The incandescent light bulb is perhaps American's greatest invention -- so great, in fact, that Thomas Edison's bulb is universally recognized as the symbol of a "good idea." And yet that iconic bulb is heading the way of the buggy whip into the dustbin of history.
Unlike the buggy whip, however, which was rendered obsolete by mass production of the automobile, Edison's bulb is dying out because the federal government has decreed that it should, ruling in the "Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007" that, by 2012, everyone must use a new fluorescent bulb.
I admit that I've never liked the new Dairy Queen-looking bulb. National Review's Rob Long, coiner of that descriptor, pretty well summed them up for me: "They bathe the world in a gauzy, dirty-yellow haze. It's sick-room lighting, state-mental-hospital illumination -- the kind of lights they used in East Germany to keep everyone sad and downcast."
Aesthetics aside, the federal government's decision to start policing our light bulb use is just plain stupid. Start with this: As a result of this government intervention into the marketplace, our nation's last major incandescent light bulb factory recently shut down, and the job of making the new bulbs will fall to the overseas manufacturers, primarily the Chinese.
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Why? Well, it turns out that the fluorescents cannot be automated as easily as the old bulbs, and production has predictably moved to where such hand labor is cheap.
So the "energy independence and security act" led to the obliteration of a great American industry and an increased dependence on foreign imports. How's that for irony?
It also turns out that the new fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can cause serious health problems if inhaled or ingested, and cannot be disposed of by simply throwing them in the trash, lest they end up in landfills and poison our water supply.
There's even a 16-step EPA advisory on what to do if the new bulb breaks in your home, from immediately ventilating the room and shutting down HVAC systems to placing shards in a sealed plastic bag and complying with local disposal requirements.
And, for goodness sakes, never use a vacuum. (Something horrible happens, but check out the EPA site; I don't want to spoil the surprise.)
And the list of complaints about the new bulb goes on: They cause fatigue, dizziness, ringing in the ears, eyestrain. They bedevil those cursed with migraines. Their electromagnetic interference wreaks havoc with cell phones and wireless computers.
Now, I can hear some of you saying, "There goes Tom Davis again, carrying on about government restraints on our liberty. Doesn't he know that the new bulbs are cheaper and last longer and are just as good as the old ones, and that they slow global warming?" In fact, many posted exactly that on Facebook the other day when I complained about the new bulb being jammed down my throat by the feds.
But if the new bulb is all that, if it is cheaper and lasts longer and is just as bright as Edison's incandescent bulb, then why is it that the federal government believes it must pass a new law insisting that we use them? Wouldn't people simply buy them because they are the better product?
Yes, I understand that individual liberty must be limited when one's exercise of it adversely affects others, and that such limitations unfortunately increase in a world where people bump up against each other with increasing frequency. I also understand the need for good environmental stewardship and to protect our natural resources. It's why I sponsored South Carolina's first surface water withdrawal act.
But we should always force government to justify its restraints on our liberty instead of giving them presumptively valid status; we should always be very suspicious of government infringements on our freedom. And in the past few years, we have gotten too tolerant of government regulations that make no sense, and the odious "Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007" is a prime example.
Light bulbs account for only about 1.2 percent of all energy used in the United States. That means the forced replacement of all traditional light bulbs with fluorescent bulbs would at most reduce energy consumption by a few tenths of one percent.
That's the "benefit." And for that we're willing to endure all of the associated "costs," from exporting our bulb manufacturing to China to creating a new environmental and health problem and, yes, to restricting liberty?
At the end of the day, of course, this is more than simply a squabble about what kind light bulb the government will allow us to use; it's about what kind of society we want to live in and what we expect from our government.
Do we want to live in a free society, where government's role is limited to securing the inalienable rights of its citizens? Or do we want something else?
Tom Davis is the state senator from Beaufort County.