Halogen bulbs and the road to serfdom


bulbLast week, EU law came into effect that makes it illegal to sell traditional 60-watt tungsten light bulbs, reported by The Telegraph. The Today programme said this was to “encourage” people to use energy efficient bulbs. But banning things isn’t encouragement it’s enforcement.

The reasons given by Gunther Oettinger, the EU’s Energy Commissioner, may seem reasonable enough: the bulbs are inefficient; the average family will easily save 50 euros a year; the environmental benefit is the same as taking seven million cars off the road. Whilst halogen bulbs cost more they can last twice as long, and they use less electricity.

The real reason is that the EU is committed to cutting energy consumption emissions by 20% before 2020 (as if that will make any difference).

However, despite these advantages, people are stocking up on the old bulbs. Shops are allowed to sell them until they run out of stock. And people are reportedly buying as many as possible. Despite their benefits, these new bulbs cast a yellow glow on the room, release mercury fumes when broken, and they are too dim. It is also thought that they cause migranes, and that there may be dangers associated with the ultra violet light they emit, especially for Lupus sufferers.

Dictat cannot resolve an issue like this: planning is not the solution. Taking seven million cars off the road would undoubtedly have a large (maybe positive) environmental impact. It would also be an economic catastrophe. And saving 50 euros a year is only good if you can choose where to save it. Banning the sale of milk would save families money as well. As always, this sort of law cannot conceive of its consequences. As Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are “unknown unknowns”.

In The Road To Serfdom Hayek suggests that when there is a technological advancement (assuming halogen bulbs are an advance) “it is at least possible” that forcing everyone to use the same thing will be beneficial by lowering costs. But, he points out, limiting variety now, although it may have short-term benefits, will prevent material progress later. “The argument for freedom is precisely that we ought to leave room for unforeseeable free growth.”

The EU is here using the Climate Change orthodoxy to institute planning, to remove choice and limit liberty. It might be a small, almost inconsequential, example; but, as Hayek said, liberty is our most “precious inheritance…if we want to preserve it we must guard it more jealously than ever.”

In a country where political apathy, dislike of the EU, and preference for old fashioned light bulbs are all high, this might be something to use to gain real leverage in the long overdue debate on whether we ought to leave the EU. Mr Oettinger assumes the discussion is over, and has chosen for us. Now is the time to revive Burke’s description of America, and apply it here at home to the EU and “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”