It is rare for cabinet secretaries or other high administration officials to speak with clarity and candor. Secretary Chu seems to be an exception. In commenting on the failed legislation to repeal the effective ban on incandescent light bulbs, he said, “We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.”
Unfortunately, Secretary Chu’s mindset seems archetypal of the Obama administration. Rather than trust individuals to make their own decisions, the current batch of D.C. leadership believes it knows best.
As part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Congress established new standards for light bulbs set to take effect in 2013. These standards effectively banned incandescent bulbs and other alternatives to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL).
The drawbacks of this mandate are numerous. Some CFLs cost as much as $20—more than 10 times the cost of a regular light bulb. Moreover, because CFLs contain mercury, EPA has issued warning in case they break and special instructions for their disposal.
Though lawmakers passed the bulb ban under the banner of “energy conservation,” the major driving factor likely came from the special interest lobby which stands to gain financially by compelling people to buy more expensive light bulbs.
Companies like GE, Phillips, and Sylvania that decided to ‘go green’ several decades ago, invested in developing these strange looking energy efficient bulbs. The problem is that consumers didn’t want to join their green revolution. CFLs were expensive, slow to glow, and gave off a strange form of light. Rather than use ingenuity and innovation to make energy efficient bulbs that people would buy, these companies took the easier route, use their lobbying skills to promote standards that make affordable, incandescent light bulbs obsolete.
Manufacturers claim that the more expensive CFLs are so efficient that they can pay for themselves in as little as six months. So, why aren’t consumers flocking to save money? Well, there could be a number of reasons, in addition to the high cost. Some people may not like the light. Others may be waiting for technology and productivity to drive costs lower (that would happen in a competitive market place). Still others may have a different time value of money than the Secretary of Energy or may not want to take the risks of mercury exposure.
Though lighting products are the specific issue in question here, the larger matter is one of choice. Whether it is what kind of light bulbs we can buy, the kind of cars we can drive, or where we can live, government actions that constrain our personal freedoms are a sign of an over-governed society.
Overly ambitious CAFE standards will make SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks too expensive—forcing consumers toward smaller, high-mileage cars. Moreover, outright bans on our domestic energy resources keep oil prices artificially high. These kinds of onerous, bureaucratic interventions constrain the way in which citizens are free to live their lives (and pursue their happiness).
Such a ‘government knows best’ approach to law lacks both humility and an understanding of history. The late Friedrich Hayek termed this mindset the “fatalconceit.”