A little over a week ago, President Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu (who holds a Nobel Prize in Physics), was speaking on a conference call about the banning of incandescent light bulbs. Speaking in favor of the ban, Secretary Chu said something that was so simple, so profound, so clarifying, that it’s taken me this long to actually write about it.
There are two ways of responding to such a pronouncement from a high government official.
The first is to say “thank you! This is exactly the sort of thing government should do! It is the role of government to protect us, to see the big picture, and bring about advances! These are precisely the kinds of matters that need to be determined at a national level, and a coordinated, centralized policy is the way things must be done!”
And then there’s my side.
That’s the side that says “hey, it’s MY money, who the hell are you to decide what is ‘wasting’ it? Why the hell shouldn’t I have the right to choose on this — or any other — matter? If the ‘smart’ choice is so much better, why won’t it prevail on its own merits? Why does it need the force of federal law behind it? And, most importantly, who the hell are you to use the coercive power of the federal government to force me to comply with what you consider ‘common sense?'”
(Insert “FU!” wherever you deem appropriate)
On the surface, the actual issue of light bulbs is a fairly trivial one. I prefer the incandescent ones for a variety of reasons, and don’t like the CFLs for a variety of reasons. I understand a lot of people prefer the CFLs, and don’t begrudge them their preference.
But they begrudge me mine. And they are so dead-set that I not be able to exercise my preference that they are putting the full force of federal law behind their preference and outlawing mine.
All in the name of the common good and my own good.
Compact flourescent lightbulbs, low-flow toilets, ever-rising gas mileage standards, seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws… all set up to protect ourselves from the consequences of making our own choices, all set up to protect us from making what others would consider mistakes, all set up with the most benevolent of motives.
No man is a villain in his own eyes.
I find myself thinking of the legendary quote from C. S. Lewis:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
For all his brilliance, I sincerely think that Mr. Chu would be utterly befuddled by this quote. And utterly unable to grasp how it applies to him.