Advocates of metrication in the USA will often tell you that America is the only developed country in the world that still uses traditional units of measurement.
The reality, however, is quite different. Imperial or customary units like feet, inches, pounds and ounces remain in common use throughout the English-speaking world and beyond it, despite decades of government efforts to force metrication on people living in these countries.
In the United Kingdom, efforts to convert to metric units to bring Britain into line with European legislation hit massive resistance from local people. This has resulted in a mixed system today where most products are sold in metric units while all manner of things like people’s heights and weights, road speeds and distances, and sales of products like milk and beer continue to be measured in the imperial system.
Part of the reason for this resistance is the effect that this forced transition had on consumers. As products were converted from imperial to metric, they were downsized, while the prices remained the same. 1lb of peas became 454g, which then became 400g at the same price. This happened across the board as once and pound weights got rounded down to the nearest 100g increment.
However, this is only one small element of why metrication is opposed. There’s a deeper issue at play, which is one of convenience and ease of understanding. That stems from the fact that the metric system is one designed for scientific applications. Its ease of multiplication, division and conversion across hugely different sizes is ideal for mathematics, physics and chemistry. Unfortunately, those same properties make it very ill-suited to everyday human use.
Human beings don’t think in multiples of a thousand. Human minds operate on the level they can perceive; small, simple units of sizes that occur in everyday life. Units like the inch, foot, ounce and pound are relatable, and their ease of division into quarters and eighths is much better suited to human thinking than units which scale by 10, 100 or 1000.
The upshot of this is that consumers much prefer to buy and sell in quantities they can easily understand. The difference between a 5-foot fence and a 6-foot fence is much easier to understand than that between a 1.7m one and a 2m one. A pint of milk or two pints of milk is much more relatable than 400ml or 800ml. Likewise, consumers are far more likely to want to divide something into quarters than they are to divide it by 10.
It’s unsurprising, then, that when compulsory metrication came to Britain, traders continued to trade in the traditional units their customers preferred. What was the government’s response? They prosecuted and criminalised those traders in what, after the sad passing of prominent convicted trader Steve Thoburn from a heart attack, became known as the Metric Martyrs controversy.
This is what happens when government’s political motives get prioritised over what people actually want. In the name of political priorities the public was forced to use a less intuitive and less user-friendly system than the one they preferred. The result was higher prices, confusion, protests and prosecutions.
Political priorities have no place in the market. If, as its advocates claim, the metric system is easier to use, that change should happen naturally in a free market. The fact it hasn’t in the US, where ‘voluntary metric conversion’ has been a government agenda since the 1970s, and the fact that the UK government switched from voluntary to mandatory in the 1980s, suggests otherwise. Even in an age where schoolchildren are taught exclusively in metric, young people still come out speaking in traditional units.
As Thoburn himself said, “”All I wanted to do was give my customers what they wanted … If [customers] wanted me to sell fruit in kilos, I’d sell fruit in kilos. In my world, what the customer wants, the customer gets”. This is how trade works: the provider that gives customers what they want is the one that succeeds. Governments aren’t protecting consumers when they meddle in that process, they’re disadvantaging them.
This kind of state intervention in markets hurts consumers and vendors alike. It’s time for governments in the UK, the US and around the world to take a step back and let the market decide how it wants to trade.
Hopefully, in the case of the UK, Brexit may present an opportunity to free consumers from this and many other harmful EU-instituted restrictions on trade and commerce. For too long government has hidden behind the notion of protecting consumers’ rights to advance a political agenda to the detriment of consumers and businesses alike.
There’s a sad irony to the fact that the same British regulators that prosecute traders for selling fruit and vegetables by the pound also prosecute pubs for selling beer by the litre. How is the customer protected by that? How is any business ever going to hurt its customers by selling products in the units those customers prefer? No business is going to get very far selling in a unit nobody knows.
Let consumers decide what units they want to use, let businesses give them what they want, and everyone will be better off for it.