Of the 200 or so sovereign nations in the world, only three remain that have not officially adopted the international system of units, more commonly known as the metric system. Those three? Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States. In the past few years, both the Liberian and Burmese governments have taken measures to adopt the metric system, so why has the United States made no effort to ensure that it is not the last nonconformist in the world?
Map showing adoption of the metric system by country (source: wiki)
It may surprise you to hear that the United States actually has made such an effort: in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act, stating “To say that this legislation is historic is an understatement. The question of a common measurement language is, in fact, nearly as old as our country. President George Washington raised the issue in his first message to Congress on January 8, 1790” (source: UCSB American Presidency Project). Indeed, our country’s founders gave great thought to establishing an intuitive measurement system, and Thomas Jefferson proposed a base-ten measurement system of his own design, yet the United States still settled on the imperial system, partially because the metric system had not been designed yet at that point. So if our nation’s leaders have made tangible efforts to shift us towards a more logical system of measurement, why haven’t we?
In our nation’s infancy, it was our close ties to Great Britain that kept us on the imperial system. As the country matured and industrialized, it became more dependent on the existing system. Britain switched over to the SI system to conform with the rest of eastern Europe, but the United States has something that Britain doesn’t have: a large domestic consumer base. With no need to rely on exports, the US economy was able to develop with an independent measurement system. Today, the barriers to adopting a new system are larger than ever before. The costs of a transition would be enormous: infrastructure systems like our road signage would have to be completely redeveloped, product labeling and manufacturing goods would have to be swapped out, and our education and training techniques would have to change, to name a few expenses. But it is undeniable that there would be massive benefits.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology claims that “current effort toward national metrification is based on the conclusion that industrial and commercial productivity, mathematics and science education, and the competitiveness of American products and services in world markets, will be enhanced by completing the change to the metric system of units”, as quoted in Scientific American. In a global marketplace where the American education system is falling behind to those of other developed nations, the US should be doing all that it can to ensure that it can still produce engineers and scientists that can compete with those being born elsewhere in the world. But keeping up with other leading STEM countries is just one of the benefits. The metric system, with its base-ten units, simply makes more sense for industry. As Thomas Rutherford writes in a Colorado State University publication, the savings from productivity and quality could amount to 1% of construction costs in industries like highway construction, savings that would quickly add up to massive sums over the course of just a few years. On top of this, our industries would be able to import and export durable machinery goods to the rest of the world. The rewards would be countless, and would quickly exceed the costs in the same way that an initial investment can provide perpetual returns. And yet, it is still a topic that incites discomfort amongst Americans. No generation wants to be the one who has to bear the costs: both literally and the mental burden of changing the way we perceive measurements. That is why the process must be a gradual one. It must start from the bottom up. The US should begin to emphasize the metric system more in early education, even if it means teaching two systems of measurements for a time. The longer we wait, the more we lose out – the opportunity costs of staying on the imperial system are only rising.