It’s been really quite fascinating watching the fallout from the recent decision in Canada to ban incandescent light bulbs. It’s hot on the heels of the decision in New York, and the probable decision in Toronto, to ban trans fats from restaurant foods.
TVOntario’s premiere public affairs show, The Agenda, had as its topic Tuesday night, “From lightbulbs to trans fat, how much should be banned in a liberal democracy?” Somehow this has all become a libertarian rallying point.
Here’s my take on it. Earlier in this space, I expressed my support for the New York ban on trans fats, despite being a firm believer in the individual’s right to harm himself. What we see in the political realm, though, is a confounding of individual rights with business rights. The two are rarely, if ever, the same.
In fact, one detractor on TVOntario commented that STDs are a more dire public health threat than trans fats, yet no one would ever suggest restricting sexual behaviour. Firstly, this is not strictly true, since sexual behaviour is certainly regulated in our society. The law tells us where we can have sex, with whom we cannot have sex, and in some jurisdictions what kinds of sex we can have. But that’s not really the point. Rather, a ban on restaurants serving trans fats in no way impinges on an individual’s right to seek out trans fats and consume them; it is strictly a ban on having a corporate entity poison you. If you wish go out and make your own trans fats, or buy some on the internet and stir it into your cereal, you’re still free to do so.
No libertarian complains, for example, that it is illegal for the same restaurant to stir ipacac into your coffee, which would make you violently ill, though it is quite legal for you to buy ipacac in the drug store and ingest it yourself. These bans are controls over the behaviours of companies, not of individuals.
Now, the story of the incandescent light bulb is a bit different. I am as yet unsure of how it will take place. Will it be illegal to use such bulbs in one’s home? Or will it only be illegal for a supplier to sell them? I would argue that in this specific case the latter is improper and the former is tolerable. This is simply because, unlike trans fats, which only affect the consumer, an energy wasting light bulb theoretically directly affects the whole community.
The proper analogy is the control of tailpipe emissions in cars. Does each of us have a right to own and operate a smog-belching car? The law says no, and no libertarian think tank has, to my knowledge, spoken up in defence of the unrepentant smog-driver. Just as we would not allow onto our streets a car that has not passed emission standards, especially when cleaner cars are available, nor should we allow heat-spewing bulbs into our community, especially when cleaner alternatives are readily and cheaply available.
However, I don’t think criminalization is the solution in this case. The key difference between the emission analogy and the light bulb issue is that we drive cars in the so-called “community”, while we use light bulbs in our homes. Therein lies the fundamental disagreement between the light bulb ban’s supporters and its detractors: the former do not see the home as being separate from the community, while the latter would no doubt argue that one should be permitted to run one’s uncalibrated smoggy car engine within the confines of one’s property (and the law would probably support this supposition)— because, simply put, a citizen’s home should be free of fascistic state-degreed judgments on proper behaviour.
It’s a sticky point. On the one hand is the undeniable scientific truth that the environment does not end at the front door of our homes, while on the other hand there is the fundament of our liberal democracy which submits that no one can tell us what we can do once we are inside our homes. The problem with the latter view is that the state already tells us what we can and can’t do, and no one seems to object too strenuously. One cannot look at child pornography within the confines of one’s home, for example.
My solution to the light bulb issue is this: tax the bloody thing, like we tax liquor and cigarettes. Tax it to the moon and reap some sweet governmental income before simple economics drives these bulbs out of the market. Case closed.