It was quite timely that I got a shockingly high light bill just around the time a few ankle-bitting critiques of compact fluorescent lights hit the market. A few CFLs installed in the living room’s overhead fixtures and I second Freddie’s judgment from the American Scene: “Honestly, what kind of X-men are you all, with your mutant abilities to detect this extremely subtle change in light quality?”
I can see a difference, but I had to do a lot of switching off the (non-CFL) kitchen lights, etc, etc, before I decided “well, I guess the new guys are a little less warm.” It doesn’t matter. The mercury issue occasionally gives me the creeps, but the fact is that they have less than one one-hundredth the quantity of mercury that an old fashioned thermometer had, and the magic of competition ought to force that number down (it’s already starting to). On top of that, if the electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, then it would produce more total mercury to use an incandescent bulb.
Lastly, while I’ll agree that the best overall approach would be a carbon tax as Megan McArdle proposes, I don’t think that really tells against the fluorescent light regulation. I can’t quite get a good estimate of how much the carbon tax would add to the cost of light bulbs, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Suppose they do price people out of incandescents–I’m not going to shed tears that a few people who want to drop a ton of money on incandescents will be unable to do so. It might be a minor inefficiency for the people who truly care about the issue, but I’m just not dogmatic enough to think it matters.
Alternatively, they might fail to make a huge dent in the cost of lights. In that case, I think the regulation would be well-justified. Carbon taxes impact a lot of necessities–the price of gas (necessary as long as we can foresee), food, and heating. Increasing the cost of those goods will impose a substantial hardship on some people (and the proposed offsets will have distortionary impacts and/or limited efficacy). So it makes sense to take cheap methods to reduce C02 outputs where we can, in ways which don’t drive up the price of essential goods. To get the same amount of greenhouse gas reduction without banning incandescents would entail a higher carbon tax and therefore higher commodity prices. The effect wouldn’t be completely trivial–replacing incandescents with CFLs could save 5% of electricity usage in the United States–that is not a minor change.
I can see how in spite of all that, someone could favor the wisdom of the market, etc, etc. What I can’t see is why someone would be seriously upset by the change. Instead they should probably put it under “cases where regulation is a bad idea, #43028” in the libertarian archives. But that libertarians find a regulation odious is not exactly front-page news unless there is a specific case to be made.