MPR’s Bob Collins makes an interesting observation about Rep. Michele Bachmann’s bill, “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act,” which seeks to repeal the nationwide phase-out of conventional light bulbs in favor of compact flourescent lights (CFLs).

In the last couple of days, the entire pre-ordained world of politics has been turned upside down following word of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s filing of a bill to delay the phase-out of the manufacture of incandescent bulbs.

Republicans and conservatives are arguing against the environmental impact of CFL, while traditional Democratic and liberal constituencies are saying, “it’s not that bad.” Down is up. Up is down.

What Collins observes is what happens when people view partisanship as a menu – that being a Republican and a conservative requires a pre-defined position on issues and being a Democrat and a liberal requires the opposite position. And indeed, most Republicans, conservatives, Democrats and liberals would agree with that view. But it’s wrong.

Conservatism and liberalism are about principle, and although Bachmann wanders into (quite correct) environmental concerns to justify her bill, it is mainly about principle – government has no authority to tell people what kind of light bulbs they must buy, UNLESS it can justify a public health and safety risk that meets three criteria:

  1. A Person is exposed to a risk to which he or she does not consent;
  2. The risk can affect anyone or everyone;
  3. A reasonable person cannot protect himself or herself from the risk.

Incandescent bulbs, which are being banned, do not pose any such immediate direct risk. Ironically, CFL bulbs do. The defense that CFL bulbs reduce energy consumption and therefore mercury emissions from the air fails to meet the criteria or justify their use from a public safety perspective. A reasonable person has the freedom to live at any distance he chooses from known sources of mercury pollution, like coal burning power plants. (This is not an argument in favor of permitting pollution from coal plants. That is, however, a separate issue.) The CFL mandate compels that same person to bring potential mercury contamination into his home. Further, improper disposal of CFLs would put mercury into the environment and expose anybody and everybody to risk in ways a reasonable person could not avoid – mercury leeching into ground water and soil.

On principle, the CFL mandate is a Bad Idea.