Because Consumers Balk at Spending 10 Times As Much for a Light Bulb, They Must Be Forced


Tonight the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) aimed at repealing the ban on conventional incandescent light bulbs that will start to take effect in January. Over at FrumForum, David Jenkins says the whole exercise is a charade, because "there is no light bulb 'ban.'" Instead there are federal energy efficiency standards that will make the least expensive, most popular bulbs illegal. See the difference? Me neither.

Jenkins says those efficiency standards are clearly justified because the industry supports them and because they benefit consumers, who will save enough money on electricity to more than make up for higher bulb prices. Consumers, of course, have always been free to take advantage of this bargain, and the vast majority have not: According to the Energy Department (PDF), more than 80 percent of residential light sockets were still occupied by standard incandescent bulbs last year. Because consumers are too stupid to perceive the clear advantages of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), LED bulbs, halogen bulbs, or the new, extra-efficient incandescents, they must be forced to buy them. Is it surprising that manufacturers support a law that allows them to foist newer, more expensive products on customers who otherwise would pass them up?

Jenkins accuses Barton of misleading the public by "saying that bulbs meeting the new standards are cost prohibitive." In fact, Jenkins says, "a Philips incandescent bulb that meets the new standards currently sells for $1.49, lasts about 50 percent longer than older incandescent bulbs, and saves consumers more than $3.00 in energy expenditures." He presumably is referring to the Philips EcoVantage bulb. By his own account, it costs nearly five times as much as a standard 100-watt incandescent bulb, which can be had for 31 cents (in a $2.48 eight-pack) at Lowe's. But I can't find a vendor that sells the EcoVantage equivalent of that 31-cent bulb for less than $3 (in a $5.99 two-pack), almost 10 times as much.

Is that "prohibitive"? (That seems to be Jenkins' word, by the way, not Barton's.) No, but it means people will have to spend more money on light bulbs and less on other things they value more. Let's assume that the EcoVantage bulbs, unlike CFLs, perform just as well as standard incandescents, and their only disadvantage is that they cost a lot more. Even if the calculations about long-term savings (which depend on longevity assumptions that in my experience are highly exaggerated) are accurate, people should be free to pass them up in favor of more money in their pockets now. Otherwise there is no end to the purchase decisions the government might choose to override in the name of saving people money over the long term. Why let people buy cheap cars, appliances, or luggage when they could get more durable, more reliable products for five or 10 times as much?

More on the bulb not-ban here and here. Reason.tv covered the subject last October: