The Madness Of Custom

Allan Milne Lees
4 min readJan 2, 2020

How we consistently fail to see the obvious because we assume the inevitability of arbitrary things.

Image credit: Mozaik Digital

Anyone who’s glanced at the USA will know that it suffers from astonishing self-imposed gun carnage. Outside the USA the solution is obvious: don’t let civilians own firearms. Inside the USA, however, the obvious is entirely non-obvious.

Instead, discussion perpetually revolves around the Second Amendment, the so-called “right to bear arms.” And so nothing ever changes, and every single year, year in and year out, over 32,000+ people die from gunshot wounds and an additional 70,000+ or so are injured. That’s more than 100,000 people per year, which is a level of violence not seen even in war zones or unstable states like Afghanistan and Sudan.

If we reframe the debate, the madness becomes instantly obvious. Let’s imagine that the Second Amendment stated that people must be allowed to sacrifice babies in order to ensure a good crop harvest in the year ahead. This isn’t an unrealistic suggestion, as we have records showing that this was indeed the kind of thing a lot of societies did until quite recently.

Now, even if this right to sacrifice babies was a centerpiece of one’s Constitution, and even if one’s parents and grandparents had embraced this right, would we still think it was a clever idea today? Sure, there would always be organizations dedicated to maintaining our right to slaughter babies. No doubt there would be the National Babykilling Association, eagerly supporting political candidates devoted to protecting this national right. And no doubt there would be plenty of politicians eager to take the money proffered by the NBA to promote its cause.

But would we seriously, truly, think it was a clever idea to keep on slaughtering babies merely because a long time ago, in a situation quite different from that pertaining today, someone wrote it down on a piece of parchment?

Let’s take another example: representative democracy. Today we tell ourselves it’s a really great system of governance because it is claimed to be better than having Kings or Emperors. In fact, it would be very difficult to prove that claim using historical data. At best, representative democracy creates more or less the same set of blunders, short-sightedness, and human folly as seen in…

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Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.