A certain segment of the pundit class can’t stand the idea that one country might be different from the others. This is even truer when that one country is the United States of America. The idea that different peoples in different nations might have different ideas on how to govern themselves is distasteful to people who think they have humanity all figured out and want to convince—or force—everyone to go along.
The constant outbursts from the outlet Vox on the metric system are emblematic of that thinking. This video from 2017, which they retweeted in January 2019, is not the first on the subject. A 2014 article made largely the same point, and one from 2015 did the same from a campier perspective.
Vox isn’t the only outlet hung up on metric. Slate griped about this aspect of American exceptionalism back in 1999. And Republican-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chaffee’s brief run for the presidency in 2016 was mostly remembered for his support of grams and liters.
Yes, Sameness Is Certainly Simpler
So why all the hullabaloo about the metric system? Well, one thing is true of it: it would be easier if all the world measured things in exactly the same way. But that is true of a lot of things.
It would be easier if all seven billion of us spoke the same language, wore the same clothes, worshipped the same god, and selected our governments in the same way. Most of these, if we tried to force them on other nations, would be seen as a terrible impositions by the folks who love the metric system. But when it comes to how much your groceries weigh, cultural imperialism is just fine—especially if it is directed against Americans.
The metric system—or the International System of Units, to give its proper name—was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. While the left still enjoys the idea of revolution, at least against monarchies, the Enlightenment has fallen on hard times among the people who occupy that half of the political spectrum. (The French Revolution is also the origin of the left-right political spectrum.) Yet for the metric system, they make an exception.
Which sounds better, a system that developed gradually with slight adjustments over the centuries, or one dreamed up by revolutionaries fresh from sending half of their countrymen to the guillotine? That is the difference between the English system we use (also known as the Imperial System) and the metric system: one developed gradually from the ground up and was later codified, the other was imposed from above based on the ideas of a few radicals.
One of the biggest beefs from pro-metric types is that Americans were not forced to accept metric when the Metric Conversion Act was passed in 1975. But what kind of system requires force to make people accept it?
In some areas, Americans do measure in metric without coercion: bottled soda and cocaine are the two best known. But even among the chemical vices, that trend is not absolute: beer and marijuana are still in pints and ounces. We just don’t like metric measurements.
Traditional Measures for Everyday Life
What difference does that make, you might ask? Who cares about how each system got started? They’re both here now, and we ought to pick one. But the origins matter here because they point out the major advantage of the English system: it is measurement on a human scale. It evolved naturally through history because it uses the kind of measurements that make sense to people.
Consider the basic unit of length, for example. The English foot, like the Roman pes and Egyptian djeser before it, is roughly the length of a grown man’s foot. Certainly there were variations, both in the customary measure and the size of people’s feet, but the most of the measurements we now call “feet” in history ranged from what we would now say was 10 to 13 inches.
People know how long an adult man’s foot is, even if their own feet aren’t exactly that size. What’s a meter based on? It was defined in 1795 as one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. Surely everyone knows what that means, right? Of course not. (They measured the distance from the North Pole to the Equator wrongly then, too, so a meter doesn’t even mean that anymore.)
Another common complaint is that our temperature scale is out of pace with the world. But let’s look at the advantages of each before getting on the European bandwagon. Celsius sets its zero degree-mark at the freezing point of water, and makes water’s boiling point 100. Very logical! But also absurd.
When you are speaking of temperature, how often does it involve the point at which water changes from liquid to gas? In scientific discussions this might be common, but for everyday life, it is rare. The normal range of temperature is restricted to a few dozen degrees.
Consider the Fahrenheit scale. Zero degrees is very cold, polar vortex stuff, but still livable. One hundred degrees is quite warm, high summer in many areas, but again: livable. We humans live for the most part in the space in between those points.
Now compare Celsius: zero degrees is cold, but not remarkable; at 100º C degrees for more than a few minutes, you’ll die. More than half that range is dedicated to temperatures people almost never experience. If we were walking vials of water, it would be perfect; for actual human beings, it’s an awkward fit.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Defenders of the metric system stress its decimal nature frequently. Because everything works in multiples of ten, they claim, computation of metric units is a breeze. Meanwhile, our traditional English measurements come in a bewildering variety of fractions that confuse people and lead to errors. But is that really true?
Our counting system is based on the number ten, true. This natural outgrowth of being a ten-fingered species means that the number ten will always figure large in our mathematical lives. But a base-10 system has plenty of flaws, too.
Ten is divisible evenly by two numbers: 2 and 5. That means it can be cut in half evenly, and about that’s it. Smaller fractions (other than fifths) require decimals, which is the opposite of the ease metric promises. Meanwhile the foot, being made of 12 inches, is divisible evenly by 2, 3, 4, and 6. The pound with its 16 ounces is divisible evenly by 2, 4, and 8.
For scientific calculations, none of this matters, but if you’re building a house or cooking a meal, quick calculations of fractions is essential. Numbers like 8, 12, and 16 serve this purpose better than 10. No wonder our ancestors developed a system that uses them.
Even in countries with the metric system, some old measurements remain, showing how people will hold fast to those systems that are truly important to them. One of the other reforms of the French Revolution was to introduce decimal time: a day of ten hours, with each hour having 100 minutes. It was made mandatory in France in 1794, and quietly repealed in 1795. Messing with the ruler and measuring cups was one thing, but changing the actual units of time broke people’s brains.
Other attempts at decimalization also failed. At the same time they were meddling with the clocks, the French instituted a decimal calendar. This lasted a little longer, since it was forced by nature to make some concessions to real life. A year has 365 and a quarter days, give or take an hour, and that cannot be changed. What they did change was to make each month 30 days with the remaining five (or six) being extra days, not a part of any month.
Even this would have likely survived, except that the revolutionaries also insisted that each month have three weeks of ten days each. There were two problems with that. Firstly, it destroyed the seven-day week that included a religious Sabbath day. Secondly, workers still only got one day off per week. These were both intentional, and the calendar was part of a plan to destroy religion and make workers more productive. The ten-day week fell out of favor immediately, and the whole calendar was abolished in 1805.
All of metric’s shortcomings come back to the same point: it is great for science, but does not fit with the way people live their everyday lives. The metric system is a classic example of central planning gone wrong. While it is useful in a few ways, it has no place in the life of the average American. Traditional measurements require no coercion, because they make sense to us already. They measure our lives as they always have: on a human scale.