Freedom and Light Bulbs

An idea that has been brought up repeatedly during our discussions of The Republic is that true freedom necessarily implies the freedom to make choices that are not in the best interest of the person making the choice (or others)- this could also be called the freedom to make the ‘wrong’ choice.  Plato constructs his ideal city in such a way that leaves no room for the inhabitants to do anything that is not in the city’s best interest. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of individual freedom, and it is this sacrifice of individual freedom that I believe is the source of many people’s frustrations with Plato so far.

This reminds me of a situation that briefly appeared in the news a few weeks ago.

In 2009, President Obama helped pass legislation that would set new energy standards for light bulbs.  (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/obama-touts-switch-to-new-light-bulb-standards/) Part of this legislation would dictate that the entire country switch to the newer CFL light bulbs.  When compared to the older incandescent bulbs, CFL’s would use less power, last longer, and would save the customer who bought them $40 in energy costs over the course of the bulb’s lifetime.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_fluorescent_lamp#Comparison_with_incandescent_lamps)  In short, the CFL’s would be better both for the environment and for the consumer.  It seemed hard to argue that this legislation was not a good idea.

Of course, the legislation was an outrage to America’s far right-wing.  In March of this year Rep. Michelle Bachmann introduced a bill titled the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act”.  In defense of the bill, Bachmann stated that “the government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy.”  (http://nation.foxnews.com/michele-bachmann/2011/03/03/bachmann-democrats-dont-tell-americans-what-lightbulbs-buy)  This group of people was angered by the idea that the federal government could dictate something in their own lives, even if what was being dictated would directly benefit them.

This situation contains the same tension that exists in The Republic between an authoritarian power (in this case, Obama) dictating that others do what is in their own best interest and those wishing for the freedom to make their own decision, despite the fact that their decision was clearly not in their own best interest.

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