Pielke’s Problem

I generally admire the work of Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist in the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. His new book on climate change is refreshingly honest and non-ideological, if a bit overly technophilic. His broader work offers the important insight that science alone cannot direct public policy, but rather it can only lay out possible results of different policy choices.

Given the quality of his work, I was disappointed by Pielke’s op-ed in today’s NYT defending Congress’s legislated obsolescence of the incandescent light bulb. He argues that government standard-setting is an important contribution to human welfare, and the light bulb standard is just part of that standard-setting (though he does suggest some minor policy tweaks to allow limited future availability of incandescents). 

To justify his argument, Pielke points out the great benefit of government-established standard measures, as well as quality standards:

Indeed, [in the United States of the late 19th century] the lack of standards for everything from weights and measures to electricity — even the gallon, for example, had eight definitions — threatened to overwhelm industry and consumers with a confusing array of incompatible choices.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Germany’s standards agency, established in 1887, was busy setting rules for everything from the content of dyes to the process for making porcelain; other European countries soon followed suit. Higher-quality products, in turn, helped the growth in Germany’s trade exceed that of the United States in the 1890s.

America finally got its act together in 1894, when Congress standardized the meaning of what are today common scientific measures, including the ohm, the volt, the watt and the henry, in line with international metrics. And, in 1901, the United States became the last major economic power to establish an agency to set technological standards.

 Alas, this argument doesn’t support Pielke’s light bulb standard.

The weights-and-measures and product standards that he cites are examples of government response to market failures—instances where private action is unable to reach efficient results. Concerning weights and measures, a type of market failure known as the collective action problem can make it difficult to establish standard measures privately. Getting everyone to agree can be like herding cats, and there is ample incentive to secretly defect from that standard — e.g., a gas station would love to sell you a 120-ounce “gallon” that you assume is a standard 128 ounces. (OTOH, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem, such as the standardization of railroad track gauges in the late 19th century.) Likewise, quality standards can be understood as a response to a kind of market failure known as the information asymmetry problem— e.g., a producer of low-quality goods may knowingly try to pass them off as high-quality goods. (Again, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem.)

As libertarians, we recognize that there are market failures, and that government can sometimes mitigate them. (That’s why we’re not anarchists.) Also as libertarians, we recognize that government intervention can result in outcomes even less efficient than the original market failure. (That’s why we’re not run-of-the-mill Democrats or Republicans.)

But where is the market failure with incandescent bulbs? After nearly 125 years of use, people know the drawbacks and advantages of incandescents—that they use more electricity than other types of bulbs and have a shorter lifespan, but they cost very little and work much better in certain applications—from dimmer switches to Easy-Bake Ovens—than other bulbs. Besides, CFL bulbs were widely available before Congress’s 2007 legislation, and LED lights were already in the R&D pipeline.

Perhaps Pielke would argue that there is a market failure with incandescents: the negative externality of air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. But incandescent lighting is only one of many, many electricity-using devices, and electricity generation is just one of many, many sources of air pollution. So why the focus on just this one externality source instead of advocating a policy that broadly addresses emissions? And why devote his op-ed to discussing technology standards, and make no mention of air pollution?