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When "good" laws are bad

By John Silveira

Issue #134 • March/April, 2012

I recently read an opinion piece on CNN's website titled, Edison would've loved the new light bulb law. It's supposed to be about the new law to force out incandescent light bulbs and create artificial demand for the compact

fluorescents the law's backers approve of. But to me it's about one more interest group getting our government to endorse their cause and "make it the law." The piece was written by David Edward Edison Sloane, college English professor in Connecticut, and a great-grandson of Thomas Alva Edison.

Sloane explains how his great-grandfather would have loved the new law. As part of the basis for his assertion he claims his great-grandfather "... was a patriot ... a futurist, and ... green" and "... would have embraced new tough standards as a way to move our antiquated energy policies forward." Makes Edison sound like a pretty cool guy.

But the reality is Edison wasn't some altruistic guy who only wanted the best for the nation and the world. Though the "Wizard of Menlo Park" was a genius, when locked in a war with George Westinghouse over whether the country should be electrified using direct current or alternating current, Edison staged demonstrations in which he electrocuted dogs, even a circus elephant, to "prove" Westinghouse's AC electricity was dangerous. (Because he arranged for the elephant's execution to be filmed, you can find it on the Internet today.)

He was also the guy who ran a think tank that was essentially a sweatshop, and he claimed many inventions of his staff as his own and patented them accordingly. He also cheated Nikola Tesla out of a fortune. His patent for making movies was, in fact, the invention of William Dickson, one of his hirelings. But once Edison patented it in his own name, he tried to squeeze everyone else out of the market with lawsuits and even gangs of thugs who went to movie studios and theaters and busted up the equipment if they weren't using his. (One of the reasons the movie industry moved from New York and New Jersey to Hollywood was to get away from Edison.)

So, yes, I would say Edison would probably have supported the new light bulb law, but only if he held the patent of the new light bulb himself, whether he invented it himself or not.

Sloane and other backers of the new light bulb law — in fact, backers of any law that would force the consumer to buy a particular product, rather than letting him make the choice himself — fail to mention that to make the incandescent bulb viable in the first place, Edison didn't need Congress to outlaw candles. Also, to make the car explode into American life, Congress didn't have to outlaw horses. To make consumers turn to computers, it wasn't necessary to pass a law against typewriters. To make Amazon.com as wildly popular as it is for buyers of books, we didn't have to outlaw bookstores, and to make Amazon's Kindle such a technological marvel, Congress did not first have to outlaw books. In fact, people who use their computers as little more than a 10-pound deck of cards to play solitaire didn't buy one because Congress made it illegal to manufacture or buy playing cards.

Sloane cites a claim of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "an environmental advocacy group," that says we're going to be able to save $13 billion a year in electricity costs and close down 30 large power plants with this law. Yeah, right! Wouldn't it make more sense to outlaw books and make everyone buy Kindles? Think of the energy we'd save. Think of the trees. I'm waiting for one of Gutenberg's decendants to write a piece explaining how old Johannes would endorse a law for that.

For my part, I have both the old incandescent bulbs and the new bulbs that are being forced on me, and I generally like the old bulbs better. The backers of the new law know a lot of people will make the same choice I have. But, rather than letting their compact fluorescent babies suffer the vicissitudes of freedom of choice, they've decided Congress should make the choice for all of us, which is another way of saying they will force the choice on all of us. (When the deadline for eliminating incandescent bulbs approached in Germany, Germans cleaned the store shelves of every one they could find. What's that tell you?)

Here's what I propose: If the new bulbs really are better, incandescents will go to the scrap heap of history the way buggy whips did. But if you still wanted a buggy whip, you could — still can — buy one. The backers of this law don't want that.

Sloane considers all those in Congress who had the temerity to have recently stalled the new law — by denying it funding — to be engaging in "political posturing." Maybe he's right since political posturing is what a lot of the members of that august body do best. But allowing free choice in the market place isn't about posturing, it's about freedom.




Read More by John Silveira

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