Weights and Measures

From our throne here at the pinnacle of the present, the reforms of the past seem rather quaint. We read in grade school history textbooks, for example, that it was quite an achievement for Hammurabi, an absolute monarch, simply to standardize weights and measures.

It mattered, of course, because goods are sold at market by weight. When there is no standard definition of, say, a pound or a cup, merchants are free to use whatever minimal definition suits them, including one of their own devising, which is exactly what they’ve done in all times that allowed it. There is little as constant as human greed.

No sooner were there markets — literal ones in this case — than there were pickpockets on both sides of the stall. It’s easy to throw the street thief in jail. The “cost” of policing him is slight. It takes genuine moral courage to address the other.

We now take it for granted that there is not only a precise, universal, verifiable definition of a kilogram — originally, the weight of a thousand cubic centimeters of water — but also that there is a public body whose job it is to oversee that definition. (They recently approved a change after it was discovered the slug of metal used as the benchmark for a kg had eroded over the centuries to be 50 micrograms lighter than a thousand cubic centimeters of water. The new definition, approved last year, uses Planck’s constant.)

One of the chief lessons of the past is that there is not much difference between us and the humans of Hammurabi’s time. This is difficult for people to accept, even where they may cognitively agree. Nationalist histories, of the kind most of us learned in school, at least strongly imply an exceptionalist account of the present, where the nation is virtue instantiated and the end result of a great drama, shining above us both unquestionably strong and yet (paradoxically) constantly imperiled.

It’s hard to convince young people to sacrifice for the body politic — which is often required for its survival — if there’s nothing particularly historic or exceptional about it, which may objectively be the case. That means the lie is necessary anywhere the nation is false, where it’s not actually ours. If it were, any of us would defend it as readily as we do our families, without considering whether they are “the best in history.”

Over the past 30 years, an entirely new market has appeared: the digital market. Predictably, pickpockets appeared on both sides of the stall. Once again, we were quick to outlaw the petty thief. Police routinely cooperate internationally to take down pirate sites, for example, despite that their impact on the economy is so slight, it’s almost impossible to measure.

We’re struggling to pass even the most basic digital equivalent to weights and measures — same as the humans in Hammurabi’s time, who were no more or less noble.

Future generations, looking back on us from the throne of the present, which we must soon abdicate, will note that we had so little faith in our democratic institutions that the major outcry now is for companies like Facebook and Google to regulate themselves, which they are struggling to do.

This is something previous generations never would’ve contemplated for banks or pharmaceutical companies. You either believe there was a reason for that or you don’t.