Politics & Policy

Bright Idea

The House of Representatives is considering the BULB Act, which would stop the government’s de facto ban on incandescent light bulbs from going into effect. Though its chances are uncertain in the Senate, and President Obama would probably veto it, the bill deserves support. If it does not become law, Americans will no longer be able to buy the “inefficient” bulbs they’ve relied on for years; the point is to encourage the use of swirly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).

We do not mean to disparage CFLs as such. Tests show that, on average, they last longer and use less electricity than regular bulbs — saving consumers more than enough money to make up for their higher purchase price. They have made inroads in the market without government help; you can find them at just about any store that sells regular light bulbs.

But the fact that a product is superior in some ways does not mean it is superior for all purposes, and it certainly doesn’t give the government the right to ban the competition. CFLs don’t work well with dimmer switches, and their lifespans diminish significantly if they’re turned on and off repeatedly rather than being left on for long periods of time. Clumsy environmentalists might be concerned about the mercury they release when they break. Some people just don’t like the quality of light that a CFL bulb gives off. These are all factors that consumers should be able to consider, without state oversight, when choosing a light bulb for a particular socket.

After all, it is this act of choice that will force both regular bulbs and CFLs to meet consumers’ needs. If customers flock to CFLs to save money, manufacturers will try to make regular bulbs more efficient; and if people are reluctant to buy CFLs for various reasons, manufacturers will come up with better CFL designs. CFL makers have already improved the quality of light their bulbs emit and developed special bulbs that work with dimmer switches. Shielding CFLs from competition will only interfere with this process.

The light-bulb ban, signed into effect by Pres. George W. Bush, is nanny-statism at its worst. When President Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, said that “we are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money,” he identified the key problem: The government has decided that a certain product is a “waste,” and then forbidden people to spend “their own money” on it. The federal government should be more concerned about how it wastes Americans’ money, and less concerned about how Americans spend their own.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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