Wednesday, July 20, 2011

There's more to the Light Bulb Controversy than Efficiency

A recent move by House Republicans to repeal the upcoming ban on incandescent light bulbs is mainly symbolic, politically, since there’s no chance their efforts can succeed this year. But the episode is valuable because it highlights a tactic used by statists: to expand government by means of narrow concrete issues that may only be framed in regards to its practical desirability.

Of course, all legislation presupposes an abstract view of such broad philosophical issues as the proper role of government. Viewing legislation and law from that philosophical perspective is anathema to statists, because that view automatically draws upon the nation’s Founding principles – principles that clash with the statists’ agenda. So, defenders of rights-violating, nanny-state laws like the light bulb mandate seek to discredit any attempt to measure government action against the yardstick provided by the Declaration of Independence and the original constitution. Instead, they try to keep the dialogue grounded in concrete trivia about the practicality of the legislation’s intent. The new fluorescent bulbs may or may not be better than the old incandescent ones, but that is not the point. Statists just want it to be the point, because otherwise their case collapses. Fluorescents may be objectively better, but the standard of individual rights forbids them from forcing it on others through an act of law. So to get their way, they employ the gimmick of brushing off principled opposition through ridicule and evasion. The NJ Star-Ledger provides a good example of this tactic. In an editorial entitled Republican lawmakers screwing up light-bulb debate, they write:

How many lawmakers does it take to screw up a light-bulb law? Maybe we’re about to find out.

On Tuesday, the House defeated an attempt by some dim bulbs to repeal a law that requires light bulbs to be more efficient. Now, the Light Brigade is bringing the bill back for another vote.

For weeks, conservatives had been making “Give me filament or give me death!” speeches, insisting that light-bulb liberals were encroaching on their personal freedoms.

Creating jobs? A debt-ceiling deal? Reworking Social Security benefits? Rescuing the middle class? Nah, the pressing issue for many conservative Republicans is whether they should have to pluck their eyebrows or read their Grover Norquist pledges in the harsh light of fluorescent bulbs.

See what I mean? But, aren’t “Creating jobs [economic policy], the debt-ceiling, Social Security, and Rescuing the middle class” tied in with the same fundamental issue, personal freedom? By allowing the debate on light bulbs to shift onto the higher plane of individual rights, the editors would establish a premise of having to measure their entire statist agenda against that principle. I’ve left the following comments:

Zemack, July 16, 2011 at 8:50PM

Why do statists ridicule “Ideological Claptrap”, as the print version of this editorial is headlined? Because abstract ideas – principles – drive human events. This country – the freest, most prosperous, most powerful ever – was the first to be founded explicitly upon an ideology. Read the Declaration of Independence, the philosophical foundation for the Constitution. It is an extremely abstract document. Supporters of the omnipotent state are powerless against its principles. They know that they have no answer to those who understand the fundamental issues involved where the relationship of the state to the individual is involved.

Freedom – and by that I mean individual rights - can not survive except on a foundation of sound political principles. For those who want to empower government to run the lives of its people, it is those principles that must be expunged from political dialogue. Since statists don’t dare attack the Declaration’s message directly, they seek to disarm their pro-freedom adversaries philosophically. This is why the S/L editors ridicule some Republicans’ noble attempt to properly frame the debate – as one of principle. A principle is a universal truth, an essential premise that can apply to an unlimited number of concrete issues.

It’s not about light bulbs. Absent government coercion, the debate over which bulbs are superior can be objectively decided in the market, where all participants – manufacturers and consumers electric companies – deal with each other voluntarily. All considerations – pros and cons - get fleshed out in relation to the personal voluntary choices of individuals – the cost of the bulb vs. the cost of electricity vs. the quality of the light, etc. (Never mind such vague rationalizations as “we all pay for pollution and climate change, and we all pay for additional power plants”. If those collectivist notions are a proper justification for violating individual rights, then the Soviets and the Nazis had it right.) The key here is the principle of voluntarism, a core necessity of freedom. No one – not private citizens nor citizens acting in the capacity of government officials - may initiate force against another. All are restricted to rational persuasion – until and unless some people decide that they may employ government’s force to impose their will on others.

If the Republicans can successfully overturn this law based not on the narrow technical issues surrounding the “efficiency” of light bulbs but upon the principle that a proper government protects the individual citizen’s right to decide for himself – or, for that matter, merely raise the public’s awareness that “This is about more than just energy consumption, it’s about personal freedom” - then the entire regulatory welfare state that was built on the opposite premise is under assault. A philosophical debate on the proper role of government and of its relationship to the people is long overdue. Statists such as the editors fear that debate, otherwise this editorial would have been a serious discussion about the connection between the light bulb law and freedom, rather than an end run around the issue raised by the GOP. Instead, they seek to bury the only means of seeing where they want to take the country: the ability to see the forest for the trees, or the principle behind the law - which only ideology can provide.

Fortunately, a much more mature (to use the liberals’ latest mantra to describe statist attitudes) analysis comes from a correspondent. MarkM defends the law by relating it to the constitution. For this, I commend him, for he at least bases his position on a proper framing of the issue:

MarkM, July 18, 2011 at 4:40PM

In a recent article in NewsFeed, the author wrote: "The energy-efficient bulbs are more expensive than regular incandescent light bulbs, a point of contention for Republicans who said their constituents can not afford the more expensive bulbs." This would be the first time in recent memory that Republicans expressed any concerns whatsoever about those a the lower end of the economic spectrum. To date, their principle focus has been the opposite end of the scale.

