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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Parable of the Candle Maker and the CFS Light Bulb

“We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion, particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.” — Frederic Bastiat, 1845

In 1845 Frederic Bastiat published a satirical letter to the French Parliament decrying the unfair competition the sun presented to the makers of candles and other means of artificial lighting. In his letter Bastiat lays out a quite clever and satirical case fir the banning of natural light so the French candle makers and producers of tallow, oil, resin, alcohol and almost every other item connected with the production of artificial lighting

In his letter Bastiat proposes that the French Parliament pass laws and tariffs against the sun so a certain aspect of French manufacturing will gain a completive edge over its competition — in other words legal plunder. Bastiat proposed:

“We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honorable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honor of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

There is no needy resin-collector on the heights of his sand dunes, no poor miner in the depths of his black pit, who will not receive higher wages and enjoy increased prosperity.

It needs but a little reflection, gentlemen, to be convinced that there is perhaps not one Frenchman, from the wealthy stockholder of the Anzin Company to the humblest vendor of matches, whose condition would not be improved by the success of our petition.

We anticipate your objections, gentlemen; but there is not a single one of them that you have not picked up from the musty old books of the advocates of free trade. We defy you to utter a word against us that will not instantly rebound against yourselves and the principle behind all your policy.

Will you tell us that, though we may gain by this protection, France will not gain at all, because the consumer will bear the expense?

We have our answer ready:

You no longer have the right to invoke the interests of the consumer. You have sacrificed him whenever you have found his interests opposed to those of the producer. You have done so in order to encourage industry and to increase employment. For the same reason you ought to do so this time too.

Indeed, you yourselves have anticipated this objection. When told that the consumer has a stake in the free entry of iron, coal, sesame, wheat, and textiles, ``Yes,'' you reply, ``but the producer has a stake in their exclusion.'' Very well, surely if consumers have a stake in the admission of natural light, producers have a stake in its interdiction.

But,' you may still say, “the producer and the consumer are one and the same person. If the manufacturer profits by protection, he will make the farmer prosperous. Contrariwise, if agriculture is prosperous, it will open markets for manufactured goods.'' Very well, If you grant us a monopoly over the production of lighting during the day, first of all we shall buy large amounts of tallow, charcoal, oil, resin, wax, alcohol, silver, iron, bronze, and crystal, to supply our industry; and, moreover, we and our numerous suppliers, having become rich, will consume a great deal and spread prosperity into all areas of domestic industry.

Will you say that the light of the sun is a gratuitous gift of Nature, and that to reject such gifts would be to reject wealth itself under the pretext of encouraging the means of acquiring it?

But if you take this position, you strike a mortal blow at your own policy; remember that up to now you have always excluded foreign goods because and in proportion as they approximate gratuitous gifts. You have only half as good a reason for complying with the demands of other monopolists as you have for granting our petition, which is in complete accord with your established policy; and to reject our demands precisely because they are better founded than anyone else's would be tantamount to accepting the equation: + x + = -; in other words, it would be to heap absurdity upon absurdity.

Labour and Nature collaborate in varying proportions, depending upon the country and the climate, in the production of a commodity. The part that Nature contributes is always free of charge; it is the part contributed by human labour that constitutes value and is paid for.

If an orange from Lisbon sells for half the price of an orange from Paris, it is because the natural heat of the sun, which is, of course, free of charge, does for the former what the latter owes to artificial heating, which necessarily has to be paid for in the market.

Thus, when an orange reaches us from Portugal, one can say that it is given to us half free of charge, or, in other words, at half price as compared with those from Paris.

Now, it is precisely on the basis of its being semi gratuitous (pardon the word) that you maintain it should be barred. You ask: “How can French labour withstand the competition of foreign labour when the former has to do all the work, whereas the latter has to do only half, the sun taking care of the rest?'' But if the fact that a product is half free of charge leads you to exclude it from competition, how can its being totally free of charge induce you to admit it into competition? Either you are not consistent, or you should, after excluding what is half free of charge as harmful to our domestic industry, exclude what is totally gratuitous with all the more reason and with twice the zeal.

To take another example: When a product — coal, iron, wheat, or textiles — comes to us from abroad, and when we can acquire it for less labor than if we produced it ourselves, the difference is a gratuitous gift that is conferred up on us. The size of this gift is proportionate to the extent of this difference. It is a quarter, a half, or three-quarters of the value of the product if the foreigner asks of us only three-quarters, one-half, or one-quarter as high a price. It is as complete as it can be when the donor, like the sun in providing us with light, asks nothing from us. The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!”

