Central planning, light bulbs, and the problem of information

Updated below

At the very core of the idea of central planning is a fundamental mistake that can not be overcome. It is a mistake involving information. All proponents of central planning ultimately believe that if they could assemble a bright and selfless crew of planners then these brilliant saints-on-earth could dictate the “best” course of action to the multitude. This fallacious assumption by all believers in central planing is not just the belief that planning committees are smarter than the average citizen or that they are smarter than an Einstein: no, the fundamental error is the belief that they are smarter than the united brainpower and experiences of the entire multitude.

Let us put aside for a moment the fact that planning boards are notorious for being corrupt and easily pressured or bribed into passing rules and edicts that harm the majority as it helps the small special interest groups. Even if the planners were men and women of extraordinary moral fortitude and keen insight, they still will be led astray by the fads and myths of the times into making horrendous decisions.

In just the USA we have about 315 million people and these people make hundreds of decisions every day. There are billions of decisions to be made and there is no way for any centralized bureaucracy to address all the issues. There is no way for a planning board to even understand all the issues involved. There is no way to assemble all the relevant information. In fact, the central planning group is most often so far removed from understanding the real situation of those who they seek to tell how to live that their edicts almost always make matters worse.

To give on concrete example, consider the new year and the rules taking effect that ban yet more incandescent bulbs.


It is said by the minions of the state that the incandescent light bulb is only 10 to 20 percent efficient and that compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) are much more efficient. How much more? I had to look that up. It is said that fluorescent bulbs are 4 to 6 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs. But these figures are only for converting electrical energy into light. There is no consideration of what else I might want from the light bulb, nor any thought as to how they are manufactured and later deposed of.

Consider that the electricity in a incandescent bulb is converted into both heat and light and that for a goodly part of each year I am trying to heat my house and don’t consider the heat given off by incandescent light bulbs “waste” at all.  The heat put off by the incandescent bulb is helping to heat my house.  This consideration has not been included in the justification for the draconian laws banning incandescent bulbs in favor of the “more efficient” florescent bulbs. This erroneous thinking is typical with the overly constrained and simplified engineering perspective of the central planning process. The central planners will always fail to take into consideration all potential use cases and in the case of the “waste heat” they missed a large and obvious one.

It is also the case that the florescent bulb costs more than the incandescent bulb and does not give off good descent light. If the florescent bulb were competitive to the incandescent bulb then people would have incentives to use the fluorescent bulbs and there would be no need for laws or ‘light bulb police’. If we were to rely on the market incentives and the wisdom of 300 million Americans then the best bulb would win out over time. Perhaps both bulbs have their place and people would figure out which application is best for which bulb. It is quite easy to imagine scenarios in which a compact florescent bulb does not save the citizen any money or is more trouble than it is worth but the law-giver bureaucrats can not figure that out. (or don’t get a damn) Since the public’s choices will be forcibly constrained so that some hypothetical citizen X may save a small amount of money using his light bulbs in a particular way, we will lose the collective experience and wisdom of the entire population using the various types of bulbs in diverse ways.

Florescent light bulbs contain mercury sealed within the glass tubing as part of the technology of the devise and must be recycled and deposed of properly. The incandescent bulb has no potential for mercury poisoning. So now we have to pay extra to dispose of the mandated-by-law bulbs. Was a bulb recycling industry part of the planning board’s calculations on which bulb is “more efficient”? You know it was not.

UPDATE: Incandescent bulb ban leaves bird care centre with dim hope — and yet another unintended consequence from the “brilliant” central planners.


One thought on “Central planning, light bulbs, and the problem of information

  1. Thank you Mark. Great article, and it’s sad how many Americans believe what comes from government as truth without verifying it. Has to be years of being taught the virtue of government. Who benefits from the new law? The companies that make the fluorescent bulbs? Again, when some companies grow so large, they must find it less expensive to buy laws than compete. Thanks again for posting my article last week. Mickey

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