The Agenda

Light Bulbs Matter

A few months ago, I had an exchange in this space with an environmentalist who believed that the fight over incandescent light bulbs was a distraction. I disagreed, and I focused on the low quality of the bulbs. Virginia Postrel has written an excellent column that makes a broader point:


What matters, from a public policy perspective, isn’t any given choice but the total amount of electricity I use (which is itself only a proxy for the total emissions caused by generating that electricity). If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.

Instead, the law raises the price of light bulbs, but not the price of using them. In fact, its supporters loudly proclaim that the new bulbs will cost less to use. If true, the savings could encourage people to keep the lights on longer.

Even if you care nothing about individual freedom or aesthetic pleasure, this ham-handed approach wouldn’t pass muster in a classroom at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. As pollution control, it’s horribly inefficient.

The bulb ban makes sense only one of two ways: either as an expression of cultural sanctimony, with a little technophilia thrown in for added glamour, or as a roundabout way to transfer wealth from the general public to the few businesses with the know-how to produce the light bulbs consumers don’t really want to buy. [Emphasis added]

An argument I’d like to make at greater length is that the bulb ban reflects a basic disrespect for the importance of private economic liberties, a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.


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