The Pursuit of Knowledge

Measure for Measure

Old weights and measures have lasted in America because they grew from the free transactions between people.

By From the February 2011 issue

Send to Kindle

Since 1995, under pressure from the European Union, our Land Registry in Britain has been measuring land areas in hectares, rather than acres. As from now the acre is no longer protected as a legal measure, and all transactions in land must be conducted in hectares. The European Commission has not banned the acre: but it has not needed to, since it has pushed the British people into a corner where their ancient way of measuring and parceling out land no longer has any real legal standing. This is one part of the ongoing abolition of England, and it offers me an occasion to reflect on the meaning of weights and measures, and on what first inspired the comprehensive decimal system that is now uniform across Europe.

It began in France at the Revolution, when the decimal system was proposed as uniquely rational, proof that people were able to organize their lives according to Reason rather than Custom. The meter and the centimeter, the franc and the centime, the liter and the centiliter, the hectare and the square meter were henceforth to replace all the old weights, measures, and currencies that had reminded the French of the unexamined ways by which they had lived. Even the clock had to be decimalized, with 10 hours to the day, 100 minutes to the hour, and so on. The Revolutionaries stopped short of decimalizing the months, but were clearly deeply frustrated that they could not boss the moon about as effectively as they could boss the earth.

From the mathematical point of view there is nothing sacrosanct about the decimal system, which owes its preeminence to our human fingers, rather than to any properties of the number 10. As we now know, if there is a basic way of counting, on which all others depend, it is that of binary arithmetic, using the numbers 0 and 1. But what was offensive about the decimal system was not its arbitrariness. It was its despotic intent. The decimal system did not evolve; it did not emerge by an invisible hand from the transactions of free individuals, as the old currencies and measures had emerged. It was imposed from above, by arrogant revolutionaries who despised what was customary and voluntary as a threat to their geometrical conception of society. Through changing the measures they hoped to change the world, binding the familiar transactions in an abstract yoke of pure mathematics.

You may think the exercise harmless. After all, Americans, who use yards and miles instead of meters and kilometers, and acres instead of hectares, began their independence with a decimal coinage -- the dollar and cent, derived from the German thaler. But the old weights and measures persisted in America despite that innovation. Ounces, pounds, stones and bushels, pints, quarts, and gallons, rods and perches, and all the crazy derivatives of those fantastic measures have lasted here as they lasted back home in England. And why did they last? They lasted because they grew from the free transactions between people, because they were marked by human need and human interest, and because no meddlesome official had ever thought he had the right to change them.

A bushel of corn is just the amount that a single man can carry. A stone is 14 pounds, which is the maximum you can lift without strain. A pint is the amount that will quench the ordinary thirst, and a gallon (eight pints) the largest quantity that can be easily carried on a journey. A pound is 16 ounces, and so can be divided two ways, four ways, and eight ways in even portions. The natural contours of the human body and human relationships can be read in these measures at every point.

FOR IN-BUILT GENTLENESS, nothing compares with the old English currency, still in use during my youth, and abolished under pressure from Europe when that cold fish Edward Heath decided (alas, probably rightly) that England would be better ruled by Brussels than by him. Since the days of King Alfred the Great it had been established that the English pound -- defined by weight -- would contain 240 pence. Why choose such a number? The simple answer is that 240 has 18 whole number factors, besides itself and 1 -- so that there are 18 ways of dividing a pound among those entitled to a share of it. This is a currency designed for sharing and giving, unlike the decimal system (100 has only 7 whole number factors, and 10 only 2). And the principle of sharing and dividing penetrated our coinage from top to bottom. The pound had 20 shillings, divided into four crowns. But we also divided again, so as to have the half-crown piece, worth two shillings and sixpence, since the shilling was divided into 12 pence (12 having four whole number factors besides itself and 1). Hence the half-crown and the two-shilling piece (the florin) lay side by side in our pockets, both of them heavier than any coin in circulation today. The shilling was divided into the sixpence, the three-penny bit, and then the penny, which was in turn divided into the halfpenny, the farthing, and (though this coin was extinct in my youth) the mite. The array of sterling coins created a kind of compendium of human dealings. It suggested all the ways people could be linked by division and multiplication, rather than by the mean-minded addition and subtraction that define the decimal system.

Most wonderful of all was the coin that had vanished long before my time, but which was still retained as an item of accountancy -- the guinea. This, equal to 21 shillings, had no other purpose than to define a booty in which there could be seven equal shares. Even today horses are bought and sold in guineas, maybe because those involved gang together in threes and sevens, or maybe because the word "guinea" is too closely associated with the horse in the legends of huntsmen and highwaymen.

Our coinage remained unchanged for a century or more and Victorian pennies still circulated abundantly at the moment when the penny ceased to be "legal tender." Silver coins survived from the reigns of Victoria, Edward VII, and George V, but they were made of real silver, and therefore rare, since the metal was worth more than the coin. (Hence Gresham's law, which tells us that "bad money drives out good.") Losing this precious part of our national life was hard for us, even if easy for Edward Heath. For it meant saying farewell to dealings that made threepence, sixpence, a shilling, two shillings, and then half a crown into thresholds, stages on the way to an agreement, in which we could exercise our social prowess and pause to take breath. Ours was an intricately social coinage that opened the way at every point to the concluding gesture.

THEN CAME THE EUROPEAN DIRECTIVE OF 2001, which abolished our ancient weights and measures, and which allowed our Parliament no right to consider the matter. Pounds and ounces, gallons and pints, bushels and stones -- all those wonderful, irrational, but humanly intelligible measures were stolen from us. And for what? So that our markets could be "opened to competition," and our customs "brought into line" -- so placing a penalty on our economic life, forcing us to redesign all our scales and packaging, and abolishing all our local ways of doing things.

There was resistance for a while; one or two butchers and grocers were prosecuted. But we knuckled under, since no one in authority made a move to defend us. Our Parliament is a fiefdom of the political class; it knows on which side its bread is buttered, or rather its tartine est beurré. The great advantage of those top-down edicts from Brussels is that they confer on our politicians the right to be elected, without the duty to do anything in exchange for it. Nevertheless, it still seems to me that our little farm, which we have worked for years to put together from abandoned scraps, is not 40 hectares of Europe, but 95 acres of England. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.