Bastiat’s letter, while satirical, makes the point of how laws can be used to help one industry over another at the expenses of the consumer (the people). Bastiat calls this legal plunder. In his book, The Law, Bastiat states:

Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few—whether farmers, manufacturers, ship owners, artists, or comedians.”

Enter the debate over the regulation of our lives by requiring us to buy and use CFL light bulbs — those curly-cue, mercury filled, sourced of artificial light made in China and mandated by Congressional dictate.

Yesterday by a vote of 233 to 193 Congress failed to repeal the law mandating the use of the CFL bulb. The vote fell 52 votes short of the two-thirds required to repeal the legislation with some Republicans siding with the Democrat minority. Fox News reported:

The House of Representatives voted to preserve a scheduled phase out of incandescent light bulbs Monday evening.

The Better Use of Light Bulbs (BULB) Act, would have rescinded efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs included in a 2007 energy bill.

233 members voted yes and 193 cast nay votes. But the House required a supermajority to approve this particular package. In this case, it would have needed 285 yea votes to pass.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) voted present.

The measure gained support after the 2010 elections, as tea party Republicans seized on the prohibition as an example of government overreach.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, says that the increased efficiency standards have the government picking winners and losers in the lighting market.

"To take off the market something that's cheap, effective, and average use costs two or three cents a week to use seems to me to be overkill by the federal government," Barton said of the move away from incandescent bulbs. Supporters of the bill also claim that the compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs designed to replace incandescent bulbs are too expensive and don't work as well as their 19th century competitor. "Here's the bottom line, those of us at a certain age, under a compact florescent bulb, we don't look as good as an incandescent bulb," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, "The American people should be able to choose what type of light bulb they use in their home. They should not be constrained to all the romance of a Soviet stairwell when they go home in the evening."

The Obama administration issued a statement announcing its opposition to the repeal, saying it would "result in negative economic consequences for U.S. consumers and the economy."

The statement of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget cited Department of Energy figures that say the law "could collectively save U.S. households nearly $6 billion in 2015 alone." That's because even though CFL bulbs cost more off the shelf, they last longer and use less energy than incandescent bulbs, and could ultimately save the consumer money over the light's lifetime.

This reasoning is no different than Bastiat’s parable of the candle maker. All of these CFL bulbs are made in China and have dramatically risen in price since the ban on the traditional incandescent bulb was enacted in 2007.

Democrats were quick to point out that the bulb ban wasn't their idea. "Our current (Energy and Commerce) Chairman Mr. (Fred) Upton (R-Mich.) introduced the bill to set the standards. Our former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) supported it along with many other republicans, and finally President George W. Bush signed these standards into law," noted Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn.

Rep Mike Doyle is correct, but no matter who sponsored this egregious legislation makes no matter. It is just another example of one faction of society enacting legal plunder on another faction for political or financial gain.

As James Taranto writes in the Wall Street Journal:

"It's a common refrain among those who lust to increase government's size and power: Every failed measure justifies more of the same. Poverty programs make it harder to escape poverty? We need more poverty programs! Racial preferences heighten racial division? We need more racial preferences! And a diversity manual for every janitor in the country! When ObamaCare ends up driving the costs of medicine up and the quality and availability down, you can bet the people who created that monstrosity will claim it failed only because it didn't go far enough. Let's generalize this into the First Rule of Liberalism: Government failure always justifies more government.”

This is one more example of government regulating our lives in the name of some common good or social cause. We, the people, must be allowed to make choices on the light bulbs, or any other thing we want to buy, based on our needs, financial resources or any other reason we wish to use. If these bulbs are better, last longer or save on our energy bill the people can make that choice based on the ability of the manufacturer to sell their product. It’s no different than buying an automobile, TV set, computer or health care insurance based on our personal preferences, needs and ability of pay for it. Some people may wish a $80,000 luxury car while others want a pickup truck, SUV or small, compact economy vehicle — it’s their choice to make.

Bastiat writes about the seen and not seen aspects of a government imposed economic mandate:

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”

Every U.S. based maker of incandescent light bulbs has closed their doors and jobs have been lost to the makers of the CFL bulbs in China. It’s just another way for the law to plunder one segment of the population in favor of another. The government mandate to use CFL bulbs will ultimately allow the manufacturers of these bulbs to raise their prices and pay no attention to the quality of the product. This is the result of any monopoly that is protected by the law.

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