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Light-Bulbs, Responsibility and the Demise of the Common Good

RP Siegel | Wednesday August 17th, 2011 | 2 Comments

In a move truly reflective of how bizarre American political life has become, there really was a bill sponsored by House Republicans, considered by Congress last week, that would have essentially rolled back the clock on energy saving technology, in the name of “personal freedom”. And it almost passed.

The bill, introduced by Joe Barton (R-TX), was intended to overturn a 2007 law (passed under the Bush administration) that would begin phasing out production of energy-guzzling incandescent light bulbs in 2012. This, in spite of the fact that, according to a poll taken earlier this year, most Americans are fine with the new bulbs that save 75% of the energy used by the Edison-era incandescents.

So, is this a wave of sentimentality for Edison’s most famous invention or what?

Hardly. This was an ideological move on the part of Michelle Bachmann, Texan Joe Barton and several other Conservatives who don’t think the government should tell anyone what to do. “The market should determine the future of the incandescent light bulb, not Congress,” said Steve Taylor, spokesman for Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., another co-sponsor of the repeal effort.

Should we allow the market to determine whether unsafe vehicles should be on the roads, too?

The Bush-era bill, which was apparently too liberal for many in today’s Republican party, was supported by Energy and Commerce Committee chair Fred Upton, causing him no lack of grief among his newly elected uber-conservative colleagues. Rush Limbaugh, who was a vocal supporter of the move to overturn the law said, of Upton, “This is exactly the kind of nannyism, statism, what have you, that was voted against and was defeated,” in the last election.

Can we turn down the rhetoric for a minute and take a look at what is actually happening here? How did we get to this place where personal freedom has become so elevated above personal responsibility, into a kind of adolescent rebellion against rules of any kind?

Here is one theory. Back in the 80s when Communism fell, it was followed by a strong surge of unbridled, unrestrained Capitalism as an ideology. It was as if to say, ‘since Communism was the wrong way, then Capitalism must be the right way. And if a little bit is good, then a whole lot must be better. And since selfishness and greed (otherwise known as self-interest) lie at the heart of Capitalism, let that become our new religion.’ This was followed by a wave of banking deregulation, which soon led to a complete meltdown of the global economy. Now, a highjacking of our government at debt-ceiling gunpoint by those who would drown it in a bathtub in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Let me suggest another way of looking at this, as suggested to me a decade ago in the writings of economist David Korten. Consider three entities: people, government and business. Now consider the proposition that a healthy society maintains a dynamic system of checks and balances among and between these three, so that the concerns of each are adequately expressed without any one becoming overly dominant. The failure of Communism, it could be argued, was in allowing the government sector to become so big as to outweigh the other two, to the point of suppressing their vibrant expression. But was it the the role of government, per se, or was it the imbalance that was the problem? Could we now perhaps be making an equal but opposite error in allowing the business sector to overpower the other two? I think recent events speak for themselves.

In embracing our current version of extreme capitalism, with its attendant culture of self-interest that has been hyper-activated in the name of personal liberty, have we failed to ask these most important questions —when does self-interest become irresponsibility? And when should irresponsibility become illegality?

The fundamental question of what role do we want our government to play has recently moved to the forefront of public debate. In a democracy such as ours, it has been clearly stated that the government’s role is to protect the public interest and to provide balance and a broader perspective to the narrow interests of individuals and businesses. At a time when our very survival as a species has been called into question by our excessive use of fossil fuels, such an attempt to roll back desperately needed energy efficiency measures in the name of personal liberty, as if we live in a world of pure rhetoric, where actions have no consequences, is egregious. And despite the glow from millions of video screens, the political landscape has become so darkened and distorted, that we find ourselves grateful for the fact that there still enough scraps of common sense remaining among our congressional representatives to defeat such an absurd measure.

Clearly, the folks behind this are neither the brightest or the most efficient bulbs in the Congressional sockets they’ve been screwed into (or is it the other way around?). But if someone doesn’t start shining a light on the need to protect the public interest soon, there are going to be some dark times ahead.
Image credit[hozae/Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Don

    I am all for freedom of choice, but we are in a global economy with competition for scarce resources. So wasteing energy results in higher prices for everybody. So those who can afford energy gulttonly will be the only winners!!!!

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    At least some bloggers can still write. Thanks for this blog