Illuminating Journalism

A belated word of congratulations to the joint winners of this year's Bastiat Prize, both of them current or one-time colleagues of mine: Tom Easton of The Economist and Virginia Postrel of Bloomberg View.

Easton's winning pieces were on China's entrepreneurs.

[The West] should...celebrate bamboo capitalism more broadly. Too many people--not just third-world dictators but Western business tycoons--have fallen for the Beijing consensus, the idea that state-directed capitalism and tight political control are the elixir of growth. In fact China has surged forward mainly where the state has stood back. "Capitalism with Chinese characteristics" works because of the capitalism, not the characteristics.

Postrel won for several columns, including one about the ban on incandescent light bulbs. Did I say ban? I meant new energy standard.

Strictly speaking, it's...true that the rules are neither mandates nor bans. They're standards: We don't tell you how to reduce the amount of energy your light bulb consumes. We just tell you that it can't use more than a certain amount.

It's as though, to spur innovation and encourage Americans to lose weight, Washington had decreed that no beer shall contain more than 8 calories an ounce. That wouldn't technically be a ban on traditional brews, but nobody but a pedant or a flack would call it anything else...

Stocks of incandescents may be running low, but pedants and flacks are always in ample supply. Postrel concludes:

The bulb ban makes sense only one of two ways: either as an expression of cultural sanctimony, with a little technophilia thrown in for added glamour, or as a roundabout way to transfer wealth from the general public to the few businesses with the know-how to produce the light bulbs consumers don't really want to buy.

Or, of course, as both.

Bastiat, the 19th century classical liberal for whom the prize is named, was famously interested in lighting. If you are unfamiliar with his candlemakers' petition, shame on you.

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.

Some things never change. Easton and Postrel are worthy winners, I'd say.