Why I just can’t get enough of bannng lightbulbs

I wrote my article earlier this week on the Daily Mail’s bonkers line about a sinister EU plot to ban traditional lightbulbs primarily to point out quite how many non-facts were in the story. I should have remembered the golden rule – nonsense begets nonsense. Because the next thing I knew I was getting ticked off, not for making any factual errors, but for advancing the cause for banning things (yes Jennie, I am talking about you).

There is a certain degree of irony in this, having pontificated about the perils of banning things myself from time to time. When it comes to bans, Rob Knight gets to the heart of things:

what about when trying to control the bigger picture is just as harmf ul as ignoring it?

Well exactly. Indeed, I would go further than that. You need more justification for a ban than simply some narrow cost-benefit analyis. You can justify pretty much anything that way. Where bans are bad is when they become about bullying and forcing conformity (the tricky thing being that sometimes not banning can have the same effect).

So it is that, eighteen months down the line – and despite being a non-smoker and enjoying the benefits – I’m still not comfortable about the smoking ban. Patio-heaters, and thus a cost to the environment, have not become quite as ubiquitous as we were promised they were – although that has clearly been a problem. The fact that every single bit of shelter on the London streets now reeks of tobacco as smokers have taken up semi-permanent residence, is an unfortunate by-product but still nicer than the alternative. Why I’m uncomfortable about the smoking ban is that I simply don’t believe that the dangers of passive smoking actually outweigh the denial of the smoker’s liberty – particularly given that as a non-smoker I always did have at least a degree of choice to avoid smoky pubs, etc. I appreciate it was a balancing act but I continue to think the wrong call was made. Furthermore, the more I consider the class angle and the fact that anti-smoking policies seem to be generating a small, inevitably poor, hardcore who are more addicted than ever, the more uneasy I get. These policies are helping those who need help the least while harming the most vulnerable.

That it was a balancing act at all however, is a fact that is not recognised by the libertarian right, who only consider the restriction on the smoker as material. And this gets to the heart of why I don’t frankly have much time for libertarianism. It is a fetishised, parodic version of liberalism in which personal liberty trumps everything (except money). Libertarians have it easy; they never need to consider anything other than the fact that all bans are automatically Wrong.

Going back to lightbulbs, the calculation seems extremely one sided if you accept the need for urgent action on climate change. Incandescent lightbulbs are not a lifestyle choice but a different way of producing light less efficiently. If you don’t define their dominance as a market failure (General Electric even originally decided to shelve the design of Compact Fluorescent Lights as soon as they were invented – they were only produced at all because the designs were “leaked” and copies made), I seriously question how you define market failure. We could try taxing incandescent bulbs and try gradually phasing them out like that I suppose, but that would be even less popular.

And the arguments in favour of keeping them? That CFLs are “too dim” (they aren’t)? The interests of the snake-owning, lava-lamp demographic (even that is contested)? 33 year old studies on fluorescent bulbs based on miniscule sample sizes? Come on!

There may well be a killer argument out there for not phasing out incandescent bulbs, but I haven’t heard one yet. You’re entitled to disagree with me of course, but until you can come up with a stronger argument, implying that supporting phasing them out is illiberal is simply lazy.


  1. Give us a good reason to ban incandescent bulbs then.

    If CFLs are so much better then people will use them (as we are increasingly doing – if there were not already a trend a ban would be far more difficult anyway).

    As for the smoking ban – it is in part about a smokers right to smoke, but more concerning is the redefinition of ‘public space’ to include private property.
    The talk of protecting workers is a red herring too – it is thanks to government intervention that the labour market is a buyers market to the huge extent it is.

    Bans on peaceful, voluntary interactions are a bad thing because they constitute invasion, just as hitting someone does. It does not matter if it is one person or a million doing the invading, it is still wrong.

  2. “as a non-smoker I always did have at least a degree of choice to avoid smoky pubs” Those who worked in the pubs however did not have that sort of choice, that is why the smoking ban was primarily a health and safety exercise for staff.

  3. James, I have no objection to you encouraging the use of CFL bulbs, and extolling their virtues to your heart’s content. Where my problem lies is that you wish to enforce your views on EVERYBODY else by banning something. If it was something which caused untold devastation then that might be different, but it isn’t. Yes, incandescent bulbs have a bigger carbon footprint in use, but CFL ones have a much bigger one to produce. Over a working lifetime incandescent bubls are probably slightly worse, but there isn’t a vast amount in it.

    Even so, as I said in my original comment, I use CFL bulbs for pretty much everything, but there are some things which incandescent bulbs are more useful for. I am using your system. The benefit of having a very marginally reduced carbon footprint is outweighed, in my estimation, by the cost of having less than optimal care of my pets.

