- - Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When government regulators design light bulbs, they become expensive, toxic hazards. Once they begin telling companies how to make dishwashers and washing machines, dishes and clothes no longer emerge from the machine as spotless as they once would have. Now busybodies in Europe have set their sights on the remaking the vacuum cleaner.

The European Commission adopted a rule in May that requires member states to make sure “informational labels” are attached to vacuum cleaners, detailing their power usage, sound level, “emissions” and other data dear to Brussels. Not three months later, the commission followed up with an expanded regulation setting “ecodesign requirements” that will reduce the effectiveness of all vacuum cleaners sold. Beginning next September, vacuums with more than 1,600 watts of power are banned. By 2017, the allowable power drops to just 900 watts. A revived market for straw brooms may follow that.

This is meant to make vacuum cleaners, which have been sucking up dirt for decades, half as powerful as they are now. The European Union naturally insists detuning the floor cleaners is for everybody’s own good. “Less power does not mean less performance,” say commission officials. “So the regulation is not so much about banning high-powered vacuum cleaners as encouraging high performance, energy-efficient, dust-busting technology.”

This is the fib regulators repeat every time they ban something. The U.S. Energy Department says the same thing about banning incandescent light bulbs, shower heads and toilets. Energy officials claim their rules “do not ban incandescent or any specific bulb type; they say that bulbs need to use about 25 percent less energy.” This is the classic distinction without a difference. Anyone who fails to comply with this “not a ban” pays a heavy price. Ningbo Hicon, a Chinese manufacturer, was hit with a $1.9 million penalty for selling a freezer that satisfied the wants and needs of consumers. In August, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection implemented a rule authorizing confiscation of bootleg light bulbs and dishwashers at the border.

Dyson, the British company that came up with the idea of bagless vacuum cleaners, is suing the EU, claiming regulators have no clue how to properly measure the performance of a vacuum cleaner. The suit misses the point. In Europe, as in the United States, politicians always think they’re smarter than their constituents, and their choices are always superior. They ban and confiscate based on their own personal preferences.

Given a product of equal effectiveness, consumers will invariably choose energy-saving products because efficient products save money. Manufacturers see the potential for a competitive advantage and try to meet those needs. Short-circuiting the workings of the free market just makes the world a dirtier place.