The reign of the Dim Bulbs

So widespread is the outrage over the absurd federal ban of Americans’ familiar incandescent light bulbs, closing domestic factories and throwing Americans out of work while requiring consumers to buy less popular and more expensive Chinese-made bulbs full of toxic mercury vapor, that individual states are starting to act in defiance of the federal power grab.

Leading the way as they did in 1861, South Carolina lawmakers now propose an “Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act.”

Since the Constitution grants the central government power to regulate only “interstate commerce” — commerce across state lines — the proposed state law would allow firms to manufacture incandescent bulbs (the kind invented by Thomas Edison more than a century ago) in South Carolina, so long as they stamp them “Made in South Carolina” and sell them only within the state.

South Carolina today has only one, small manufacturer of incandescent bulbs — in an impoverished rural county with 20 percent unemployment — though sponsors hope the law would encourage other manufacturers to set up shop in the state.

Current federal law orders domestic manufacturers to stop manufacturing 100-watt incandescent bulbs in 2012, with lower-wattage bulbs to be phased out by 2014, though even the original sponsor of the federal law now says it was a mistake and that he would vote for repeal.

Arizona lawmakers enacted a similar state law a year ago, though Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it. The South Carolina bill is expected to win approval in the House, though state Senate approval is uncertain.

Under the Constitution, the states have every right to enact such laws. The argument that such manufacturing must be banned because a bulb buyer might transport the bulb across a state line fails, since that offense — if it truly violates a legitimately constitutional edict — would be the business of the person doing the transporting, not the state or its manufacturers. Otherwise Congress could outlaw the manufacture of hammers, knives or handguns, on the grounds someone might someday carry one across a state line to commit a murder.

But the notion that states or even individual Americans retain such “rights,” in the face of disapproval by the central government, is of course largely a dead letter today, as medical marijuana growers have discovered when operating in compliance with California state law. Federal agents have bulldozed their fields, and even convicted them of federal “drug crimes” in federal courts, where the juries of their fellow citizens were not even allowed to be told the “culprits” were in full compliance with state law on medical marijuana, an area of iNTRA-state commerce over which Congress is granted no constitutional authority.

That the states are reduced to such desperate — and largely futile and symbolic — measures as these “light bulb freedom” acts is pathetic and revolting. The founders made it clear they were giving the central government power to “regulate interstate commerce” primarily to prevent the seaboard states from imposing commerce-crippling state tariffs on goods moving through their ports and waterways to reach customers in such relatively landlocked hinterlands as Vermont and Kentucky, not as a “secret code word” to empower the central government to regulate essentially everything, on the grounds that every thing eventually “moves in interstate commerce.”

The final absurdity was reached in the infamous Wickard v. Filburn case in the early 1940s, in which the Supreme Court held an Ohio farmer could be punished for growing grain on his own land to feed his own livestock without federal “permission,” since such an act meant he might buy less feed from growers in other states, thus AFFECTING interstate commerce.

Jefferson and other founders warned that to allow the new central government in Washington to do any thing it pleased, on grounds it might “affect” interstate commerce, or on grounds the Congress and president can do anything they believe may “promote the general welfare” — rather than sharply limiting Washington to exercising those powers specifically listed — would eventually lead to “a complete government,” by which they meant a tyranny.

“It is very certain that [the commerce clause] grew out of the abuse of the power by the importing States in taxing the non-importing,” sayeth James Madison, the author of the Constitution, “and was intended as a negative and preventive provision against injustice among the States themselves, rather than as a power to be used for the positive purposes of the General Government.”

“Agriculture, manufacturers, commerce, and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are then most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise,” added Mr. Jefferson.

Today, apologists for the efficiencies of a strong and “benevolent” central state pooh-pooh such objections as theoretical and out-of-date. In fact, though, technologies advance, consumers benefit, and new products and industries develop precisely in those areas where government meddling is kept to a minimum.

Examples abound.

Imagine if the federal Congress had ordered its regulatory agencies to step into the nascent market for portable telephones some decades ago, expressing horror at the wide number of competing and sometimes incompatible technologies being offered, without any guarantee that the radiation from some models was completely safe. If some 1980s federal Portable Telephone Regulation and Stabilization Act had required years — and millions of dollars — worth of testing and regulatory approval before a new portable communications device could be introduced in this country, cell phones and hand-held internet devices today would likely be as overpriced in comparison to manufacturing cost as government-regulated pharmaceuticals, and the few people who could afford a basic $2,000 cell phone would today be lugging around units with five-pound battery packs and two-foot whip antennas. (“But don’t worry; new and handier models may be approved for sale as early as 2017!”)

If compact fluorescent light bulbs can justify their higher acquisition costs and other perceived deficiencies by helping reduce consumers’ electric bills, manufacturers and retailers are free to promote those advantages, and American consumers are surely smart enough to make their own decisions after weighing those claims.

And even should all these sensible objections fail, the simple fact is that a federal government attempting to control our light bulbs, the size of our toilet tanks, and where we can acquire our medical care and how much we can be charged for it, will be unable within the decade even to fund its post office, its Navy, and its federal courts.

It will suffer the fate that the statists most dread. Through overreaching, it will find itself increasingly bankrupt, powerless, ridiculous, and ignored.

5 Comments to “The reign of the Dim Bulbs”

  1. lighthouse Says:

    Re Light bulbs
    Yes I am emigrating to South Carolina- home of the incandescent!
    (including the bulbs!)

    For major light bulb manufacturers,
    it’s all about making what is most profitable arising from the regulations:
    and since the cheap (and unprofitable) competition from regular bulbs has been wiped out, the door is opened for the “significant market share” of profitable CFLs – and indeed expensive replacement Halogens, while they are allowed – that people would not otherwise buy.

    How manufacturers and vested interests have pushed for the ban on regular light bulbs,
    and lobbied for CFL favors:
    with documentation and copies of official communications

  2. Sean Says:

    Just wanted to point out one thing: Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. While many people of the time were working on it, Sir Joseph Swan was awarded a patent in 1878, two years before Edison.

  3. Jerry A. Pipes Says:

    Let us also not forget that any ban on incandescent bulbs can be thwarted simply by a change in nomenclature. An enterprising resident of the EU skirted their ban by simply rebranding the bulbs as heaters.

  4. Steve Says:

    I don’t understand why anyone is still using incandescent bulbs in the first place. I stopped using them a decade ago by choice: they’re so dim as to feel I’m going blind and they need constant replacement. Sometimes people just love defending the most pointless things… like the US customary system.

  5. Lanthanum Says:

    I agree that incandescent bulbs are junk, but people should still have freedom to buy the type of light that they like best (I use CFLs). Its not the incandescent bulb in question, it is the freedom of choice.