    Are you saying that your estimation of the costs and benefits is sacrosanct and nobody else is allowed to examine the evidence and make up their own minds on the matter?

  4. Peter: I understand that but even then a degree of choice is involved. Less choice, certainly, but a degree.

    Iain: Not much, and nor can I find anything particularly illuminating. There is a broad scientific understanding that it is “harmful” but no broad consensus on the quantitive risks, which is why I’m sceptical.

  5. Jennie: you appear to have mistaken me for the UK Parliament. No problem, it happens a lot.

    We’ll have to disagree about the potential benefits, but as I said in my last post and will keep repeating until you get the message, I’m not “pro” CFLs. If I’m pro anything, it’s LEDs which are only now becoming commercially viable (slowed down by the inflexibility of the market).

    Nowhere have I claimed my views are “sacrosanct” – in my opinion the arguments you and others have hurled at me are lame, but that’s just my opinion.

    For the record, I don’t think phasing out incandescent bulbs is the be all and end all for battling climate change (I just checked on Google and the only other time I’ve even mentioned lightbulbs since starting this blog was mentioning a passing reference by Chris Huhne to Australia being the first country in the world to ban them). It is an interesting test case however because if we are to get anywhere near to the 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 we (that is, Parliament) have set ourselves, we’re going to have to do a lot more than phase out the odd bulb. If it isn’t politically possible to do this (and fortunately, despite a bit of internet whinging and Daily Mail nonsense, it looks like it is), then that goal is pie in the sky.

    If we attempted to achieve that target simply through regulation, the whole strategy would fall apart pretty quickly. We clearly need to be a lot more imaginitive than that. But regulation and phasing out certain carbon-hungry technologies will have a major role to play. If you find this intolerable, you are likely to have an awful lot of disappointment.

  6. It doesn’t matter what particular lightbulb technology you favour, it doesn’t even matter that this discussion is about lightbulbs at all; it’s a point of principle T he point is that you are pro banning something which isn’t a massively harmful thing.

    Why not a system of higher taxes on the “bad” things? Encourage people to take the virtuous route by all means. But an outright ban of something which is not hugely harmful is illiberal.

    I recognise that I am likely to have a lot of disappointment in wanting to have reasonable regulation and free choice rather than banning of anything that the government of the day doesn’t like; that doesn’t meean I am wrong to dislike the banning of things, and nor does it mean that you are right to celebrate it.

  7. Jennie, I wish you would stop using these weasel words in your arguments. I am not “celebrating” anything. I am arguing for something. There is a difference.

    I also like the way you use “massively” and “hugely” each time you use the word “harmful”. Yes, you are right. Carbon emissions are harmful. And no, you are also right, each individual lightbulb isn’t massively or hugely harmful. In total though, it adds up. In aggregate, the harm it prevents is greater than your minor inconvenience. The fact that the examples of the outrageous invasion of your liberties are so lame is an ample demonstration of the fact.

    I’m glad to hear you think this is such a big point of principle. In that case, start a campaign. Personally, I think getting terribly upset about the phasing out of an inferior technology and banging on about “the principle, the principle!” debases the whole notion of principles, but there again we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  8. LMAO I’m not terribly upset! I’m just pointing out that you are a hypocrite. I don’t really care that you are a hypocrite, other than that it makes you go down a bit in my estimation. I’m not the one who has made two blog posts about this, after all.

    However, if you are quite happy in your hypocrisy and lack of principles, that’s cool.

  9. I don’t accept for one moment I am being hypocritical and I think you pass round the insults rather too casually to be able to claim any moral highground, but that’s your affair.

  10. “There may well be a killer argument out there for not phasing out incandescent bulbs, but I haven’t heard one yet.”

    Because if we implement (as we both should and must) a carbon tax then the choice of lightbulb can and should be safely left to the user. They will have paid for the externality of their energy use.

    This is really the most important part of the whole climate change debate. A carbon tax (or the worse but still sufficient cap and trade) is *all* that we have to do. We don’t have to go off and ban all these things in this illiberal manner.

    BTW, incandescents are less efficient than CFLs in producing light because they throw off some of the energy as heat.

    Hands up everyone who doesn’t heat their house? Hands up who thinks that the heat not thrown off by incandescents will be replaced by heat from other sources?

    And finally, before we’re all made to buy CFLs can we hunt down and kill the bastards who imposed a 60% tariff on those CFLs imported from China?

  11. Murdering people who impose trade tariffs is generally regarded as a gross infringement on their liberty.

    The argument about making use of the heat of incandescent lights is a strong one. If you live in Antarctica. If you live in the UK, it is only a decent argument for about six months a year. I suspect that if you live in Portugal it is an even weaker argument.

