You get the feeling that governments and their friends, as with the
Puritans in Colonial New England, aren't too crazy about Christmas. It
may have begun with courts telling schools not to sing "Silent Night,"
but now we are even seeing a war against house decorations.
In California, for example, a Big Brother electrical monopoly is
telling folks to delay turning on their holiday lights until 8:00pm.
This is supposedly necessitated by a "stage two" power emergency, which
is triggered when power reserves fall to 5 percent of vanishing. In a
stage three emergency, the government imposes rotating blackouts.
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According to the Los Angeles Times, when you call the power office,
you get the following message: "Due to a shortage of generation
resources, the California Independent System Operator has declared a
Stage 2 emergency, advising the public that power shortages are likely
to occur. ... You can help by turning off all unneeded lighting,
equipment, and appliances."
What a time to impose rationing! Christmas is supposed to be a season of
joyous celebration, especially Christmas this year when people are
bringing in the first year of the second millennium after the birth of
Our Lord. This is the worst possible time to browbeat people to use less
and vaguely threaten them with government penalties if they get too
carried away with decorating and displaying their faith and their
And think of the perverse rationale at work here. Every retailer in
America is clamoring for customers, advertising better products and
better deals, and generally seeking to encourage consumption. When
people decide to buy more gifts for others, businesses are happy.
Consumers are never warned to ration gifts or limit their buying of toys
and cards. There is no shortage of anything in these items because they
are produced and distributed by private enterprise.
It is hard to imagine Toys-R-Us telling its customers, "shortages are
likely to occur, so please do not buy unneeded toys." That's because the
price system is the means by which resources are "rationed" on the free
market. When the price goes up, you buy less. When it goes down, you buy
more. Producers are drawn to provide more of what consumers want, and
less of what they don't want. They are particularly attracted to goods
and services that are consistently profitable, which is just a way of
saying that consumers are willing to purchase them at given prices.
Through this mechanism the market ensures that resources flow to their
most highly valued uses.
But with government-monopoly "services," it is different. We are
continually browbeaten to use less: drive less, use less water, throw
fewer things away, and, now, use less electricity. It is particularly
offensive when the government does this just when you most need the
service. The government rations water just when lawns need it most. And,
now, we have rationed electricity just when people want to use it most.
(Notice, however, that the rationing rarely affects the government's own
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To rid the system of these perversities, we need complete (not
partial!) privatization of utilities, including competitive service and
deregulated entrepreneurship. Electricity should be distributed not by
government agencies or privileged monopoly providers, but by free
enterprise. An objection immediately arises: but we tried that with a
change in the law in 1998. Electrical services in California are
private, and look what happened; rates went up, not down. Thus,
privatization is the source of the problem, not the solution.
But as George Reisman of Pepperdine University points out, the
fallacy here is confusing partial price deregulation and monopoly
ownership with full-blown competitive privatization. It is not enough to
merely allow government pricing boards more flexibility in setting
prices. It is not enough to assign the control of electricity to one
company. All restrictions on service need to be abolished and replaced
with private entrepreneurs who distribute electricity, water, and trash
services on a competitive basis, in the same way retailers distribute
toys and electronics. Only then will supply match demand.
The problem of monopoly provision of electricity is compounded by the
influence that environmentalism has had on its availability. In the name
of conserving resources, oil that could easily be brought onto the
market is languishing in the ground. Greens have also imposed various
moratoriums on the construction of power plants, which leaves more
people using fewer and fewer resources. There is plenty of power out
there to fuel every last Christmas bulb, but the regulators won't let us
Note that this is not a perverse effect of a policy but rather the
intended effect of environmentalism. Their stated goal is to make life
more miserable for humans so that plants and animals will have an easier
time of it. But in practice, this means scaling back consumption and
living under the thumb of big government, which has a penchant for
taking away the things we love the most, like turning on lights at
Every victory for the environmental lobby is a victory for big
government, which means more control of your life, less liberty to do
what you want to do, and lower standards of living. If Californians want
to continue to enjoy Merry Christmases, they will have to spend the new
year curbing the power of the green lobby and getting the regulators off
their backs. That means getting rid of the government's old system of
distribution and ownership and updating it according to the standards of
genuine free enterprise. Accept no substitutes.