irrigation system that is coordinated by a hierarchical system of HIndu priests and water temples that regulate water flows. At the top of this indigenous system is the high priest, the Jero Gde (pronounced “Jeero G’day”), at the main water temple at Ulun Danu Batur, the crater lake near the peak of Batur volcano. Here offerings are made to Dewi Dano the water goddess, whom Balinese believe dwells in the crater lake.

The Jero Gde serves as the overall manager of the sacred irrigation system. Below him are a series of major dams, each with a Hindu priest and a water temple responsible for regulating water flows. Lower levels of the irrigation system consist of smaller weirs, each with a minor water temple to regulate water flows. At the local level are 1,300 subaks, each a water users’ cooperative association of about a hundred farmers. Each subak has a water shrine and a priest. Such an elaborate, hierarchically tiered social organization is needed to operate the Balinese irrigation system. Water is a scarce resource, and an efficient system is necessary to distribute the water in an equitable manner.

However, the water temple system of Bali does far more than just deliver water to the rice crops. Each rice terrace is a complex ecosystem, whose variable factors are carefully balanced by the Jero Gde and his cadre of Hindu water priests. For instance, a single farmer cannot control the pests in his small rice plot unless he coordinates with his neighbors. Otherwise, the rats, brown leafhoppers, and other pests simply migrate from field to field. The solution is for hundreds of farmers in several neighboring subaks to plant, irrigate, and harvest simultaneously, and then to leave their rice fields to fallow for several weeks. Evidence of such concerted action is easily visible: thousands of rice fields on a mountain slope will either be growing green, harvest yellow, or fallow brown. But until anthopologist Lansing began to investigate, no one understood how the decisions of these hundreds of rice farmers were orchestrated. Rice experts, if they knew of the indigenous irrigation system, dismissed it as unimportant. Lansing (1991) said, “Modern irrigation experts thought the ancient temple system was mere religious nonsense.” Throughout the world, technologists often disparage indigenous learning systems.

The Balinese ecological system is so complex because the Jero Gde must seek an optimum balance of various competing forces. If all subaks were planted at the same time, pests would be reduced; however, water supplies would be inadequate due to peaks in demand. On the other hand, if all subaks staggered their rice-planing schedule in a completely random manner, the water demand would be spread out. The water supply would be utilized efficiently, but the pests would flourish and wipe out the rice crop. So the Jero Gde must seek an optimal balance between pest control and water conservation, depending on the amount of rainfall flowing into the crater lake, the levels of the different pest populations in various subaks, and so forth.

Here is the punchline:

Indonesian government officials eagerly introduced the Green Revolution rice varieties in Bali in the 1970s. These innovations had tripled rice yields in other areas, and the agricultural change agents hoped to increase Bali’s food production. Balinese farmers were told to grow three, rather than two, crops per year, and to adopt pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The centuries-old indigenous water-and-fallow system, managed by the Hindu priests, was abandoned by many farmers. “As a consequence, the incidence of bacterial and viral [rice] diseases, together with insect and rat populations, began to increase rapidly. Imported organochloride pesticides made some dents in the rising pest population, but also killed off eels, fish, and in some cases, farmers in the rice fields” (Lansing, 1987). Instead of increasing, rice yields in Bali dropped precipitously. Balinese rice farmers promptly returned to the water temple system and discontinued the miracle rice varieties (Bardini, 1994). So much for the Green Revolution in Bali.

I have spoken of the tense balance between experimentation and taboo. I framed it in terms of invisible cliffs—some taboos discourage us from treading through areas where we might fall into such a thing.

The Balinese example shows that this is no abstraction. The highly complex water temple system managed problems that were a matter of life and death for the people that lived there. From the outside, however, it just looked like a lot of ornate religious procedures. No one considered that it might be a “knowledge system,” so no one attempted to figure out what knowledge it might contain. The Green Revolution people just reflexively brought their own general expertise, the way they would for any locality. They ended up walking them right off the cliff, a process which Lansing documented at length in his book.

Patrick has boldly stood athwart Sweet Talk’s general Burkean bent and shouted “I am a hearty skeptic of tradition. I think it has no independent value and no explanatory power.” In conversation, he reiterates his skepticism towards’ Chesterton’s famous formulation:

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.

What I like about Chesterton’s fence is that, unlike a lot of formulations of traditionalism, it isn’t a categorical ban on crossing a given line. It’s simply stacking the burden of evidence on those arguing against tradition in a given case.