    I’m all for a carbon tax and it is good to hear you favour one too Tim. But I suspect that if you were to draw a venn diagram of “people who consider the phasing out of incandescent bulbs as an intolerable invasion of our traditional ways of life” and “people who oppose a carbon tax as an evil and sneaky stealth tax” you will find a lot of crossover.

    I’m deeply sceptical that you can achieve carbon reduction goals by making the price better reflect the externalities alone. If it were the case, then that wicked petrol tax which you have previously argued is too high would have resulted in a lot more fuel efficient cars on the road and a lot fewer cars overall. The economics of replacing incandescents with CFLs have been pretty start for more than two decades (even if they’ve only started coming down in price within the past 10 years), but conversion is pretty sluggish.

    The sad fact is that real life aint as efficient as economic theory.

  12. It’s not murder if you try and convict them first.

    “I’m deeply sceptical that you can achieve carbon reduction goals by making the price better reflect the externalities alone.”

    Then you are entirely rejecting the logic of Pigou taxes altogether then. Those very taxes which Stern (and all the other econopmists even vaguely looking at this) recommend.

    We are *not* trying to *stop* climate change. We are trying to balance the rights of people now to do things against the impacts the externalities of their actions have upon those in the future. We are looking for the socially optimal amount of climate change over time.

    Thus if people pay the costs of the externalities of their actions then they are indeed taking account of those externalities in their decision making and we end up with the socially optimal amount.

    “then that wicked petrol tax which you have previously argued is too high would have resulted in a lot more fuel efficient cars on the road and a lot fewer cars overall.”

    But we *do have* a lot more fuel efficient cars and fewer overall. Just compare with the US on average consumption and cars per head.

    That there aren’t few enough to your taste, nor fuel efficient enough to your taste, just shows that other people put a different value on things than you do. And insisting that your valuation must be accepted by others is of course the very height of illiberality.

  13. Tim,

    OK so my loft conversion/office came with 11x50W halogen downlighters (thats 550W of lighting FFS). During the winter, great. During the summer, I took them all out and replaced them with CFLs (CFLs for downlighter fittings being hard to come by, but found on the net). And I still needed aircon, but I was probably saving 2kW of aircon by not having the halogens. Come winter the halogens go back in.

    By the end of winter the halogens had nearly all blown, so now I just leave the CFLs in all year round. Which brings me to my point.

    My guess is that the 100W tungsten lightbulb ban is supported by the bulb companies because they expect to sell halogens instead, to anybody who wants full-spectrum lighting, which might be 80-90W for the same light output, last a fraction as long, and cost 10 times as much per bulb.

    So the ban, is as usual, missing the point, and playing into the hands of corporate skulduggery.

  14. “My guess is that the 100W tungsten lightbulb ban is supported by the bulb companies because they expect to sell halogens instead, to anybody who wants full-spectrum lighting, which might be 80-90W for the same light output, last a fraction as long, and cost 10 times as much per bulb.

    So the ban, is as usual, missing the point, and playing into the hands of corporate skulduggery.”

    Erm, no. I actually work in the light bulb industry. I supply the magic pixie dust that makes halogens work for about 80% of the global market and have done for a decade. So back when I went to my contacts and talked to them about all of this.

    Everybody agrees that tungsten is dead in the medium term. CFLs will indeed take over, the economics for users are just such that they inevitably will. Halogens won’t be the replacement for tungsten, CFL and LED will.

    GE, Osram etc had already taken the decision to be phasing out tungsten in the 2018-2022 sort of time frame as current investment in plant needed to be replaced. They weren’t going to build a new set of plants.

    In the specific area I work in, back in 2006 I was told that orders for mercury charges for CFLs were running, for 2007 alone, at 1 billion bulbs….and that’s just one producer of such charges.

    The light bulb manufacturers are pissed off at one thing. They’ve got to shutter their plants before they wear out as a result of the ban. This is of course wasteful.

    They also say that the changeover was inevitable, would come about as part of the normal investment cycle. As people renovate houses, relight them, then they’ll naturally switch. But the politicians banning tungsten just means that that they have climbed aboard a passing bandwagon and made it all vastly more expensive for everybody.

    This is a small part of a much larger argument about what to do. There are those who call for an immediate change in everything RIGHT NOW. There are others slightly more economically literate who point out that we don’t want to scrap hundreds of billions of dollars worth of plant and installations. We want to move them to low or non carbon technologies as we need to replace them anyway. It’s vastly cheaper that way. Ot, if you prefer, doing it all now makes us all poorer than we need to be.

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