Last week, I reread Anthem by Ayn Rand, an extraordinarily beautiful tribute to innovation as the life force of progress. It was published in 1937 but mostly drafted in Russia soon after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. But get ready for chills when you realize that this dystopian future is actually coming true, right now.
After a catastrophe has erased all of civilization from the earth, humanity's surviving descendants live in a primitive but totalitarian society. In the tale, a cruel government committee cracks down hard on a young man who has re-discovered the light bulb. They condemn him for daring to think for himself and presuming to override the planned poverty of the social order. The society ruled by the total state is perfectly happy with its candles, and no steps forward can be taken that are not explicitly approved by the ruling class.
Rand used the example of the light bulb because it is such a great symbol of the power of the human mind. It is within our power to harness the energy that comes from the heavens. “The power of the sky can be made to do men’s bidding,” observes the protagonist. “There are no limits to its secrets and its might, and it can be made to grant us anything if we but choose to ask.”
The light bulb finally freed humanity from having to defer to the earth’s rotations to determine work and leisure time. It allowed night baseball, made our highways safer, and put society on a 24/7 basis. The light bulb means much more than what it is in its physical essence: it was the dawn of humankind’s mastery of the world. Civilization is measured in lux.
I was contemplating the novel and looked up at my ceiling fan. Three glorious incandescent bulbs were lighting up the room with a warm glow. These particular bulbs lack the blue and white frosting. The glass is clear and the curved filament is burning like a miniature flame, so intense that you can’t look directly at it. And yet that flame is caged and made a servant of human dreams and aspirations.
I had the sudden thought: these are going to be difficult to replace. The last time I visited the light bulb section of the big-box hardware store, there were 30 feet of bulbs, but it was extraordinarily difficult to find one that you want. There were vast numbers of “compact fluorescent lamp” bulbs that look like curly pasta wrapped tightly to fight into a small space. There are implausibly expensive halogen bulbs that promise to last nearly lifetime but break the bank upon purchase and burn so hot they could cook an egg. There are many other choices too and often it can be hard to tell what is what.
What seems nearly missing entirely are normal light bulbs. Where are they? And why is private enterprise trying so hard to foist on us inferior products that we don’t want?
The answer is a thoroughly insidious attempt by bureaucracies together with a gaggle of politicians (they know all about light bulbs, right!) to ban the light bulb as we’ve always known it. In other words, it’s the plot of Anthem lived in real-time.
It all began in 2007 with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which called for a phase-out of the incandescent bulb by 2012 (variously amended by Congress to push out the deadline). The law banned light bulbs by wattage but not by name. In practice, it meant death for the kind of light we’ve enjoyed since the 19th century.
Gone already from the shelves are incandescent bulbs of 100 watts. Then last year, 40- and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs were killed off. Factories that once produced them were shut. You can get these bulbs so long as supplies last, but in a few years, that’s it. They’ll all be gone.
There are certain exemptions. Photographers and stage managers can continue to use them. Other specialty lights can continue to be made and sold, but you and I won’t typically bump into them at the big-box store. Oddly, 3-way bulbs survive, presumably because they save energy. If you are rich enough, you can escape the worst of it.
What is the thinking here? Ostensibly, it is all about energy efficiency, which vaguely connects to the American obsession with security and hence the name of the bill that made all this happen. If you use old-fashioned light bulbs, you are supporting energy dependence, hence foreigners, and hence terrorism. If you use incandescent bulbs, you are supporting America’s enemies, not to mention destroying the planet.
Once you dig more deeply, you find something remarkable: there was no scientific basis for this ban at all. Consider the analysis of Howard Brandston, a fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and the brains behind the refurbishment of the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s.
Brandston argues that the government’s metric of lumens-per-watt is completely bogus. It doesn’t consider the quality of light for a room. It doesn’t consider the costs of making replacements or the environmental risk of more “efficient” bulbs (fluorescent bulbs contain mercury), and it doesn’t consider the whole reason we have light bulbs to begin with: to light up a space. It focusses on one narrow metric at the expense of all these broader considerations.
“The calculations used by the government and others promulgating or promoting use of compact fluorescents,” he says, “is strictly mathematical conjecture and nothing to do with reality.”
So how can you tell which are the best bulbs? Brandston says that the consumer’s subjective judgment, tempered by a consideration of how long bulbs last, is more than enough. You don’t need bureaucrats, and you don’t need experts — just like every other basic consumer product.
But even if the new bulbs are awful, don’t they “save energy”? Brandston says: “Hoping that lighting is going to make a major contribution borders on ridiculous. . . . We’d be better off promoting occupancy sensors and dimming controls and recommending all dimmers be set to only provide 95 percent of the power to the light sources.”
The story you will not hear concerns the role of the industry: all of the major manufacturers supported the ban, the new standards, and the replacement bulbs. Profit margins were ridiculously small on old-fashioned light bulbs, which were being manufactured in China for pennies. How do you stop competition and push an expensive, highly profitable alternative? Testify before Congress and get them to force consumers to buy your expensive but poor-selling product lines.
The evidence is there for all to see. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association represents the entire industry connected with lightbulbs, every single one of the biggest players. The testimony to Congress by its president was not just about acquiesing to a ban of bulbs; the NEMA positively urged and demanded it, along with a ban on importation of incandescent bulbs. This is clearly a case of manufacturer-driven graft at work.
And it's enough to break this capitalist's heart. And there's more evidence that this ban was all about money coming and going. The NEMA became very commited to Washington, doubling its lobbying expenditures around the time of the ban.
It also fits with everything else about federal policy for the last half century, which seems to have the goal of helping special interests by increasing human misery as its main policy objective. It is why our toilets, faucets, detergent, and washers have been wrecked with water-use controls — even though none of these policies make a significant difference in overall water usage.
It’s why we are pushed to recycle even though no one has ever demonstrated that the mandates help the environment. It’s why we are taxed on things we want to do like drive cars. It’s why we can no longer medicate ourselves in normal ways without a doctor’s permission. It’s why we must endure special taxes and, worse, condescending lectures from public officials about fast food, sweets, and trash generation.
What do all these policies have in common? They target things that we enjoy and that make our life better. They force on us expensive, inferior products and services. It’s the penance we must do in the interest of the common good — and never mind whether that the common good is actually enhanced in real life.
This whole ethos of modern policy is not inherent in the nature of government. There was a time when government actually sought to boost the material blessings we enjoyed. It did a terrible job of it, sure, but that was the intention, as late as the New Deal.
Now the intention is exactly the opposite. If there is something that we like, that makes our lives lovely, a product or service that increases our overall happiness — something as simple and normal and traditional as a light bulb — you can bet it is being targeted for destruction by some bureaucracy somewhere.
This gets us back to Rand. She had a prophetic way of seeing to the ugly truth about government. She grew up under a regime that promised heaven on earth but ended up making a hell for everyone not part of the ruling class.
She saw that governments could not produce imaginative goods — could not invent or create — and would eventually fall back on celebrating the poverty and destruction they cause, inventing an ethic of sacrifice as a means of covering up their crimes. (You only have to listen to the glorification of “authentic” poverty to see this meme in explicit action.) And if you don’t go along, you are an enemy of the people.
It’s rather incredible that we have come full circle. Just as in Anthem, the US government has actually banned the light bulb as we’ve known it (though unlike Anthem, it has been ironically sold as “progress.”) Just think about the awesome implications of that and ask yourself why we put up with it.