Photo by Jeff J Mitchell
Artillery Row

Measure for measure

Give the imperial system its due weight and worth

Derision accompanied the announcement on Wednesday that Jacob Rees-Mogg is to commission a study of the economic benefits of a return to imperial measurements. His plummy voice and affectedly antiquated manner make the “Honourable Member for the 18th Century” an easy target for mockery, particularly when he promotes policies as atavistic as his style.

Yet despite the excellence of some of the twitter reactions, is the return of imperial measurements as absurd as presented?

Imperial measurements oughtn’t to be reintroduced because of any economic benefits (non-existent), nor because they can be a weapon in the interminable Brexit culture wars. They ought to be reintroduced because they are human.

Traditional weights and measures emerged organically as responses to the requirements of human life. Just as scientific hypotheses are proposed to answer intellectual questions, so too are forms of life developed to answer the needs of life. In a reverse Gresham’s law, the good drive out the bad.

The complexity of human society made rationalistic planning impossible

The foot, the mile and the pint are all human measures, emerging either from a human reference or for an understood human need. Unlike decimal systems, which can only be divided by 2 & 5, the old shilling — being 12 pennies — could be divided by 2, 3, 4 or 6. Such measures exist at the scale of daily life, and in a world increasingly alienated and atomised they help to bind us to the notion of place and dwelling. The pint is not simply an abstraction of fluid quantity: it’s a social activity, an anticipation and a pleasure.

Successful scientific hypotheses survive by proving themselves through accurate predictions and enduring the rigours of criticism and experiment. Successful forms of life endure through the challenges of human experience, and communities who have developed and inherited healthier forms of life will thrive.

This was the basis of Burke’s defence of custom as a repository of communal wisdom: “The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right”. Fundamental to Burke’s analysis was the insight that the complexity of human society made rationalistic planning impossible. No man nor committee could organise a society from first principles, any more than an economy can be centrally planned.

By contrast, customs, manners, institutions and the inherited forms of life carry a prescriptive authority. Institutions such as private property and the traditional family may originally have been undertaken for superstitious, mistaken or accidental reasons, but their very survival is a bias in their favour. The peaceful and flourishing coexistence of many millions of people within a coherent community is a miracle which relies on an extensive network of associations and habits, for the most part not understood and taken for granted. Burke contrasted this with the approach of Jacobin revolutionaries, who “chose to act as if [they] had never been molded into civil society and had everything to begin anew”.

The metric system was produced during the hubristic days of the French Revolution

Friedrich Hayek, so commonly misunderstood as a dogmatic neoliberal, identified a distinction between “French” and “English” approaches to liberty. Whereas the latter was cautious, empirical and sought to build on inherited wisdom, the former relied on Enlightenment claims of the power of human reason. This produced a dogmatic approach to human liberty, hostile to distinction or pluralism. The difference in these approaches can even be identified in our different legal traditions. Unlike the civil law which applies on the continent, in which fundamental principles are formally codified for references of authority, the English common law derives from precedent and case-made decisions. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience … The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics”.

Much of the above is easily dismissed as a crude oversimplification, and certainly my presentation of it does not have the nuance of serious scholarship. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental truth to this account, and the approach to traditional weights and measures reflects these differences. The metric system was produced during the hubristic days of the French Revolution, in which men believed they could build the world anew. Dividing the physical world into rationalistic and universalising measures, they sought also to begin the temporal world anew.

Though the metric system devised in those years has survived, decimal time has not. The institution of 10-day weeks, with 10-hour days of 100 minutes and 100 seconds was introduced alongside the French Republican Calendar, which began time afresh, with Day 1 of Year 1 falling on 22 September 1792: the first day of liberty. Not the least of the intentions with the decimal calendar was the sundering of the communal rest day from the celebration of Sunday Mass, and the dislocation of Catholic Christianity from the everyday rhythm of life.

One of the architects of this system was the great chemist Lavoisier. Like many eager revolutionaries, he found that the promises of a world created anew on rationalistic principles did not survive their own application, and he ended his days on the guillotine on the 19th Floréal of the Year 2 of his Brave New World.

The ease with which the rationalistic liberty of the French revolution collapsed into totalitarian repression, show trials and the Terror, partly reflects the hostility such rationalism has for difference, for checks and balances, for disagreement and for pluralism.

Orwell, a self-declared “Tory Anarchist”, recognised this tendency. In his dystopia 1984, Orwell insisted on using the metric system, well aware of its role in alienating humans from their sense of place and personhood, and of the compartmentalising and codifying spirit — both alike hostile to the different and the particular — which inspires it.

Such words as quart, chain and hundredweight are pearls we ought not to cast before swine

I don’t want to oversell the social benefits of imperial measurements, like an 18th century quack selling medicine to cure the Marthambles, the Moon Pall and the Strong Fives. The rule of law is not wholly dependent on the divisibility of physical distance. Clearly the metric system does answer the needs of scientific analysis and international correspondence, and inherited systems are not applicable on the macrocosmic or subatomic scale. But the love of the traditional, the customary, the particular and the quirky, does reflect a different attitude to life; and one more conducive to a pluralistic and accommodating society in which realities of human freedom are more likely to flourish. The impatient attitude of the technocrat and the planner in striving for uniformity and regularity is one which leaves little space for what is truly human.

We live in a world which is paradoxically more uniform and yet more alienated, more universal and yet more atomised. One of the challenges of our age is to find those forms of life and activity which allow us to bind ourselves more closely to one another, and foster a sense of attachment to person and place. We have a system which is ours, and which is a linguistic treasure-trove. Such words as quart, chain and hundredweight are pearls we ought not to cast before swine. A litre can be had by anyone, from China to Peru. But pints belong to us.

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