Commentary Magazine


Light Bulb Crony Capitalism

Last week, Congress failed to repeal new regulations that effectively banned the traditional incandescent light bulb, making the purchase of new expensive halogen bulbs or florescent lights mandatory. Most Americans buy the line they’ve been sold about the bulb: the new lights are more efficient and therefore will “save the planet.” But what they don’t know is the drive to ban the old bulbs has more to do with the interests of the manufacturers than the poor suffering planet.

COMMENTARY contributor Jeff Jacoby does his usual excellent job of summing up the situation in his Boston Globe column on the subject. Jacoby points out  the push for the regulatory ban was the brainchild of an industry eager to force consumers to buy a new product that costs nearly 10 times as much as the old popular light bulbs. Consumers have been understandably reluctant to shell out more money for the new lights; not only due to the price but also because they are slow working, contain toxic mercury and don’t work with dimmers or some kinds of fixtures. The industry’s response has been to put in a political fix that legislates higher profits for them in return for the possibly illusory promise of greater efficiency. This is, as Jacoby aptly puts it, a classic example of “crony capitalism.”

Republicans who fought for the repeal of this regulation were accused of pandering to the extreme right wing of their party, but the corrupt nature of the ban on the old bulbs was rarely mentioned in the accounts of the vote. Far from attempting to stop progress, all the opponents of the ban want is to let the market decide which bulb will survive. As Jacoby writes, nobody needed a law to force people to buy compact discs instead of long playing records nor to induce them to use cell phones rather than land lines. If the new bulbs truly are better, the old ones will be rendered extinct soon enough.

There is more at stake in this debate than the survival of the incandescent light bulb. Those Republicans, such as Michele Bachmann, who have seized on this issue, understand the impulse to use the government to dictate private behavior is fundamentally anti-democratic as well as economically futile. The GOP effort to restrict funding for enforcing this idiotic rule is a sign the debate is not over. Regulations such as this one may be catnip to both bureaucrats and intellectuals who believe in social engineering and manipulating public behavior to conform to their notions of what is acceptable. But politicians would be better off letting consumers make their own decisions.

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