The Canadian Metric System

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In January 1970, with its “White Paper on Metric Conversion in Canada” the government of that country engaged in a radical measurement alteration. It started moving the entire nation from the imperial to the metric system. Those opposed to this alteration created a great hue and cry against it; there was much gnashing of teeth throughout the land.

Why the change? First, there’s so-called “rationality.” Metric makes use of decimals; imperial does not. The politicians in charge also sought to tailor the system so as to be congruent with that used in much of the world, particularly in Europe. This was despite the fact the biggest Canadian customer, and supplier, lay directly to the south of it. Canada represented about 18 percent of total U.S. exports in 2020. In a recent year, the United States accounted for some 73 percent of total Canadian exports. Almost $2 billion worth of goods and services cross the mutual border every single day of the year.

One of the hopes, moreover, was that with this demonstration, the United States would fall into line with Canada and the rest of the world. A sort of “mouse that roared” phenomenon was the aim, at least on the part of many supporters.

Over a half-century has passed since that event. It may now be time to assess this alteration. For one thing, it’s clear that the United States has not followed the Canadian lead. The nation to the south still wallows, or, if you wish, exults, in its original system of weights and measures. For another, these two countries are still each other’s best customers, despite the fact that they still remain on two different systems. Not enough attention was paid to the sheer inertia affecting the United States in this regard. It takes miles for a battleship or gigantic cruise liner to turn around; the same, apparently, applies to U.S. measurement policy.

But was this one-size-fits-all policy justified in the first place? It was widely thought to be the case. After all, if some Canadians reckon on the basis of pounds and miles, while others base their decisions on grams and kilometers, economic coordination would be all but impossible. But this is clearly not the case. Even today in Canada, groceries are sold both by the pound and the gram.

Matters are not like time zones or daylight saving time changes (spring forward and fall back). In those cases, everyone, simply everyone, has to be on board, otherwise total chaos (not anarchy!) ensues. The present issue is more akin to language. Yes, you likely pay both a financial and personal price if you speak only French and reside in British Columbia, or only English in Quebec, but people are legally free to do so. The government is thereby in effect saying to the people: You may communicate in one or the other of these languages, or both, of course. However, social intercourse occurs smoothly despite these divergences. The government of Canada would have been wise to adopt the same policy regarding measurement.

It’s still not too late for the state to take its big fat thumb off the scales of the nation, and its measuring rods, and operate a laissez faire policy in this regard.

Canada is happily bilingual. It should also adopt a bi-measurement policy.

We shouldn’t all have to march to the same drummer. We do not do so when it comes to music, sports, movies, novels, vacations, and pretty much everything else under the sun, certainly including language. There’s simply no justification for compelling the entire nation to march in lock step concerning measurement. Then and only then—under a system of free competition—will we find out which system is more conducive to economic progress. QWERTY may not be the most ideal system for keyboards, but no one, even the most blatant interventionist, favors a compulsory move to a supposedly more “rational” system.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Walter Block


Walter E. Block is the chair in economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute and the Hoover Institute.

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