February 2, 2011

February 2, 2011 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Let There Be Light Bulb Choice

Government loves to spend your money. Yet it’s also keen on telling you how to save money, particularly when it comes to energy use. Here’s how it works, allegedly: The government implements tighter energy efficiency standards on businesses, you save money, we reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and everyone goes home happy.

Everyone except those who believe we have too much government in our lives, which is the majority of people. And they have a right to be upset. Each energy regulation is an attack on individual liberty, with the most obvious and egregious being the virtual ban of the traditional incandescent light bulb.

In 2007, Congress passed an energy bill that placed stringent efficiency requirements on ordinary incandescent bulbs. The goal: phase them out beginning in 2012 and have them completely gone by 2014. The idea is to replace incandescent bulbs with more energy-efficient ones, such as compact fluorescents, or CFLs.

Complaints about CFLs are relatively well known. They’re more expensive, for one thing. More dangerous, too: Although the amount of mercury in the bulbs is within a safe range for adults, the EPA does warn of potential health risks and outlines a cumbersome recommended clean-up process. Many prefer the soft yellow lighting of incandescents to the unnatural, office-like white light of fluorescents.

Other critics point out that CFLs do not work well in colder temperatures, so they emit less heat, forcing Americans to use their heaters more. Residents in houses with well-and-septic systems use the heat from incandescent bulbs to keep the water above freezing. Furthermore, CFLs do not work well with dimmer switches, and the lifespan of the bulb diminishes when turned off and on frequently.

So why does my mother buy them? Because CFLs have benefits as well.

Although they have a higher sticker price, the energy efficiency of the CFL saves her money; she has to replace them much less frequently than traditional incandescents. The light CFLs give off doesn’t bother her, and she doesn’t have dimmer switches in her house. The converse of CFLs emitting less heat means she uses her air conditioner less.

In those areas where the energy savings would take an exceptionally long time to realize because the lights aren’t on often (attics and closets), she sticks with incandescent bulbs.

The point is: It’s her choice. She didn’t need any legislative incentive to purchase them. But our government doesn’t trust the individual’s ability to make good decisions and instead is forcing a phase out of the incandescent bulb as we know it.

When the government creates specific mandates and regulations, it purposely narrows the path businesses and individuals can take. If forces tradeoffs that may wind up making the consumer worse off, depending on his or her preference. The attack on individual liberty may seem small to some, but it has larger implications for our economy. French economist Frederic Bastiat believed freedom of choice was closely connected to competition.

In his book Economic Harmonies, Bastiat said, “In things that concern me, I want to make my own choice, and I do not want another to make it for me without regard for my wishes; that is all. And if someone proposes to substitute his judgment for mine in matters that concern me, I shall demand to substitute my judgment for his in matters that concern him. What guarantee is there that this will make things go any better? It is evident that competition is freedom.”

Demand for traditional incandescent is still high, but that could change with competition from more energy efficient incandescent, CFLs and light-emitting diode (LED) technologies. Competition in lighting technology could organically phase out the traditional incandescent light bulb, but politicians and bureaucrats shouldn’t be telling us when. No government official locked Thomas Edison in a room and told him to create a commercially practical light bulb to replace the candle.

Politicians are not the ones with the knowledge or expertise in the lighting industry. Fortunately, some in Washington have realized that. Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas) have re-introduced legislation to repeal the light bulb ban.

The ban merely scratches the surface of government’s intrusion into individual choice with regards to energy efficiency. Congress and the administration have told us for years that they’ll save us money with more stringent energy efficiency standards for motors, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, water heaters, among others. It’s time to turn off the lights on these intrusions on free enterprise.

Nicolas Loris is a Researcher in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Nicolas Loris Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow in Energy and Environmental Policy
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

First appeared in Human Events