Under the guise of achieving energy independence and reducing fossil fuel consumption, the U.S. Congress passed the Energy Independence Security Act of 2007, which created new energy efficiency standards for numerous household appliances including the incandescent light bulb. In reality, Congress was crafting a de facto ban on incandescent light bulbs.
It is often assumed that a government mandate is always met with resistance by business, and therefore this would be a triumph of environmentalism over corporate interests. This simple, convenient narrative is false, but it is an effective tactic in riling up anti-corporate and pro-environmental sentiment in order to pass legislation. Instead, policies always create winners and losers. In this case, the winners are major companies, and the losers are customers and smaller incandescent bulb makers.
Major companies were behind the energy efficiency legislation in 2007, and they organized to defend their agenda again when the law looked as if it might be repealed in 2011. The ban means that companies like GE and Phillips are able to continue producing legal but more expensive bulbs, while smaller incandescent bulb producers and consumers lose out.
But was a “ban” even necessary to get people to use more efficient bulbs? Not really, since many businesses and organizations that use large amounts of electricity could and did save money and energy by switching bulbs. The same incentives apply to individuals. In order to save money, many people began purchasing more efficient bulbs; but some consumers have concerns besides cost. Various qualities of incandescents, such as ability to dim or use in heating, tipped some consumers’ preferences towards traditional bulbs. Besides aesthetics and uses, though, it has been reported that fluorescent bulbs can cause migraines, meaning that some people actually can’t be around fluorescent bulbs for long. Fluorescents also contain toxic mercury, raising some fears about potential health effects. For some people, this leaves incandescent bulbs as the better choice.
Ultimately, choice in the marketplace gave people what they wanted―more efficiency and lower costs or better aesthetic and health qualities. The incandescent bulb ban illustrates the harm government mandates can do: They tend to support some interest groups’ agendas over the rest of society, disadvantage consumers by eliminating choice and driving up costs, and most importantly are unnecessary.