The Bali example is much beloved by Burkeans. But the fact of the matter is that it is largely a curiosity in the much more consequential story of the spread of the Green Revolution, something that beat back Malthusian dynamics for an enormous number of the world’s poorest people. The innovations it spread have made it possible to feed the largest global population in history with much less land than we used to need to feed a far smaller population.

Sometimes an old religious system really just is ornate, and greater material betterment could be found through reform or abandonment. Sometimes being time-tested just means, as Patrick says, that something has been exceptionally lucky. Certainly traditionalists are constantly struggling against a persistent (that is, time-tested!) anti-traditional strain in traditional Western philosophical thought dating back at least to Plato. Slavery is another institution with a very long history, which has repeatedly emerged in many different societies around the world. Moreover, the conditions under which the Great Enrichment took place were very historically contingent and emerged after centuries of (again, time-tested) feudalism.

The Bali example, therefore, should not be taken as a discouragement against change or innovation, but instead a reminder of Chesterton’s fence. It should also remind us that what works in general may not always work in particular applications. Ronald Coase, no enemy of strong property rights, argued with his co-author that the national mandate to switch to private farming in China actually created a reduction in production efficiency in several specific locales. The reason is that local entrepreneurship between public and semi-private actors had actually resulted in some idiosyncratic arrangements that more effectively dealt with the particular conditions of those locales. The mandated system was good in general but not as good in particular cases. Coase and Wang believe that China’s success stems largely from the fact that this mandate was an exception—in general the system that developed was one in which provinces experimented with their own solutions and were encouraged to share what they discovered, with imitation of the most successful being left a choice rather than a mandate.

Some might think that, with Lansing’s research, we now have enough of an understanding of the Balinese water temple system and the problems it seeks to address in order to improve it rationally. And that’s certainly a possibility. More likely is that small-scale experimentation could help refine it without replacing it; such holistic systems are difficult to test true substitutes for without throwing the whole thing out.

Additionally, there are a lot of things that an economist, looking at the system, might be skeptical of—the fact that the smallest unit is a farming cooperative, for instance, rather than a privately owned farm. But it’s clear that the sacred plays a huge role in making the system work—beyond practical considerations, the religious justifications for the system have a solid, conjective reality. As with conjective matters generally, this is always up for renegotiation—when the Green Revolution experts came, many defected to their side. But an important part of what made the system work for as long as it has worked is the faith of the farmers, to say nothing of the priests. So technically superior alternatives may have a hard time achieving the same level of group coordination that the water temple system has, for purely S-Variable reasons.

Tradition is a storehouse of s-variable values; this is another reason to take it seriously.

I’m Not Saying My Opponent is Pro-Infanticide, But…

Consider Daniel Russell on vague concepts:

A classic description of vague concepts holds that a vague concept F is such that there will be ‘borderline cases’ of F, that is, cases in which no method of making F more precise could settle in a privileged way whether the thing is F or not. Vagueness thus arises because of the concept itself, not because we happen to lack a method that would settle these cases.

Russell discusses what he calls vague satis concepts; these are cases where there’s some threshold point between being X and not being X, but there is no sharp boundary. The divide is vague. Trivial examples include what counts as bald or tall. More serious examples include personhood and virtue. Russell argues that representative examples will do not due for understanding vague satis concepts, and instead you need a model.

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

Models are a tool for understanding vague satis concepts, but as Russell points out in his description of vague concepts generally, there will always be unresolveable borderline cases, no matter how accurate or precise the model.

I believe that tacit knowledge and norms fill the space that no model possibly can. And that we should take taboos in this area very seriously, lest we walk off a cliff, or persuade people to make an abominable act like infanticide morally permissible. Arguments about the personhood of infants, devoid of a belief in the soul, seem from a rational perspective like little more than drawing arbitrary lines. But precisely because borderline cases in vague satis concepts cannot be resolved with rational models, we should not cavalierly trample over the lines established by tradition.

I, for one, am glad to live in a civilization where infanticide is considered one of the most vile, most unforgivable of immoral acts.

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2 thoughts on “Invisible Cliffs and Chesteron’s Fence

  1. Pingback: What We Can Learn From Feminism’s Victorian Revival

  2. Pingback: PowerLinks 06.10.15 | Acton PowerBlog

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