The War Against Christmas

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.

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 third 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 holiday spirit.

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 use.)

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 at it.

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 Christmas.

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.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. edits

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