Is the Metric System (International System of Units) really an agent of tyranny and state oppression, while the U.S. system of weights and measures is a beacon of liberty?
They are according to a 519-word opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) on 19 May 2019 by James Panero, editor of New Criterion. (I was made aware of this misguided essay by a post this morning on a blog I commonly read, which in turn referenced a Newsweek report.) Panero’s short essay, itself motivated by “World Metrology Day,” rests upon some profound misunderstandings about the nature and implementation of weights and measures made worse by an evident desire to make as many puns as possible.
Panero’s argument is basically that the U.S. maintains a system of “customary units” that are based on how people actually do things in the real world, and were replaced by an abstracted, standardized system that has no relationship to people (like money, so the decimal division of the dollar into a hundred cents is permissible) and that was imposed on the people by the Revolutionaries of France. The Jacobins took away the king’s foot (pied du roi) even as they took away his head.
Alas, the U.S. system is not one of “customary” measures. Customary measures are measures that are used and regulated locally, and as such varied significantly from district to district, from country to country. They did indeed develop in relation to the proportions of the human body. The yard, for example, is the width of the loom on which cloth is woven; different districts had different size looms, so their yards varied. There could be differences within the same district for the same measure: the rod (a long staff) used for measuring forest land, waste land, pasture land, and arable land in the same county were not all the same! Customary measures also group around activities: furniture and clothing (inches, ells, cubits, yards); building (feet, cubits, paces); agriculture (rods, chains, furlongs, acres); travel (miles, leagues). Different measures for different kinds of activity. At the same time, even customary measures were all controlled and regulated through the efforts of local elites. It is for this reason, I think, that Witold Kula could argue that the Metric system was inherently a democratization, in that it freed common people from the local power structures (in addition to the fact that he was writing within Communist Poland and had to filter reforms in weights and measures through the lens of historical materialism and the rise of the proletariat).
As early as the middle ages, European monarchs sought to standard-ize regional differences to encourage trade. It was so much easier for cloth merchants to trade when their rolls of stuff were all a standard width. When the price of property got to the point in seventeenth-century England that precise and consistent measurement of acreages were needed, as even small variations in acreage had a pronounced effect on the money being exchanged, then and only then did the legally standard rod (and also the chain) come into frequent use, so that the land merchants and lawyers were not confused. In England, the standards are variously called “statute yard/rod/mile/etc.” The standardization also referred each measure to others. Thus, in English statute measure, there 12 inches to 1 foot, 3 feet to a yard, 16½ feet or 5½ yards to a rod, 4 rods to a chain, 80 rods to a furlong, 4 furlongs to a mile.
All of these measures—and the very fact that one can meaningfully say that a rod is so many other units, a mile so many rods—are the product of the action of centralizing governments. They are as much a mark of tyranny and state oppression as the Metric system. Without the legislation and enforcement of such equivalencies, each district would continue to maintain its own rods, guilds their own yardsticks, and so on. Standardized measures permit the easy functioning of trade and the transfer of knowledge. It is why the US Constitution (Article I Section 8) gives to the federal government the authority to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” rather than leaving it up to the individual states.
I should note, for the sake of completeness, that U.S. statute measures are not the same as British statute measures. When Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler brought a new brass yard standard from the UK to be used as the new US standard, it was a fraction of an inch different from the British standard, so US linear measures are all slightly different from British measures. Also, for a reason I have yet to (bother to) find out, the US pint has only sixteen fluid ounces, the British twenty.
Kula, Witold. 1986. Measures and Men. Translated by R. Szreter. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Panero, James. 2019. “Be a Leader, Not a Liter; Who Needs the Metric System, Anyway?” Wall Street Journal (19 May 2019).