BMW used the season premiere of AMC's hit "Mad Men" to launch a multimedia ad campaign comparing its new diesel crossovers to the eco-‘responsibility' of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL). The idea, helpfully spelled out in case it isn't obvious, is that CFLs, just like BWMs, will save the planet. Or a bit of it.
Germans may not agree, since they are busy hoarding 100-watt incandescents, the first traditional bulbs banned under new EU directives. And the analogy is flawed elsewhere, too: While the regular-Edison's incandescent-light bulb isn't energy-efficient (at all), CFLs have their own eco-problems (hazardous mercury waste, disposal problems, and its efficiency claims now questioned, too). The ‘responsibility' analogy gets worse, considering the success of the much more expensive CFL needs incandescents being barred from the market. Gaining market share through strict government mandate (by literally banning alternatives), like CFLs, surely, hopefully, isn't BMW's future business plan?
Despite offering easy political Zeitgeist points, banning the bulb is an outrageous example of legislative overkill; political do-gooding run amuck. The decision (at least in Australia, China, Europe, and the US) to ban the Edison bulb is at least three-ways outrageous. First, it is impractical. Even if this interference by officials (unelected, in China's and Europe's case) in people's daily lives weren't morally reprobate (it is, and more of that later), it is outrageous that the alleged bona fides of the ban aren't even there.
For one, the little fluorescents aren't up to the task. The light from CLFs is-currently, largely-terrible. A high frequency flicker that distorts colors, lacks warmth, and makes one look terrible in the morning bathroom mirror. As EMP Syed Kamall points out, it can "disrupt the life of so many people who are visually impaired or suffer from skin problems." When disposed with household trash, CFLs' mercury content easily undoes any ( speculative anyway) environmental benefit its greater energy efficiency was supposed to bring. At least some of the CFL bulbs aren't even lasting as long as projected, making these costly mandatory replacements far less attractive than they were alleged to be. Yes, CFLs are being refined and improved. But so are-were-incandescents!
Bureaucrats forcing Edisons to be swapped for CFLs presume people can't make cost-benefit analyses themselves. If energy is expensive, people will find their way to more efficient bulbs (weighing that, as consumers should, against the quality of the light), even if it costs more up-front. No need to dictate rational behavior on such matters. If people don't flock to CLFs, there's a reason, and it isn't because they are stupid or ignorant, as politicians arrogantly presume.
Mandating such narrow-gauge efficiencies via prohibitions is the political equivalent of a blunt machete. Tax incentives would be a better, though still questionable, tool. Rigid mandates just mess with the profit system, which rewards innovative new products that people actually want. No reason for bulb-makers to invest huge amounts of R&D in building the best bulb, if government has already pre-selected the One Bulb that shall rule them all. As Tim Carney points out, if Edison had wanted to make money like the CFL producers, "he would have lobbied Congress to outlaw the candle in 1879".
Then, there's a moral issue. The state-not the EU, not European governments, not the US Government-has no right to interfere so boldly, directly, and intrusively with people's lives. Kamall again: "While we all want to encourage energy efficiency, such a blanket ban on traditional light bulbs puts environmental dogma before the safety of citizens across Europe." People who can't read in bad light, people prone to medical conditions helped by incandescent-or aggravated by fluorescent-light, or those who simply don't like the feel and look of the CFL's emitted light, have the right to illuminate their surroundings as they choose. Already Brussels is telling the public to snoop on their neighbors and turn in illegal traffickers in incandescents. i.e. bulbs that actually work. Ideal summer jobs for Stasi veterans?
Laws dictating such personal decisions are a gross violation of one's right to privacy. The outcry would be great if a law forbade people to own big cars, even BMW's X5 diesel crossover (although that may not be far off). Why should the outcry over lighting be any less, when the infringement on personal liberty is in many ways much greater on the matter of bulbs?
Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is an attorney and former economic advisor to Sen. Bob Dole.
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