A Dim Argument for LEDs

Monday, March 25, 2013

Might technological innovation have saved safe, decent electric lighting from improper government, at least for the time being? A post at conservative blog Hot Air makes this claim about LED light bulbs, which do at least appear to be technologically superior to CFC "Bush bulbs". Hot Air quotes the New York Times regarding the merits of the technology:

You've probably seen LED flashlights, the LED "flash" on phone cameras and LED indicator lights on electronics. But LED bulbs, for use in the lamps and light sockets of your home, have been slow to arrive, mainly because of their high price…

That's a pity, because LED bulbs are a gigantic improvement over incandescent bulbs and even the compact fluorescents, or CFLs, that the world spent several years telling us to buy.

LEDs last about 25 times as long as incandescents and three times as long as CFLs; we're talking maybe 25,000 hours of light. Install one today, and you may not own your house, or even live, long enough to see it burn out. …
Hot Air elaborates that, "if the goal is to get people to buy bulbs that use electricity more efficiently, government mandates aren't nearly as effective as a product that can actually make those electricity savings ... more worthwhile," and furthermore, that "If these bulbs really are everything they're cracked up to be, they'll catch on -- no government mandates necessary." [link in original]

That last link takes the reader to another conservative blog, where an author gushes that, "The market is already bringing us sexier, greener, more efficient light bulbs on its own." Linking to Hot Air, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds chimes in saying, "Not only have CFL's not lived up to their promise, but their lousy record has made people less enthusiastic about LED bulbs, which just might."

I have a bone to pick here. It may well be true, as Hot Air put it, that "[I]f people figure out that Product A is more expensive or of lower quality than comparable substitute Product B, people will buy Product B." Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is really only due to the momentum of the anti-industrial movement behind the impending ban on incandescent "Edison" bulbs that so much effort had gone into making this technology affordable. Thus, thanks to the ban, this product is not truly an outcome of a free market: It looks attractive primarily because the cheaper alternative will soon be gone and its heir apparent was such a poor substitute.

This is not to say that LED lighting would never have been developed absent government coercion or green hysteria: Perhaps the long-term energy savings might have proved appealing enough to a frugal segment of the lighting market. Perhaps the bulbs might have found a niche for people who hate wasting time changing bulbs, or who have fixtures that are inordinately difficult to reach.

That said, let me get to what really bothers me about this argument: I advocate free markets, but I am sure that any random socialist or fascist could see through that argument, too. So I am led to ask, "What do the people making this flimsy argument against the incandescent bulb ban hope to accomplish?"

The folks at The American Interest give us the clue we need: "The market is already bringing us sexier, greener, more efficient light bulbs on its own." [Again, it isn't, really.] The argument is an attempt to sell capitalism to environmentalists by tricking them into thinking that they don't need the cudgel of government to achieve their goals because the free market will get people to use less energy on its own.

First of all, this isn't true. Consider this use case: I'm moving in a month and the light goes out in my hallway. I can, in a truly free market, buy a cheap, incandescent bulb that might last a few months or an expensive LED array that might last longer than I have left to live. Guess which product is better suited for my purposes. If someone wants "the world" to be more energy efficient, he is going to have to either convince me to make a different choice or force me to buy the expensive bulb. So, while free markets might produce energy-efficient alternatives, they can't and won't guarantee that such alternatives are always used, because they will not always be the most cost-effective options for individuals.

Second, the "goal [of getting] people to buy bulbs that use electricity more efficiently" is one whose justification leaves plenty of room for dispute, and that is regardless of the scientific merits of the AGW hypothesis. Telling Greens that free markets can get people to use less energy by fudging on what a free market really is, is an attempt to bypass the necessity of telling them what they need to hear, which is this: There is no rational justification, save self-defense, for one man to force another to do his bidding, whether one does the coercion himself or pawns that task off on the government (whose actual job is to prevent this).

The only moral way to get others to change how they act is to appeal to the rational self-interest of the other party. The Greens already know they can't appeal to self-interest. They are also, generally, bright enough to see that the market for LED bulbs is artificial, and will be quite happy to call this bluff. Conservatives and other advocates of free markets should quit pretending otherwise -- and not just to the Greens, but, more important, to themselves. There is no need to fool a small opponent when standing up for what is right is the winning strategy.

The incandescent bulb ban is a bad idea, not because free markets are better able to achieve energy efficiency, but because it is wrong for the government to act as a substitute for individual judgement.

-- CAV

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