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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Don’t Be Kept in the Dark about Daylight Saving Time

There are strong reasons to make standard time permanent — or at least sleep on it.

Image Credit: iStock

It’s that time of year again. The US government took an hour from people in the dead of night in winter and told us they “saved” daylight.

“Daylight Saving Time” (DST) is a nonsense euphemism, as we well know that first dark morning. Daylight is a fact of nature. In imposing DST, the government hasn’t changed the sun, stars, nor the revolution of the earth that brings to us what we call daylight. Instead, the government has merely changed our reckoning of the time. The government requires us to declare the same actual time today to be an hour earlier than it was yesterday, and then we are to marvel that we have “an hour more of sunlight in the evening.” If we must persist in self-deception, the best that could be said is that they’ve “redistributed” daylight from the morning to the evening.

The miracle of sunnier evenings notwithstanding, there are good reasons to oppose DST.

In 2020, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) warned that, “An abundance of accumulated evidence indicates that the acute transition from standard time to daylight saving time incurs significant public health and safety risks, including increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events, mood disorders, and motor vehicle crashes.” Joined by “more than 20 medical, scientific, and civic organizations,” the AASM statement went on to list a host of acute adverse events from switching to DST, then described likely adverse effects of making DST permanent.

In 2021, Cato economist Scott Lincicome detailed how DST is “anti-health, anti-science, and anti-family.” The switch to DST “results in all sorts of maladies in the days thereafter: car crashes and pedestrian deaths; workplace injuries; heart attacks and strokes; depression; and ‘adverse medical events’ because of ‘human error.’” It also is “associated with decreased workplace productivity (‘cyberloafing’), missed workdays due to injury, financial market losses, and harsher criminal sentencing by sleep‐deprived judges. Thus, researchers have found that DST’s time change alone costs the American economy hundreds millions of dollars each year.”

The unspoken assumption behind it all is that the government is saving us from wrong choices. As the days lengthen heading into spring, we’re not enjoying them enough. We are still lying in bed as the sun is rising. If we’d wake up earlier, we could enjoy more sunlight throughout the day.

The government has determined that people who have a revealed preference for waking up and going to bed at consistent times are wrong and therefore must be corrected from persisting in their choice. If we insist on waking at, say, 6 a.m., then the government will order that 6 a.m. arrive at 5.

That example, by the way, is culled from Benjamin Franklin’s Journal de Paris essay often credited for the origin of DST. The actual blame lies with George Hudson, an amateur entomologist in New Zealand in 1895 who wanted — really — more time after work to hunt bugs.

In his satire “An Economical Project,” Franklin wrote,

An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

Franklin pondered the implications:

This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I consider that if I had not been awakened so early in the morning I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations …

He then calculated how much money Parisians could save by “using sunshine instead of candles,” and finding the sum extraordinary, he thought of ways the government could rouse people at first light. They included taxes, candle quotas, curfews, and mandatory bell-ringing and cannon-firing at sunrise. So in our red-eyed bleariness, let’s at least be thankful Franklin did not in fact inspire DST as we know it.

Nevertheless, this bit of reasoning sounds familiar: “Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following.”

Even so, Franklin would have kept the reckoning of time honest. If the government obliged a man to rise at four in the morning, the man would have known he was rising at four. He would not have been further obliged to refer to it as five while his body and Nature still attested to the true hour.

Free enterprise over time has obsoleted Franklin’s economic concern. Candles gave way to light bulbs and LEDs, while human productivity grew exponentially. As Human Progress has pointed out, it took 60 hours of labor to provide about an hour of light (1,000 lumens) in the pre-candle age. By 2017, that much labor would produce 52 years’ worth of light — “a factor of 500,000” — plus that light is now eminently cleaner, steadier, and safer.

Now it’s a matter of paternalism. There is a bill before Congress to end the twice-a-year reordering of the clocks. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this fix would be a predictably government-like response to a problem caused by the government. It would ratify the worse time reckoning by making DST permanent. While it would make people enjoy daylight “later” in the day, it would also require people to wake to colder, darker winter mornings. Have pity for children waiting outside for the school bus then!

A change is called for, yes, but not DST forever. Standard time should be the standard. The research indicates that moving to permanent DST would not be a mere matter of adjustment for people. Instead, it would apparently perpetuate the unhealthy, unproductive, and anti-family ills of DST year-round.

On the other hand, as the AASM statement concluded, “A change to permanent standard time is best aligned with human circadian biology and has the potential to produce beneficial effects for public health and safety.”

Those are strong reasons to make standard time permanent — or at least sleep on it.


  • Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.