Why Would Consumers Object to a Policy That Forces Them to Buy Expensive Products They Do Not Want?


As Nick Gillespie noted last week, the end-of-the-year budget package includes a provision that bars the Obama administration from spending money to enforce new energy-efficiency standards that will have the effect of banning standard incandescent light bulbs. That spending restriction lasts until the end of the fiscal year, and Republican critics of the light bulb ban want to make it permanent. But according to The New York Times, "the delay hardly matters" because "the looming possibility of the new standards…has transformed the industry." As a result, "A host of more efficient products already line store shelves." The Times concedes that "many of the alternatives to incandescent bulbs are more expensive." In fact, all of them are, including compact fluorescent lamps (which cost about six times as much as standard incandescents), halogen bulbs (10 times), the new extra-efficient incandescents (ditto), and LEDs (80 times). Why pay so much more, especially when—as with CFLs, the cheapest alternative—performance may be inferior? Supposedly because you save enough on energy and replacement costs to justify the investment. If so, why not let bulb manufacturers make that case to consumers, who can then decide for themselves?

A noncoercive approach is unacceptable, the Times implies, because consumers are driven by irrational concerns:

Advocates for the new rules point to California, which adopted the national standards a year early. Consumer anxiety there seemed to fizzle once the law went into effect.

"January 1 came and people were able to go out and buy light bulbs," said Adam Gottlieb, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission. "There was no light bulb apocalypse."

Industry executives say they have not found evidence of hoarding or runs on incandescents in California — although that may be because merchants stockpiled 100-watt bulbs, which are still widely available for sale.

At Light Bulbs Unlimited in Los Angeles on Friday, for instance, a sign in the window declared, "Outlawed! Light Bulbs, 100 Watt, Going Fast," with an exhortation to "Stock up now," and a 20 percent case discount offer.

Outside the store, many of the shoppers still knew little about the changing standards, although an employee said cases of 100-watt bulbs had been selling fast all year, as people like Philip Miller came in for more bulbs.

"We have been stocking up, but I think I need to stock up more," Mr. Miller said. He called the new standards intrusive. "It's another invasion of personal liberty by our government," he said.

And Tony Ragonese, a sales associate at Bulbman in Reno, across the state border in Nevada, said the store's sales of 100-watt bulbs had increased by at least 50 percent over the last year, with many of the customers Californians.

Hmm. It does not sound like consumer anxiety has fizzled. Still, how crazy is it to think that forcing people to buy products they do not want is an invasion of personal liberty?

Meanwhile, Politico notes that light bulb manufacturers "spent big bucks preparing for the standards," which they need to guarantee a market for high-margin products consumers otherwise would reject, and are "fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them." Aren't Republicans supposed to be pro-business? Sometimes they are actually pro-market instead, and this is one of those cases. A spokesman for Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, claims "the only people we are aware of who have opposed the bulb standards are some politicians and some conservative commentators." If legislators, regulators, environmentalists, and even the industry all agree this mandate is a good idea, why would consumers object? Maybe because the whole premise of the policy is that their choices do not matter because they are too stupid to know their own interests.

More on the light bulb ban here.