Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
"Yes, Minister", Chesterton's Fence, And Wasteful Caution
Just now I was in a pretty grumpy mood and it threatened to spiral further. I decided to give myself a break, got a snack and the rest of my morning tea, set a timer, hit Play on the BBC Introducing Mixtape podcast, sat facing the window and away from my laptop, and picked up The Complete Yes Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. And within probably ten minutes I was grinning with joy.
Jim Hacker: Humphrey, do you think it is a good idea to issue a statement?
Humphrey Appleby: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options. One: do nothing. Two: issue a statement deploring the speech. Three: lodge an official protest. Four: cut off aid. Five: break off diplomatic relations. And six: declare war.
Hacker: Which should be it?
Appleby: Well, if we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech. If we issue a statement, we'll just look foolish. If we lodge a protest, it'll be ignored. We can't cut off aid, because we don't give them any. If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can't negotiate the oil rig contracts. And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting.
When I was a child I saw Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister on public television. What a joy. And what a clinic in getting involved with complicated systems, full of moving parts and others' motivations.
I was thinking just now about how the viewer's allegiance is caught; Jim Hacker has some good instincts about fighting for the people, but he's not as clever as he thinks he is, and he's vain and a bit lazy. And Humphrey Appleby knows how to prevent some kinds of disasters, but cannot conceive of fundamental change or the need for it. Over and over in my life in software engineering, or watching politics, or working with any collaborative group, I've seen this dynamic, though it plays out in different ways. I'm glad I got both perspectives early on, Hacker and Appleby both, to inoculate me against being purely either. I hope.
A while back I went and read about Enoch Powell, because it's always enriching to understand the previous generation's version of today's arguments and standard-bearers, even if they're horrifying. He articulated something about the same tension you find in Yes, Minister: "The right finds it easy to explain what is and to justify what is, but not to account for change. The left finds it easy to justify change, but not to account for what is, and what is accepted."
As Fred Clark says, though, in criticizing the adage of Chesterton's Fence ("If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away...when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it"), what Powell describes as "what is, and what is accepted" can be a bit of a mirage. Nearly no shared piece of infrastructure simply sits in stasis, requiring no upkeep:
Fences have to be maintained, mended, and constantly rebuilt. Fences just don't work as a metaphor for traditions, laws, and institutions handed down immutable, inviolate, and inviolable from ancient times. There's no such thing as a multi-generational fence. You don't build a fence so much as you adopt a perpetual budget for perpetual fence-building. Would-be "reformers" don't need to propose "destroying" an existing fence, they only ever need to propose that the fence-builders stop rebuilding it.
And, in practice, as Clark notes,
no matter how thoroughly we are able to come back and tell our conservative friends that we do fully understand and appreciate the original reasons for the construction of the fence, they remain unwilling to "allow" us to remove it. (The word "allow" there is worth pondering. The presumption there about who is, by definition, always a supplicant, and who holds the authority to permit or to prohibit is telling. "Allow" is, in this instance, very much a fence-builder's word.)I also recommend Clark's followup which includes such great articulations as "fear is not the same as taking care".
we often push to a small percentage of real traffic, do bug-bashes and conduct pre-mortems where we imagine different types of failures and what would have caused them. We're trying to smoke out the unknown unknowns that cause issues. It's a type of thinking I am actively learning how to lean into. As an optimist, someone who tends to seek out nuance, and a person who has a strong bias towards action, I tend to chafe against risk-aversion without a clear threat model. The term "Cover Your Ass" gets thrown around to describe extreme end of this - wasteful carefulness.
...People's intuitions and risk-friendliness also vary based on personality, and how they’ve seen things fail in the past. A lot of growing as an engineer is fine-tuning that initial response to design decisions.
Sometimes have that knee-jerk caution -- I feel a reflex that leads to, as Lee calls it, "wasteful carefulness". And sometimes I am the less patient person on my team, asking others why we can't try out the idea at least in some limited way.
And now I am thinking about the symbiosis of Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby, how they need each other, anchor and sail. And I'm less grumpy, which was the point of the exercise anyway.