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The Budget and the Light Bulb

When the House of Representatives voted earlier this week to pass a budget it was widely, and rightly, considered a defeat for the Tea Party. Conservatives who opposed the compromise devised late last year by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray to put an end to the partisan impasse on fiscal issues have lost their ability to pressure the House leadership into following them into suicidal stands that undermine the country’s confidence in the GOP. But Tea Party members weren’t the only losers in that vote. Along with them, light bulb manufacturers also took one on the chin as Republicans insisted on including in the $1.1 trillion deal a measure that will defund the enforcement of the regulations that forced consumers to give up their preferred incandescent bulbs and replace them with new halogen, LED, or fluorescent lights.

While proponents of the law forcing the end of incandescent sales claimed it as a victory for the environment, the regulations in fact came about more through the workings of crony capitalism than the arguments favoring energy conservation. Though this move comes after repeated failures by conservatives to end this travesty that enacted bans on various bulbs that have already been implemented, it is not too late to halt a ban that constrains the freedom of consumers to make their own choices and reinstates some slight semblance of a free market. Though a minor part of the compromise both parties have forged, it should give some satisfaction to those who lament the passage of laws that value social engineering over consumer choice.

The key fact about the ban on the old bulbs that was usually ignored in discussions of this issue is that the chief advocates of it were not so much the environmentalists but the far wealthier manufacturers who were thrilled to force Americans to buy a new product that cost up to 10 times more than the old reliable bulbs. The profit margin on the new bulbs is significantly higher. The new bulbs may be more efficient and may last longer, but they also contain toxic mercury, are slow to turn on, and don’t work with dimmers and many other fixtures in American homes. While improved LED bulbs may eventually sweep the market and make us forget the old bulbs we chose, the new ones are being shoved down our throats merely to line the pockets of manufacturers while allowing them to pretend to “save the planet.”

The point here isn’t that innovation is bad. To the contrary, if the new bulbs are more cost-effective and reliable they should make the incandescent as obsolete as lamps that ran on whale oil. But legislating such change makes no sense. No laws were needed to force Americans to use cell phones rather than rely solely on landlines. Nor were regulations required to make us give up long-playing records for compact discs and then to embrace digital devices that don’t require either to play music. If the new bulbs prove to be better, the old ones would have become extinct without Washington dictating the change.

Some on the left may lament this vote as a sop to troglodyte conservatives who don’t believe in science. But the truth here is that the reversal of the regulation is a victory for consumer choice over a market model in which bureaucrats and intellectuals dictate what the public must do. Though a small and belated victory, it is one that those who love freedom and the free market are celebrating.


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