May 30, 2011
Did you know that Congress has already banned incandescent light bulbs in the future? Neither do most Americans. The law was passed in 2007; the phase-out begins with the 100-watt bulb in 2012. (You can also read more about it at a Web site created for the movement to repeal the ban.)
Practically speaking, like most overweening big-government schemes, this will have unintended consequences. In this case, we already know what some of them will be:
1 — Scientists find that the main alternative, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), should be used sparingly and not left on for very long, because they are poisonous and may give you cancer:
Andreas Kirchner, of the Federation of German Engineers, said: “Electrical smog develops around these lamps.
“I, therefore, use them only very economically. They should not be used in unventilated areas and definitely not in the proximity of the head.”
Peter Braun, who carried out the tests at the Berlin’s Alab Laboratory, said: “For such carcinogenic substances it is important they are kept as far away as possible from the human environment.”
However, other “experts insisted that more research was needed and urged consumers not to panic.” Oh, OK.
2 — On the other hand, it turns out that if you don’t leave your CFLs turned on for a long time, they will burn out a lot sooner, which significantly diminishes their efficiency—which was the point of switching to them in the first place. It appears that the original tests that led to all the claims about how long CFLs would last were conducted in ideal conditions that pretty much never occur in actual use. Other things that can shorten the life of a CFL include timers and dimmer switches. In short, “it is hard to accurately predict and tricky to measure energy savings.” Ironically, “Totally enclosed recessed fixtures (for example, a ceiling can light with a cover over the bulb) create temperatures that are too high to allow the use of a compact fluorescent bulb”—ironically, because CFLs generate less heat than incandescent bulbs, which, again, was part of their vaunted efficiency.
3 — Those American Thinker pieces also discuss the risk of fire. Experienced debunkers Snopes.com (which I’m normally a fan of) dismiss such concerns in pretty strong terms, but they note that CFLs sometimes smoke when they burn out (!), and by the end of the piece they’ve admitted that there has been a recall of one brand of CFLs because of the risk of fire. By the time of that second American Spectator piece, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had ordered recalls of a number of models of CFL because “The light bulbs can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers.” (Again, I think this risk of overheating is especially ironic.)
4 — CFL bulbs contain poisonous mercury; when they break, government-recommended clean-up procedures can be extremely inconvenient, and expensive. (See also the American Thinker and other sources linked above.) A liberal friend of mine said, Well, but you can just ignore that, who cares what the government-recommended procedure is? This is the same government that liberals tell us (sometimes in the same conversation) should be empowered to make our decisions for us, for our own good—such as what light bulbs to buy.
5 — That mercury may end up in landfills, which may (ironically) be a threat to the environment. (See American Thinker and other sources linked above.)
6 — CFLs look terrible. They flicker—and I’m talking about when they’re working as designed, at their best: They flash on and off many times per second, something like a TV screen. I’ve hated the (non-compact) fluorescent lights commonly used in grocery stores and other stores for years; the light they produce is, in a word, unpleasant. It may also cause migraines, and cause other problems in epileptics and others, although that is disputed.
Some of those strike me as pretty strong practical reasons not to ban incandescent bulbs, but I’m not even primarily concerned about practical reasons. Even more importantly, the ban is an encroachment on liberty. In that UK Daily Mail story I just linked, someone speaking on behalf of the Migraine Action Association said, “We hope that the Government will allow regular light bulbs still to be available to those who need them.”
He shouldn’t have to beg, and neither should we. It is unfitting and unrepublican for free citizens to have to “hope” that the government will “allow” them to do as they please in some small area. I said “unrepublican”; I realize that the speaker there is still a subject of the British crown. I wonder whether my liberal friends realize that we’re not.
That may strike you as melodramatic, or perhaps “alarmist”. As Mark Steyn suggests, that’s the beauty of incrementalism: Today’s small change seems like no big deal. Tomorrow’s change would seem like a big deal, even to you, if it were presented to you today—but by the time it comes up, you (or your children) will have gotten so used to today’s change that it will seem gauche to object to extending the change just an eensy bit more. And so on, ad infinitum—or rather, until future civilizations’ historians have to look back and explain how America went from a republic to a dictatorship.