Mark Byrnes: Dim Bulbs
Being of a certain age, I remember when conservatives understood what freedom is and what tyranny is. They used to talk about “captive nations,” denounce the “gulag,” and declare “Tear down this wall!” Back in the 1950s, President Eisenhower signed into law a bill declaring the third week in July “Captive Nations Week,” a way of calling for the end of communist governments in Eastern Europe. You know, the kind of governments that actually denied their peoples freedom.
But in Columbia, South Carolina in the year 2011, freedom isn’t threatened by the secret police dragging dissidents to late-night interrogations. It isn’t denied via a one-party state (well, at least not officially). No, in our time, freedom means something else.
Now freedom means incandescent light bulbs.
The South Carolina legislature spent time Wednesday debating what they are calling the Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act. As Dave Barry likes to say when he cites something seemingly too silly to be true, I am not making this up. These brave, freedom fighter legislators are looking to protect the people of South Carolina from the assault on freedom represented by a federal energy standards law passed in 2007, which mandated greater energy efficiency in light bulbs.
The leading sponsor of this legislation, Rep. Bill Sandifer of Seneca, S.C., argues that this is a matter of rights: “These rights to have the kind of light bulbs we want and need are our rights. They are not given to the federal government.”
Have we really gotten to the point where the right wing in this state defines “rights” as being able to buy the exact kind of light bulb you want to? I rather doubt this is what John Locke had in mind when he wrote his Two Treatises of Government.
And what essential right is threatened by this electrical tyranny? Rep. Mike Pitts of Laurens, S.C. tells us: “Did you know that light bulbs that are going to be required by the federal government cannot be used in an Easy-Bake Oven?” That’s right. They are trying to preserve the freedom to use an Easy-Bake Oven. It’s what the Founders would want.
Even when we dismiss this nonsense that our rights are threatened by energy efficiency regulations, the idea that the energy efficiency law is taking away choices is simply not true. An article from July 2009 points out that the effect of the law will be innovation, not extinction, for the incandescent bulb:
Indeed, the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.
“There’s a massive misperception that incandescents are going away quickly,” said Chris Calwell, a researcher with Ecos Consulting who studies the bulb market. “There have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years than in the last two decades.”
In other words, the very premise of the South Carolina bill is mistaken. A portion of the AP story (edited from the version printed in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal) explains:
David Jenkins, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, said the federal legislation is misunderstood. “The government is not actually ‘phasing out’ incandescent light bulbs in favor of fluorescent bulbs,” Jenkins said. “The law is technology neutral; it merely establishes energy efficiency standards for bulbs — much like the efficiency standards for appliances that were established during the Reagan Administration.”
While people knock compact fluorescent bulbs, Jenkins said, there are alternatives, including halogen and LED bulbs. He expects the LED bulbs will ultimately win over consumers as prices come down.
What this story shows is how trivial our politics has become. At a time when people all over North Africa and the Middle East are literally putting their lives on the line for freedom and standing up to actual tyranny, we in South Carolina have our elected representatives making fools of themselves by equating freedom with light bulbs. They cheapen one of the noblest concepts in human history, one that millions of people have died for, with this joke of a bill.
Like the light bulbs they love, the sponsors of this bill are both wasting energy and throwing off more heat than light.
Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. He blogs at The Past Isn’t Past. Mark’s obsessive interest in politics goes back to watching the Watergate hearings as a child (seriously). You can follow him on Twitter at @byrnesms.