Freedom and Light Bulbs

In my recent post on patriotism, I spoke generally about the importance of American values. Certainly the most preeminent among these is Liberty. The most powerful issues and agendas of both the right and the left are based on freedom – with each side believing it’s standing for it, and the other side caricatured as being opposed to it. Health care is a fascinating example – liberals tend to see a central single-payer health care system (such as “medicare for all”) as something that increases American freedom, because suddenly we all have health care we can count on, in ways that have nothing to do with our job. Conservatives tend to see such a system as damaging to freedom, precisely because it’s centrally administered and monolithic, reducing choice in health insurance.

Which is a fascinating debate to get into, but today I want to talk about light bulbs.

Traditional Incandescent light bulb
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

The battle of the light bulbs has been building for years – the old filament-based incandescent light bulbs we used for most lighting in the 20th century require more energy than compact fluorescents (CFL) or LED bulbs. So the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 issued rules to reduce the number of these inefficient bulbs that are sold. These rules have been staggered in their effect, so that it’s only now, in 2019, when we’re going to be facing an absolute ban on incandescent lighting.

Compact Fluorescent (CFL) and LED Bulbs
image by Apollo Grace

From a conservation perspective, this has been a big win so far; by 2016, we already had LED or CFL bulbs in 58% of residential lighting, saving literally billions of kWH per year. It’s one of the main reasons why the United States actually use less electricity per household today than we did in 2005. But there are problems with the new forms of lighting that can impact people’s health.

  • Most CFLs and LEDs are excessively bright, and have more blue light than is found in our natural environment, so they add stress to our nervous systems and particularly make it difficult to get to sleep. (See this Harvard article, or this paper in NPJ Aging and Mechanisms of Disease.)
  • CFL light bulbs also contain small amounts of Mercury – not a problem if they’re properly disposed of, but hazardous if they break in your house.
  • Meanwhile, LED bulbs are basically high frequency strobe-lights – if you point a slow-motion camera (like you can find in any smartphone) at LEDS, you’ll see them flashing in the playback. The frequency is 120Hz, which is a bit too fast for us to consciously see, but it adds a “jittery” quality to our field of vision which is noticeable, especially in the periphery. If you sometimes see things jumping in the corner of your eye, it may not be you – it may be your lighting.

Now there are multiple sides to this story. The science regarding the impact of these newer bulbs is not completely conclusive; it is possible to find LEDs with warmer (less blue) color spectrums now; and many people may prefer the energy savings, for the planet and for their pocketbook, over more traditional lighting. But similarly, there are people who are especially sensitive to these sorts of light variations, who really need incandescent lighting in order to be healthy and productive.

So here’s a case where well-meaning big government has made us less free, in ways that have significant impact in individual lives. If I sound like a conservative blogger here, it’s deliberate – because there’s a second-order impact we need to consider when we’re pushing an agenda that’s on the wrong side of freedom. It gives the other side plenty of ammunition to attack us, in ways that are meaningful to ordinary American voters. The conservative memes write themselves:

“The light bulb has become a symbol in the fight for consumer freedom and against unnecessary governmental interference into the lives of the American people.”

Nicolas Loris, the Heritage Foundation.

This sort of pushback could occur with other types of regulations, such as recent moves to ban plastic straws because of their specific environmental impact; but they have added power when we’re talking about something as comforting and familiar as home lighting, and pushing replacements as cold as compact fluorescents. Taking a stand against freedom will always drive some votes to the other side; is it worth it? Is it worth it when we know it will have a negative impact on some people’s health?

So my appeal in all of these matters is for moderation. If the vast majority of lights sold today are already CFLs or LEDs, do we need a ban on incandescents? Isn’t this attempt to reduce home electricity usage by modifying one particular product line really dodging the big plays that need to happen, such as taxing carbon emissions to a level commensurate with the damage those emissions are causing? What else is possible, besides the blunt instrument of a ban?

Update: I took slow-mo video of the LEDs at a local hardware store – apparently not all of them strobe visibly, but many of them do. They match the 120Hz frequency of the AC power, so they’re all synchronized together:

Comments 2

  • Interesting, I didn’t know about the strobe effect of LEDs. I knew some fluorescent light effect some people, but didn’t know about LEDs.

  • It isnt just about freedom though. As in so many cases, it is about balancing various folks rights – I’m not convinced there is an absolute right of freedom that I have if it affects other folks.

    But in this case, there is a different issue as well. We know that incandescent light bulbs have a sizable economic externality in terms of climate effect of heavy electricity usage. So, assume that you want to address that externality.

    This can be done by adding in the price of the externality (a tax to pay for the negative effects on others) or by regulating away the behavior causing that. Now, the tax can work well, but not in all situations (there are several good economic analysis of when tax vs regulation works, but I cant locate them right now)….

    So, in the context of freedom, most people react more negatively to “regulation” while annoyed by a tax that they eventually forget if it is gradual. So to actually deal with the externality is a non-trivial policy question. BUT we are set up in this country to let the executive branch create regulations far more easily than to get Congress to get off its ass and price in the externality.

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