3 February 2015- What did markets lose by standardising measures?

In The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder tells the story of how two French scientists, Delambre and Méchain, were sent out in the late eighteenth century ‘to measure the world’ and establish the metric system. As the book’s blurb tells it, ‘this is the story of how science, revolutionary politics and the dream of a new economy converged to produce both the metric system and the first struggle over globalization’. So what has this got to do with markets?

The French revolutionary government wanted to bring the advantages of the metric system to everybody but this was fiercely resisted as people stuck to the local measurements of markets in the ancien régime. The explanation is simple, people were used to local customs and their own way of measuring and pricing; there were different measures for buying and selling, and different containers were used. Even the height from which grain was poured into the receptacle varied because the contents might ‘settle’ upon handling. These local systems meant that traders were answerable to their neighbours if they cheated, and outsiders were kept out of local markets. As Adler puts it ‘distinctive measures protected small-town traders from big-city merchants’. The metric system, on the other hand, would introduce absolute standards – all the measures would be the same, regardless of where they took place. This was the start of the new economy, the end of local economies where price got set by place and local custom, and heralded globalization.

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