Politics & Policy

Contra Lincoln Chafee, a Transition to the Metric System Would Be Anything but ‘Easy’

(Artem Gorohov/Dreamstime)

‘The metric system did not really catch on in the States,” humorist Dave Barry once joked, “unless you count the increasing popularity of the nine-millimeter bullet.”

There, in one pithy line, are represented two of the supposed pathologies of muscular American exceptionalism. By their enthusiastic rejection of metrication do Americans affirm their unwillingness to play nice with the rest of the world; by their penchant for the right to keep and bear arms do they reveal themselves to be jejune and rudimentary — a spoiled and petulant child among nations. Yesterday evening, when Lincoln Chafee proposed that the United States should switch to the metric system in order to appear more cosmopolitan, these old wounds were reopened. “Resistance to the metric system is the demented bedrock upon which American exceptionalism rests,” The New Republic’s Jeet Heer averred snottily. Responding in kind, those “demented” American oddities dusted off the old jokes. “There are two sorts of countries —” the old saw ran, “those that use the metric system, and those that have been to the moon.” And up went the middle fingers.

Examined in a vacuum, there is nothing obviously virtuous about the imperial system of measurement. If the United States were starting from scratch, à la Thomas Paine, its people would almost certainly elect to conform to the global standard, if only because it would make it easier for scientists who work on collaborative projects. But this is rather beside the point, for we do not live in a vacuum, and the United States is not to be started anew. Instead, we are discussing the future of a well-established and extraordinarily successful country that is full of living, breathing, habit-forming people. Were Americans to follow Lincoln Chafee’s counsel and, in a “bold embrace of internationalism” agree to “join the rest of the world and go metric,” it would almost certainly make Germany and Lithuania and San Marino feel a little better about themselves. It may help things on the International Space Station, too. But it would not, pace Chafee’s blasé claim, represent an “easy” transition. Au contraire: To pull the roots out at this late stage in the game would be extremely tough. The imperial system developed as it did for a reason — to wit, it makes intuitive sense. To push people out of their intuitions is a hard task indeed.

Nowhere has this been more obvious that in my home country of Britain, in which the metrication process has been little more than a slow-motion disaster. In 1965, after centuries of pressure had finally taken their toll, the British government finally got around to encouraging the people to change their ways. Fifty years later, the process is not even close to completion. “Will British people ever think in metric?” the BBC asked in exasperation in 2011? The simple answer to this inquiry appears to be, “No.” Indeed, it is distinctly possible that there will soon be some backsliding. In 2007, the European Union finally gave up on its 34 year campaign to force change, having concluded with palpable irritation that the Brits were just too recalcitrant and too proud to be taught new tricks. Imagine, if you dare, what their far more rebellious American cousins might make of a similar attempt . . . 

‘Will British people ever think in metric?’ the BBC asked in exasperation in 2011? The simple answer to this inquiry appears to be, ‘No.’

It is a truth rarely acknowledged that the result of this long and drawn-out effort has not been to “turn Britain metric,” but rather to render it as an ugly patchwork quilt of the two systems. Where compliance can be efficiently forced — namely, in the halls of government and in those businesses that are subject to harsh regulations — there has been significant, albeit limited, reform. (Despite the best efforts of the metriphiles, transportation companies, pubs, milkmen, tailors, and market traders still use imperial.) Where acquiescence cannot be forced — i.e. when it comes to pretty much everybody else — the proposal has remained an unsubstantiated velleity. As far as I can recollect, the only time that the British reflexively use the metric system to describe a everyday measurement is when they are talking about the weather. In all other circumstances, we may as well be Victorians.

The game is an amusing one to watch. Each and every day, the schools follow the laws and teach their kids in metric units. And, each and every evening, those same kids steadfastly ignore their lessons, electing instead to follow the example of their parents. If you ask a Brit how tall he is, how much he weighs, how large his garden or his house is, how far it is between his home and the nearest town, how fast he was driving when he got that ticket, or how much he drinks each day, he will invariably answer in imperial measurements. If he did not, he’d be looked at as if he were an eccentric or a kook, and he would struggle to make himself understood. It is difficult to make the case that Britain has suffered from this insubordination. It is even more difficult to propose that America is.

From time to time it is whiggishly submitted that those who are clinging most bitterly to the old ways will eventually die out, and that upon their deaths the adjustments will be completed. This does not seem to be true. A report commissioned in 2014 by the pro-changeover U.K. Metric Association revealed not only that just one quarter of the British people wanted to further metricate, but that only one in three 18- to 24-year-olds were in favor. Such resistance is widespread. As of 2011, the BBC discovered, “70% of [supermarket] customers found metric labelling confusing and wanted products labeled in imperial instead.” This goes some way to explaining why the vast majority of the major British newspapers and magazines either report directly in imperial measurements or translate all metric figures into them in parentheses, and why the many members of the anti-changeover resistance group the “Metric Martyrs” are treated as heroes rather than villains. All in all, one has to wonder how surprised by this one should really be. British people of all ages and backgrounds still impulsively measure their weight in stone, an ancient measurement that was laid out in the 14th century Assize of Weights and Measures. (When I moved to America I was 13-and-a-half stone; now I’m 190lbs.) Did we really imagine that, having so assiduously clung to standards that were established back when Edward III was on the throne, the Brits were going to be cowed by some paperclip-eating nebbish in a cheap Belgian suit?

Nay, sir. And nor, if prompted, will Americans. After all, those metric buggers haven’t even been to the moon.

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