Going Bananas Going Too Far Going Metric

GERORGE F. WILL

August 31, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The other night, driving back to Washington from Baltimore, where the Orioles' center fielder Mike Devereaux had hit a 115.82-meter home run . . .

''Damnit, Will, speak American. How far did Devereaux hit it?'' you ask, irritably. Read on. There is much irritation in your future unless you reach for the musket over the mantel and head for Concord bridge, vowing that some tyrannies and indignities justify revolution.

Back to the other night. We were driving the 38 miles (we can still say ''miles,'' for a while; someday a Commerce Department Gestapo will punish such talk) from Oriole Park to home.

We passed the time counting the hundreds of highway signs (''Rest Area 2 Miles,'' ''Speed Limit 55,'' ''Washington 18'') that will have to be changed -- your tax dollars at work -- if the states are told that such signs must express distances by the metric system, in kilometers.

Families traveling long distances in automobiles often find their ''family values'' beginning to fray under the stress of close confinement with loved ones. In the past, such families would find diversion in reading Burma Shave signs and looking for the next Stuckey's.

But by 1996, families may be able to sublimate their hostilities in competition to see who can guess how long it will take to travel the 47 kilometers to Lima, Ohio.

The shoulders of America's increasingly corduroy roads are littered with hubcaps jolted off by potholes the government is too poor to repair. So what is the government's bright idea? To spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make road signs metric.

Why? To bring America into line with ''the world.''

The push for metrication does not merely reflect the

government's primal urge to boss. It also reflects the belief that American exports and competitiveness would be enhanced by conformity. That belief is reasonable, up to a point. Of course, government pushes beyond that point.

In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act to authorize the government to exhort the public and private sectors to conform voluntarily to the metric system. The public, being of healthy spirit, which is to say conservative, was hostile to fiddling with familiar practices.

Metrication drew angry responses (in the words of a Commerce Department expert) ''everywhere the public was directly impacted and interfaced'' with it. As, for example, at some gasoline pumps.

In 1982 Ronald Reagan defunded the Metrication Board. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

But Congress was not amused by the public's backwardness, and Congress was implacable. In 1988, it passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act.

The word ''omnibus'' attached to legislation invariably indicates mischief beyond imagining. The 1988 act declared the metric system preferred for trade and commerce, and ordered government agencies to use it in procurement, contracts, grants, etc., where feasible. In 1991, George Bush signed an executive order detailing implementation.

But wait. What has metrication, as an enhancement of international trade, got to do with highway signs? Nothing. So why is government behaving so foolishly? Because that is what governments do.

The Federal Highway Administration, exhibiting the general governmental itch to get in on the act, has decided that highway signs, although not obviously related to international competitiveness, really are. Competitiveness requires a work force literate in metric calculations, which highway signs can teach.

Mark my words. From this theory will one day come a Commerce Department Gestapo, stamping out retrograde references to 380-foot home runs like Devereaux's, and enforcing MC -- metrical correctness.

Metrication fanatics ask, Don't we want to be like streamlined, homogenized, harmonized modern Europe? No, actually, we don't.

Since Magna Carta, or perhaps the execution of Charles I, Europe has had no good ideas about governance. Its most recent experiments include ''ethnic cleansing'' and the European Community bureaucracy in Brussels.

The attempted metrication of America is part of the attempt to Brussels-ize the world. The constantly metastasizing bureaucracy in Brussels -- the sluggish heart of the New Europe -- is the blunt instrument by which surreptitious socialists bludgeon the public with the statism the public rejects in elections.

In Europe, the instincts of serfdom are still strong. Not here. So the next president may be the man who defends an American's sovereign right to measure the distance in miles to Lima, Ohio.

This presidential season has been preoccupied with the search for the letters G-O-D in the Democratic platform and the search for signs of intelligent life in the Bush campaign. But in metrication the season may have found an issue that can electrify the electorate.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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