- - Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The metric system lives no longer on American highways. The Arizona Department of Transportation is preparing to take down the signs on Interstate 19 that tell a motorist that it’s 64 kilometers to Tucson. Now, he’ll get the message that he’s got another 40 miles to go. This is the end of the road for Jimmy Carter’s idea to measure everything by the metric system in America, like it or not.

Americans have resisted Celsius, liters, kilograms and meters, to the consternation of academics and Washington politicians who imagined that measurements devised by 19th-century bureaucrats meeting in Paris had to be superior to traditional measures.

Signs were taken down from highways and replaced with metric versions. The U.S. Metric Board ran public service announcements on radio and advertisements in magazines urging Americans to give up their foot rulers and yardsticks. The fad ran out of steam in 1982, and the board was shuttered, having come to the fate of most top-down government efforts to make America more like Europe.

Imperial measurements, a gift of the British, can be clunky at times, but they work. The climate is measured in ranges from 0 degrees to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s 100 degrees, only mad dogs and English colonials dare go out. (The ordinary Englishman considers anything above 80 a national emergency.) If it’s 50 degrees, it’s time to unpack a sweater. A hot day in the metric system is 37.8 Celsius. A man 6 feet tall becomes 1.8 meters under the metric system. A foot was the length of a typical Englishman’s foot, and a meter is only a meter because that’s the arbitrary length of a particular rod the bureaucrats stored in a vault in France.

Ignoring the mandate to “go metric” is a crime in modern Britain. A group of “metric martyrs” were hauled before magistrates and branded as criminals in 2001 when they sold goods using the newly prohibited imperial measurements.

But to this day, British speedometers measure speed in miles per hour, and pubs must sell beer by the pint, in the only concessions to tradition. A restaurateur in Doncaster ran afoul of the law several years ago because the Polish glasses in his Polish pub offered a half-liter of draught. He had to replace them with pint glasses, or else.

A government that meddles in such decisions has far too much time on its hands. It makes no difference if Tucson is 64 kilometers or 40 miles in the distance as long as people reading the sign understand what it says. The outrage of common sense is politicians who think they know what’s best for everyone and use the force of law to dictate their personal preferences.

The Founding Fathers understood the importance of a system of law that respects individual freedom. It’s why hotdog vendors in America have never been threatened with time behind bars for offering a “foot-long,” and a good thing, too. Soon there’s the World Series again, and no hotdog vendor wants to carry a measuring stick. Mustard is enough. And they can’t tear down that last metric highway sign fast enough.

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