At the stroke of midnight this New Year’s Eve the incandescent light bulb will die an ignominious death after serving humanity well for fourteen decades. A new law goes into effect on January 1, 2014 making it illegal to sell or import household bulbs that use more than forty watts.
The bulb debate has become a flash point between conservatives and their progressive opponents. Notice I didn’t say between Republicans and Democrats; this overreaching law was proposed by a Republican congressman and signed into law by President Bush, though plenty of Democrats thought it was a great idea too.
Regardless of party affiliations, true conservatives have made the old fashioned light bulb—an unassuming household item—into a symbol for something much larger. But what, exactly? At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it has become symbolic of the fight between liberty and tyranny.
Liberals will of course scoff at the laughable notion of “light bulb tyranny” and accuse me of hyperventilating overreaction. That’s just liberals doing what they do best—pooh-poohing their opponents’ concerns as triflingly insignificant. Yet I suspect that even they understand that there’s a larger principle at stake here. Heaven knows that they have done everything in their power to thwart any attempt to derail the coming ban on incandescent bulbs. If the whole light bulb issue were insignificant they’d let conservatives win this battle and get on with the rest of their agenda: killing jobs and dumbing down education.
The new bulbs are fine by me. They have two key advantages: a lifespan of about 100,000 hours and a lower operating cost. Yes, they contain mercury, but I’m not so worried about that. Those fluorescent tubes that have been illuminating office buildings and schools for decades also contain mercury. Given the choice, I would probably select the energy-saving model over the incandescent.
But I won’t have a choice starting on the first of the year, and that’s really the rub. There’s something very wrong with America when the federal government selects light bulbs for its citizens. The fight over illumination is about so much more than just light bulbs; it’s about governmental overreach.
The light bulb ban provides a useful window into the mindset of liberals. Here’s how they see the issue: energy-saving bulbs are better, therefore the others should be illegal. The pattern repeats itself in nearly every other realm: they determine the best policy, then impose it in a top down manner with no regard for states, localities, or individuals. Arguing with them about choice is futile because they cannot fathom the idea that the debate has nothing to do with which bulb is better, but rather who gets to decide.
The old-fashioned incandescent bulb also has its merits. It doesn’t contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal that requires hazmat cleanup if a bulb breaks. Incandescent bulbs can also be disposed of without paying a hazardous waste fee. Their sticker price is also cheaper. While the energy-saver costs less in the long run, many people of limited financial means don’t have the luxury of waiting to recoup their investment. Until recently, a few incandescent light bulbs were even made in the USA. Those factories have all closed, victims of the light bulb ban.
So if you prefer the old-fashioned light bulb, that fine. I, on the other hand, have been sold on the superiority of the eco-friendly curly-Q. I am willing to buy a light bulb that costs fifteen times more if it will last ten times longer and reduce my electricity bill. I just don’t like the government making that decision for everyone. It should leave well enough alone, allow both bulbs to peacefully coexist on shelves across America, and let consumers decide for themselves which one is best for them.
Why can’t the government do that? The answer is simple: because Americans might choose the wrong one!
Liberals’ famous reverence for choice arose only because they couldn’t bring themselves to utter the word ”abortion” in a debate that is clearly about that very thing. Consequently, the word “choice” has been used so frequently in reference to the gruesome procedure that it is now universally understood to mean abortion. When a reporter asks a politician where he stands on the issue of “choice” people understand without any further context what the reporter means. (Hint: not light bulbs.)
I’m pro-choice too; pro-light bulb choice, that is. Speaking for the pro-light bulb choice crowd, I would like to say that we don’t hate curly-Q’s. We simply want the federal government to circumscribe the scope of its legislation to its rightful enumerated powers spelled out in the Constitution. The light bulb ban clearly exceeds the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate trade, going so far as to regulate intrastate as well. We also want the government to stop forcing their preference on the rest of us. It’s not as if we’re asking them to legalize an act of horrific violence against a child, we just want to pick the bulb we like best. Is that too much to ask?
Yes, it is, because all of this choosing and self-determination might become contagious. People might start asking the government, particularly the federal government, to stop sticking its nose into all sorts of other issues that are none of their business. Excluding the government from such decisions would necessarily reduce its power. Those top-down solutions they fancy so much might become a rarity. They won’t stand for it.