It is one of the magical moments in American history: On Sept. 4, 1882, Thomas Edison threw a ceremonial switch at the offices of J. P. Morgan in New York City, and there was light.
The nearby Pearl Street Station power plant provided the electricity for light bulbs to switch on throughout the immediate area. The New York Times had 52 of the bulbs and reported they provided light “soft, mellow, and graceful to the eye . . . without a particle of flicker to make the head ache.”
The light bulb represents one of the most ingenious and useful American-created commercial products — so ingenious, in fact, that it’s the metaphor for the arrival of a new idea. Now, the humble old incandescent bulb is in its senescence, about to be snuffed out entirely by an act of Congress.
In 2007, Congress passed and Pres. George W. Bush signed an energy bill forbidding the sale of the traditional, cheap incandescent bulbs on grounds that they aren’t energy-efficient enough. This has stoked grassroots opposition (FreeOurLight.org) and bulb-hording among people ready to give up the old bulbs only if someone pries them from their cold, dead fingers.
Republicans in the House and Senate are pushing to roll back the provision in the 2007 law. Are there more important matters of state to attend to? Surely. Is the light-bulb regulation rushing us down the road to serfdom? Probably not. But it is so annoying, it deserves the resistance of friends of freedom and of nice, clear artificial light.
Think of the national 55 mph speed limit, imposed in 1974, also in the name of energy efficiency. Congress repealed it in 1995. Think of the metric system, pushed in the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, again in the name of efficiency. It never quite caught on. Think of, for that matter, the three-pence-a-pound Townshend duty on tea. Was that the end of the world? No, but it was the principle of the damn thing.
The more energy-efficient bulbs are more expensive, but make up their cost in the lower use of electricity over time. The Department of Energy contends that mandating new bulbs will save up to $6 billion for consumers in 2015. Industry supports the mandate because it says it is stoking competition for the creation of all sorts of new energy-efficient bulbs — some of them incandescent.
All to the good, but if the new bulbs are so wondrous, customers can be trusted to adopt them on their own. Are we a nation of dolts too incompetent to balance the complex factors of price of bulb, energy efficiency, and quality of light on our own?
One of the alternatives to the old incandescent bulb is the compact fluorescent lamp, a twisted affair seemingly modeled on fusilli pasta. It contains mercury. If it breaks, you have to undertake cleanup measures worthy of a minor industrial accident. Its light is inferior to the old bulb. One congressional critic says it reminds him of “something out of a Soviet stairwell.”
It’s entirely possible the compact fluorescent lamp will catch on and become as universal and beloved as the Edison version. If so, it shouldn’t need an artificial push. At a hearing on the light-bulb regulation, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky castigated the deputy assistant secretary of energy in terms she may have never heard before. Noting that the Obama administration professes to be “pro-choice,” he argued, “there is hypocrisy that goes on in people that claim to believe in some choices but don’t want to let the consumer decide what they can buy and install in their own house.”
Just so. You can be forgiven for thinking no household object or minor convenience is safe. First, they made our toilets less efficient. Then, they came after our plastic grocery bags. Then, they mucked around with our dishwasher detergent. At the light bulb, brilliant for more than 100 years and counting, it’s time to make a stand.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.