If you read any personal finance blog, you will eventually come across a post recommending you save money by switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents (CFLs). It’s a no-brainer – CFLs use only about 25% of the energy of incandescent bulbs, and they last longer, so you end up saving money despite the higher up-front cost. The lower energy consumption also means that less greenhouse gases are produced to provide the same amount of light. Even so, not everyone is choosing CFLs over incandescents. In the US, CFL market share is a mere 6%.

Consumer reluctance to switch to CFLs has resulted in government action in some countries. Australia and Canada have instituted bans on incandescent bulbs that will take effect in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Many other countries are contemplating similar measures, and various organizations are lobbying for them. But there’s a cultural cost included in these kinds of laws.

I don’t want to start a global warming debate here, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that global warming is occurring, that the results of global warming will be harmful to all of us, and that it is caused to some degree by the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. If this is true, then government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be justified even from a libertarian perspective, because the negative environmental effects are a violation of property rights. The question then becomes what are the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions.

The light bulb ban is one approach. Since 8.8% of household power consumption is for lighting, simply make it illegal to produce or sell incandescents. In one fell swoop, you’ve reduced household power consumption by over 6%.

But as a gay man, I’m very sensitive to government attempts to micromanage my life. I don’t want the government telling me how I should live – and that includes who I can sleep with, what sex toys I can buy, what goals I can save for, and what light bulbs I can use. I want the freedom to make my own choices, and I want to let other people make their own. Light bulb laws are a heavy-handed way of achieving a very narrow goal, and they remove individual choice and values from the equation. The cultural cost of light bulb laws is that they reinforce the idea that it’s ok for the government to make personal decisions for us.

There are many ways to save energy. Aside from lighting, there’s a whole other 91.2% of household power consumption. Heating and cooling account for 31%. Kitchen and laundry appliances account for another 33%. Maybe the people buying incandescents would rather save energy by upgrading appliances to newer, energy-efficient models, running the A/C less, turning down the temperature on their water heaters, line drying or flat drying their clothes, staying away from large power-hungry plasma TVs, etc. Or maybe they would rather use incandescents in their bedrooms while switching to fluorescents in their living areas. The point is that the decision on how to save energy should be up to them so they can make choices based on their own values.

So how do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions while preserving individual choice? There are a number of ways to go, but one study seems to indicate that an economy-wide market-based emissions trading scheme or similar would be the best option. The money can go toward carbon offsets, or reforestation, or spreading iron in the oceans or particulates in the upper atmosphere, or any number of other ways to counteract the effects of the greenhouse gases. The bottom line is that power generation that produces pollution should have the cleanup cost built in. That cost can be passed on to consumers, and consumers can choose how they want to save on that cost. Do they want to switch to a power generation company that uses more renewable sources to escape the emissions cost penalty? Do they want to switch to CFLs? Do they want to conserve energy some other way? Or do they want to just continue using as much energy as ever while paying for the cleanup? Just as the pay as you throw concept in trash disposal encourages waste reduction without telling you which waste to cut, passing on the cost of carbon emissions to consumers encourages energy conservation without forcing specific choices upon you.

If we leave these decisions in the hands of consumers, we reinforce the notion that this is a country of individuals with different values, and that it’s ok for people to choose different approaches to solving problems. If we take these decisions away from individuals, we can look forward to the day when someone lobbies for a ban on tampons and wants to force women to use the Mooncup to reduce waste.