Technocrats violate our right to buy and sell incandescent light bulbs

This letter appeared in the November 2011 print and on-line issue of APS News, the newsletter of the American Physical Society, the world’s second largest organization of physicists.

Physicist-turned-Congressman Rush Holt supports legislation banning conventional incandescent light bulbs (Back Page, August/September APS News). His statements about the legislation are misleading. Worse yet, his support of the ban embodies an elitism that supplants people’s right to choose with authoritarian dictates of a technocratic ruling class.

To the Wall Street Journal‘s claim that “Washington will effectively ban the sale of conventional incandescent light bulbs,” Holt glibly replies, “This was, of course, untrue. No type of light bulb was banned.” Sure, the legislation does not ban all incandescents, but it does ban conventional ones, as the Journal claims. The legislation will “make current 100-watt bulbs obsolete” and such bulbs will “disappear from store shelves,” reports the New York Times.

To justify the ban, Dr. Holt narrowly defines efficiency to mean only energy efficiency. But the most “efficient” light bulb best achieves the user’s purpose. Energy efficiency is important, but so are an appealing color spectrum, quickly reaching full brightness, low-cost dimming, and tolerance to vibration and heat.

The Congressman also decries proposals to repeal the bulb ban, as it could undermine Congress’s “tradition of supporting innovation.”  But when companies spend money to satisfy government demands, they invest less on innovation to satisfy perceived customer demand.

Businesses in relatively free markets innovate just fine. Consumer electronics is an obvious example, but product packaging has also become more efficient. Soda cans use less metal, while bottled beverage manufacturers advertise bottles using less plastic or petroleum-free plant-based plastics.

Meanwhile, the bulb ban exemplifies “innovative” ways for bulb makers to increase profits through political pull. Conventional bulbs are a “ubiquitous commodity” with a “negligible” profit margin, the New York Times magazine recently noted.  “No amount of subsidy or ‘green’ branding has managed to woo consumers away from Edison’s bulb.” So the lighting industry endorsed new efficiency standards that force consumers to buy more expensive products.

“We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money,” quipped Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics. Even if this is true, wasting one’s own money is every person’s right. Moreover, if a consumer has good reasons to prefer conventional incandescent bulbs, buying them is not wasteful. What’s wasteful is being forced to buy less desirable alternatives.

A physics PhD and a high-profile government job is not a moral sanction to violate consumers’ right to choose.


1 Comment

Filed under public policy, published

One response to “Technocrats violate our right to buy and sell incandescent light bulbs

  1. lighthouse

    and it’s even worse than that.
    Overall US energy savings from a ban are a fraction of 1% on US Dept of Energy stats and surveys (
    – yet GE Philips and Osram lobbied for and achieved this US and EU ban as documented on the Ceolas site, just like they achieved a 1000hr lifespan standard before that.
    Think: Why do GE and the others welcome a ban on what they are allowed to make? 😉

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