In Bloomberg this week, Virginia Postrel serves up a typically smart column about the idiocy of what amounts to an effective ban on incadescent lightbulbs in the United States. Her argument is two-pronged: First, she outlines the way a bizarre alliance of green activists and big bulb producers joined forces to convince Congress to ban incandescents:
It was an inside job. Neither ordinary consumers nor even organized interior designers had a say. Lawmakers buried the ban in the 300-plus pages of the 2007 energy bill, and very few talked about it in public. It was crony capitalism with a touch of green.
The result? Consumers got screwed. They are now stuck with a technology, compact fluorescent, that gives inferior light at a higher price, but which has a failure rate not noticeably different from incandescent. But most stupidly, it doesn't even succeed at its intended goal, which is to reduce electricity use in order to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. How could it? As she points out, the ban provides no incentive at all to reduce these emissions:
A well-designed policy would allow different people to make different tradeoffs among different uses to produce the most happiness (“utility” in econ-speak) for a given amount of power. Maybe I want to burn a lot of incandescent bulbs but dry my clothes outdoors and keep the air conditioner off. Maybe I want to read by warm golden light instead of watching a giant plasma TV.
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.
I couldn't agree more. In fact, I did agree entirely, in a column I wrote over four years ago (cripes, has it been that long?) for Maclean's. Like Postrel, I argued that the key is to simply get the price of electricity right, because then it means that what I do with the electricity I purchase is my business alone. If I want to bask in the hothouse glow of incandescent bulbs -- or if I choose to install compact fluorescents but spend the savings on a central air conditioner that I use to keep the house at 15C in the middle of summer -- so what?
If a government believes it is entitled to micromanage the preferences of its citizens with respect to electricity consumption, there is no reason to stop at light bulbs. Why not ban sales of 72-inch plasma screen televisions, or outlaw central air conditioning? Why not legislate limits on the number of hours a day I can spend surfing the Internet, or playing video games? The problem with using state power to implement moral distinctions is not that it's annoying; it is that it's authoritarian, with no obvious non-arbitrary stopping point.
It is hardly surprising that it was Cuba that first introduced such a ban a few years ago; it sent teams of youth into people's homes to switch out the old bulbs for energy-saving ones. As Postrel puts it, "of such deals are Tea Parties born."