Technology & Freedom

Banning the Incandescent Light Bulb

Is the modern incandescent light bulb ready to move from the hallway to the halls of the American History Museum? Politicians seem to think so, but consumers disagree.

According to an article in the New York Times, “Despite a decade of campaigns by the government and utilities to persuade people to switch to energy-saving compact fluorescents, incandescent bulbs still occupy an estimated 90% of household sockets in the United States. Aside from the aesthetic and practical objections to fluorescents, old-style incandescents have the advantage of being remarkably cheap.”

The government solution to replace incandescent bulbs is to regulate them out of the marketplace and forcefully restrict consumer choice. The 2007 energy bill placed stringent efficiency requirements on incandescent bulbs in an attempt to phase them out beginning in 2012 and replace them with more expensive but more energy-efficient bulbs, the most popular being compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).

Critics of CFLs argue that exposure to mercury vapor is dangerous if the bulbs are broken, and others complained about CFL bulbs causing migraines and epilepsy attacks, resulting in medical groups asking for exemptions for those with health problems. They also point out that CFLs do not work well in colder temperatures nor do they work with dimmer switches.

Proponents of CFL bulbs argue that the increased energy efficiency will offset the higher sticker price, but critics argue it would take an exceptionally long time where people use lights infrequently, such as closets and attics. As consumers learn about the ban, they tend to “stock up,” storing incandescent light bulbs like a squirrel collecting acorns.

The market will likely adjust to the technological shortcomings of CFLs, but their problems were not foreseen by Congress. That’s why lawmakers shouldn’t be telling people what lights to use in their homes. 

If consumers prefer incandescent bulbs to florescent ones, why the ban? The answer is simple, writes economist Don Boudreaux: “Any legislation forcing Americans to switch from using one type of bulb to another is inevitably the product of a horrid mix of interest-group politics with reckless symbolism designed to placate an electorate that increasingly believes that the sky is falling.” 

In other words, Congress said it would act to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. So lobbyists for interested businesses jumped on the opportunity to force consumers to use their more expensive products.

The new incandescent light bulbs are selling at record rates, but also at record prices. A new bulb presented by Philips Lighting’s Halogena Energy Savers is selling at 20 times the price of a standard bulb ($5 compared to 25 cents)—an immense price increase for a 30% efficiency improvement. However, the new bulbs last three times as long as a standard bulb, bringing the price ratio down to less than seven times the price of a standard bulb.

Although this law could mean the end of a century-old industry and all the jobs that go with it, bulb manufacturers are using market innovation to push back against needless regulations. Still, lawmakers do have the power to eliminate incandescent bulbs, if that’s their goal.

If consumers truly preferred fluorescents to incandescent light bulbs, they would purchase them without any legal incentive. Yet they do not. Many prefer the soft yellow lighting of incandescents to the unnaturally white light of fluorescents. More might prefer the simple affordability of the traditional light bulb.

Demand for cheap incandescents is not going to change because of legislation, so the only option left to environmentalists is to remove the incandescent light bulb from the market altogether and make it impossible for consumers to light their houses inexpensively.  CFLs may have a role in the marketplace, but we should let the consumer decide what that role should be.

This is one example of the absurdity of federal regulations and highlights how bureaucrats pointlessly try to change human behavior. The regulatory burden grew tremendously during President George W. Bush’s tenure and is only getting worse under President Obama’s. It is a trend that restricts freedom and choice in the marketplace and costs taxpayers billions of dollars. It is a trend that the government should reverse.

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