toxic light bulbSometimes the bad effects of a law are hard to see. But at other times, the problem with a law is quite visible and obvious to the naked eye.

A few years ago Congress passed and President Bush signed the “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,” which, among other things, set in place a phased-in ban on the incandescent bulb in favor of the compact fluorescent light (CFL).

There are many abstract reasons why this is a bad law. For example, it’s not at all obvious why “energy independence,” the stated goal of the law,” is an unworthy policy goal–even though it is.

But in the case of the bulb ban, the ill effects of policy are literally right in front of your face. Many people say that CFLs, which are for now the default replacement for incandescents, give off an unpleasant or inadequate light, are slow to “warm up,” don’t last as long as advertised, and pose health risks if shattered. Most of the time, the people who are harmed by a bad law don’t know they are being hurt–and sometimes they aren’t even born yet! But with the bulb ban, everyone can “see” the harm caused when government imposes the judgement of a few hundred people (535 members of Congress, one president) on 300 million people.

That resonates, which is why last Thursday, 760 WJR-AM, the leading talk radio station in Michigan, noticed a brief article I had written on the subject for the Detroit News. I spoke during the 9 o’clock morning show about the bulbs and the arrogance of power. The response from the host and from the callers afterward was understandably sympathetic to my point of view. People object to government telling them what they can and cannot buy, especially when such a simple technology as Thomas Edison’s light bulb is involved. The marketplace, not the halls of political power, is the place where consumer preferences are best best sorted out.