That’s how I feel about the recent teapot tempest over energy-efficient light bulbs. The misguided sense of purpose of conservatives who would emphasize that as an important issue right now–I mean right this very month when we are fast approaching U.S. default on its debt payments–is mindblowingly difficult to comprehend. Especially when anyone with a grasp of elementary-school math and a rudimentary understanding of the Constitution could figure out that the chances of success are zero. These people just may be the worst–most juvenile, deranged, and deeply stupid–set of congressmen ever elected.
But the arguments of the liberals who support the legislation piss me off nearly as much. Fred Clark argues that “oil-puppets like Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, are fighting to waste your money on lousy, obsolete, 20th-century light bulbs by repealing efficiency standards that will save taxpayers $12 billion a year.” No, no, no. How on earth would the repeal of the legislation waste my money? And why is he talking about taxpayers? Lightbulbs are not bought by government and then distributed to us. It’s not taxpayer money but consumer money, and as consumers we can choose to continue to buy energy efficient light-bulbs even if the legislation is repealed.
And Ed Darrell mocks “nuts who who are incompetent to shop for light bulbs.” That is just sheer moralism at its finest. If you don’t value what I value, there oughta be a law making you act as though you do. The problem with the moralistic approach is that it’s not generalizable–it’s not an approach I’m willing to accept when the other guys are in power, so the only legitimate stance is to reject it when I’m in power. (I’ve often said that libertarianism isn’t about disliking all regulatory goals, but being willing to sacrifice those you like to avoid having to accept those you dislike.)
I like both Fred Clark and Ed Darrell. And they’re both very intelligent. But they’re just wrong here. They’re not wrong to support the goal of energy efficiency, but wrong to assume that each good goal justifies using the coercive power of the state to achieve it. With the widespread support the legislation had, it’s very likely that there was a market for energy efficient lighting, and so a non-coercive solution was available. If the response to that is, “but people wouldn’t buy more expensive light bulbs,” the I’d have to say that’s evidence that energy isn’t (at least yet) as scarce as we think it is, or the savings would be sufficient to motivate people. (Yes, some people can’t look past upfront costs to long-term costs, but a) forcing them to suck up the upfront costs isn’t necessarily doing them a favor (you don’t know what their opportunity costs are) and b) thinking about how widespread that problem is ought to give one pause about the wisdom of using it as regulatory justification.)
One commenter on Ed Darrell’s blog pointed out that light-bulb producers pursued federal legislation on this to avoid a patchwork of state regulations. That’s true enough, and it’s easy to understand why they would do so. But supporters of the bill would have supported individual state action in the absence of federal legislation, so it doesn’t address, much less rebut, the criticism here about people’s political motivations.
I am fully in favor of greater energy efficiency, with the caveat that it be cost effective. (I.e., I could save money on my heating bill next winter by replacing my century old single pane windows with new triple-pane argon-filled windows, but it might not be cost effective for me at this time because a) I would have to take out a loan to pay for it (on top of the loan I had to take out to pay for getting a new driveway put in, after my old one was torn up so we could replace the broken plumbing), and b) I might have even better uses for that money). I have in fact replaced most of the incandescent bulbs in my house with compact fluorescents,* both for energy efficiency and to save money (and annoyance) replacing incandescent bulbs (they burn out frequently in my house, and I suspect it’s because some of my wiring is still the ancient asbestos covered stuff (which I am replacing bit by bit)). So it’s not the goal I oppose, and I think anyone who simply sneers at the idea might as well wear this T-shirt.But good goals don’t in themselves justify legislation that coerces people’s individual choices. Market solutions are possible. If energy is really scarce, or if we improve our internalizing of the effluent costs so that consumers are paying the real cost of their energy, then there is incentive for people to become more energy efficient. If a utility finds the cost of building a new production facility when there is rising demand cost prohibitive, they may find it cheaper to subsidize or even give away energy efficient bulbs, as well as providing rebates for energy-efficient windows, improved insulation, and so on. Energy companies already do that.
The beauty of it is that it is both effective and voluntary.
*Yes, I know the legislation doesn’t ban incandescents. At both blogs commenters were quick to point that out to me, so I think my saying I replaced incandescents with fluourescents inadvertently suggests I didn’t know that.