South Carolina’s Light Bulb

South Carolina is contesting federal authority—again. And, once again, it is not alone. Legislators are considering a Bill that would permit local producers to manufacture and sell incandescent light bulbs so long as both the production and sales occur within the state.  The Light Bulb Freedom Act passed the House with overwhelming support. The claim is that a purely local economic activity would be beyond the power of Congress and federal agencies to regulate. This is a clear constitutional loser. (But I also think the challenge to the health care mandate is a clear loser as well). What is unclear to me is why, in the second decade of the new millennium, these basic issues of federal power presumed largely settled during the New Deal and subsequent civil rights legislation have been placed in question again. These are not relatively tertiary issues about whether the Tenth Amendment provides any limitations on federal power to “commandeer” state officials. The light bulb is about core federal power. Rep. Bill Sandifur (R) sums up the view: “This bill is about taking a stand against government intrusion in our everyday lives. I am championing this bill because I believe that we must fight for limited government, personal freedoms, and the free market.”

That a supposedly local economic activity would be beyond the reach of congress is an issue that was settled in Wickard v. Filburn, and reaffirmed more recently in the California medical marijuana case, Raich. South Carolina is clearly wasting its time, but why? One reason may be that the State fosters political attitudes resistant to federal power that remain substantially unchanged since pre-Reconstruction times. The opportunities to resist may be truncated, but the attitudes are unreconstructed. South Carolina legislators are also entertaining the idea of printing their own precious metals-backed currency. Such notions sustain a fantasy of state independence from long established national monetary policy.

A second reason may have to do with localized anxiety about national events. Americans are experiencing a fragile recovery from a deep recession that might have been much worse but for federal efforts (so the dire scenario that might have been remains imperceptible—how can we perceive what did not occur?). Yet the situation remains fragile, with many Americans only partially recognizing how vulnerable their local affairs (housing prices, availability of credit, jobs, wages, public finances, etc.) are to national trends and forces. Thus, if a state’s general welfare were diminished because of national policies and trends, then perhaps it would be better off on its own? The problem with this line of reasoning is that states like South Carolina rely heavily on the national coffer to satisfy its general welfare. Take, for example, funding for the state flagship university—University of South Carolina (full disclosure—I teach here). The university receives less in state appropriations than it does in federal grants and contracts (see my prior post about this here). It would not be implausible to call the institution the Federal University of South Carolina (that has a nice ring, actually). It remains a mystery how South Carolina would be better off on its own.

A third reason may be more about local politics. Individual legislators think that they will gain votes and attention by peddling such proposals. Given the localized anxiety about difficult to understand national policies and practices, it may be easier for many voters to think smaller and closer to home. I think there is much to this, but it only underscores a larger democratic issue: how do diffuse citizens, seeking to direct democratic policies at both the state and the federal level in light of national economic forces that remain opaque, allocate their attention and their expectations? Thinking locally is one way, but a way that ignores the real issues. We find ourselves back in the land of fantasy that the first reason supports.

Despite my failure to discern good justifications for the political attitudes behind South Carolina’s rather dim view of federal power, the attitudes persist nonetheless. I have my own inchoate anxiety too. This anxiety is that constitutional form and practice may be beginning to shift in ways that I fail to perceive how and why. I think much hinges on the outcome of the health care mandate issue, about which the Supreme Court is still considering hearing before appeal. A recession, a national emergency, a growing debt are all terrible things to waste for those who need occasions to push for constitutional change. And, by the way, I comment on this while being rather partial to the aesthetics of the incandescent bulb, especially by comparison to fluorescent bulbs, but not partial enough to urge reconsidering settled constitutional law.

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4 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    “What is unclear to me is why, in the second decade of the new millennium, these basic issues of federal power presumed largely settled during the New Deal and subsequent civil rights legislation have been placed in question again.”

    I think you’re missing the fundamental reason this wasn’t really settled: The Constitution didn’t get amended. It’s text is still such that people reading it without a fixed determination to validate New Deal power grabs will see limits where the Court refuses to.

    The federal government got possession of these powers, but in a sense never bothered to obtain a clear title. The previous owners will never give up trying to reclaim them while that remains the case.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    A very narrow point about light bulbs: I’d thought that the reason for fluorescents is to reduce power consumption. The fact that power is shared across interstate grids suggests that even the most simplistic Commerce Clause analysis should be enough to knock down the LBFA. (Or more precisely: Assume that bulbs manufactured and sold within the state will be used somewhere. If used within SC, the interstate power grid issue above applies; or if used outside the state, there’s obviously interstate commerce involved in their re-sale and/or transport.) My guess is that the popular animus is stirred up by an undifferentiated stew of the reasons you mention, with a heavy accent on the local politics. Since most people can’t even identify the contents of the Bill of Rights, Brett’s explanation, whatever its possible merits, seems too highbrow.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    Actually, the simplest, (Which is not to say simplistic.) commerce clause analysis goes something like this: Is manufacturing and selling a light bulb in a single state ITSELF interstate commerce? No? Then it’s not covered by the clause. Which doesn’t say squat about regulating things that effect such commerce…

    I’d say the main motivation behind the law is lawmakers trying to make happy constituents who are simply pissed off about having one of their normal, every day choices taken away from them. But if Thomas can engage in highbrow analysis, it’s fair to note that people on the other side can, too.

  4. Lawrence Laplante says:

    Brett’s right.

    If there’s one thing South Carolinians ALWAYS fight for, it’s the right to choose.