For those believing in abstract political ideas, then the notion of the "Common Good" ought not be neglected in their analysis. The idea behind the common good is the notion that individual liberties ought necessarily be limited in certain cases to attain a desirable goal which is identified as the "Common Good." This idea goes back to the very early stages of English Common Law and probably beyond. Thomas Paine writing in "The Rights of Man" addresses this issue.

Given the real and acute energy crisis that we face, especially at a time when we are experiencing a down economy as we currently are, it makes sense to weigh the common good, versus individual liberties. In this case we are weighing a sensible energy policy versus the right to use outdated technology that wastes energy. The tension between individual liberties and the common good has existed long before we came along and will be around long after we are gone. People debated it then, are debating it now, and will debate it in the future. There is no handy guide that says, "this good outweighs that personal liberty." These things must be decided according to the needs of a given society.

The Constitution of the United States which is a concrete manifestation of abstract political ideas, call for our government to "provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare." As many other provisions of the Constitution, Americans have argued over what the "promote the general Welfare" part means. The "provide for the common defense" clause seems self-evident to most of us.

So what does this have to do with light bulbs? Well, the Department of Defense is the government agency which is entrusted with the lion's share of the work of "providing for the common defense." Over the years, active duty and retired military officers have written extensively about the role of energy in national security. It is unsettling reading to say the least. In its its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, there was a lot said about this topic. To save you the trouble, the short summary is:
1. DoD sees affordable energy, or lack thereof as one of the principle security threats to the United States in the years going forward
2. DoD is greatly concerned that an acute energy shortage will result in a lack of readiness of US armed forces.
3. DoD sees enhanced probability that in the future, we may have to secure foreign energy resource by direct intervention in other countries affairs.

Recently, we read in at: that high energy costs are actually forcing the DoD to change ground level strategies and tactics to adapt to the reality of more expensive and increasingly scarce energy supplies.

Saving energy is getting to be more and more of a security issue, not just some ephemeral goal or talking point for politicians.

Should we burn up expensive oil that we buy from overseas while our troops are having to change the way they go about the business of carrying out their mission?

I do not know what the answer is in the common good/individual liberties tradeoff. What I am suggesting is that it is a much more complex calculus than simpletons the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michele Bachmann would suggest.

Here is my response to MarkM:

Zemack, July 18, 2011 at 10:08PM

Thoughtful commentary, MarkM - much more so than this editorial. Very refreshing. I have a few dissenting comments, though:

There is no answer to the “common good/individual liberties tradeoff”, because there is no tradeoff. To suggest that there is, is to obliterate “individual liberties” – i.e., individual rights. The common good means the good of every individual. And the good of every individual, as understood by the Founding Fathers and codified in our founding documents, is served only by recognizing and protecting individual liberty. The term “to promote the general welfare” means government’s job to ensure the social conditions necessary for each individual’s right to the exercise of his unalienable rights, which means to live and freely act by the judgement of his own mind. The “tension between individual liberties and the common good” is easily resolved by a proper understand of rights. You are free to act to pursue your own life, so long as you respect and refrain from violating the same rights of others. In other words, the principle of individual rights both sanctions your right to freedom of action and defines the limits of your actions, based upon the premise that rights are unalienable for every individual. Thus, the common good means individual liberty, and only individual liberty.

Any other definition of the common good is antipodal to the concept of unalienable rights – rights held equally, by all people, at all times, and protected equally and at all times for all people. Any claim that the common good conflicts with individual liberty is a claim that the interests and rights of some people are to be sacrificed to the interests and privilege of others, based upon the political expediency and pressure group victors of the moment; i.e., “decided according to the needs of a given society”. In today’s usage, the “common good" (or public interest) is used as a weapon to bludgeon away people’s right to their own life and to empower government to run our lives. To say that our national security depends on violating our rights to decide for ourselves which bulbs to use is to obliterate the very justification for a military, whose job it is precisely to protect and defend our right to make such decisions – i.e., to “promote the general welfare”.

Every issue implies certain principles, whether one chooses to recognize them or not. Once you can identify those essential premises you will find that it really is quite simple to find the right answer. This is not to say that codifying the principles of individual rights into law is necessarily easy – it can be quite complex. But with our founding principles as a frame of reference, the path to sound, objective, right-respecting laws is easy to identify, especially in regards to such clear-cut issues as who should decide which bulbs to use.

PS – There is no “energy crisis”. There is a crisis of political meddling driven largely by environmentalist dogma.


Michael said...

great post.

The common good is basically the set of conditions that permits people the opportunity to gain physical, spiritual, moral, cultural, and other goods for themselves through their own deliberations, judgments, choices, and actions.

The essence of common good is therefore to guarantee in all aspects of social life the benefits of voluntary participation and cooperation. The only way to ascertain if the common good is attained through cooperative effort is to observe whether or not each individual is cooperating voluntarily.

Mike Zemack said...

Nice way to put it.

The term "common good", to be consistent with reality, must be taken literally, along with similar phrases such as "public interest", "public good", the "good of society", or the "general welfare" clause. Common, like public, society, and general, implies everyone equally. Any other interpretation is contradictory Orwellian "doublespeak" and leads to unjust government policies.