The following excerpt from his 1929 book was published in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal:
There exists … 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."...
Some person had some reason for thinking [the gate or fence] would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable … The truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served.
But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion … This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction.
Read the book in its entirety here.
The original quote is from G. K. Chesterton, a British essayist writing 80 years ago, and not a contemporary macroeconomist.
But, I think Chesterton has hit on one of the finer points of new growth theory: institutions matter, but we’re not quite sure how.
So, something like the Hippocratic oath needs to apply to politicians out to improve the world.