What Seinfeld Can Teach You about the Government’s Senseless War on Appliances

What Seinfeld Can Teach You about the Government’s Senseless War on Appliances

The Biden administration took a major action in 2022 to show it meant business in a war that had quietly raged for years.

The action was not related to the war in Afghanistan, which had just ended, or the conflict in Ukraine, which was about to begin. The administration’s action related to a battle of a different kind: the war on cleaning appliances.

In January of that year, the Energy Department finalized a rule to restore “efficiency standards” for consumer appliances — residential dishwashers, dryers, and washing machines — that had been rolled back during the Trump administration.

“The Trump rule,” Bloomberg Law reported at the time, “had created new short-cycle product classes that weren’t subject to any water or energy conservation standards.”

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court filed a ruling that was welcome news to Americans who find it head-scratching that the federal government is aggressively dictating the standards of our cleaning appliances.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit rejected the Energy Department’s effort to tighten those standards, determining the regulations were “arbitrary and capricious” and dismissing the government’s claim that the 2020 rules were “invalid.”

The federal government’s effort to save the planet by more aggressively regulating our appliances likely sounds utterly absurd to some and entirely sensible to others. What’s undebatable is that it’s a battle that stretches back decades.

My introduction to the appliance wars goes back to the 1990s, when the subject popped up on my favorite television show, Seinfeld. In the episode, Kramer, Jerry, and Newman are all deeply distraught (and disheveled). They can’t get a good wash because of mandated new “low-flow” showers.

“There’s no pressure; I can’t get the shampoo out of my hair!” Kramer exclaims. “If I don’t have a good shower, I am not myself. I feel weak and ineffectual; I’m not Kramer.”

The episode, which ends with Kramer buying “hot” shower heads off the black market, perfectly captured the absurdity of clumsy attempts to conserve resources in this top-down fashion.

As many have observed, low-flow showers might use less water per minute, but they also result in people taking longer showers. Similarly, regulations that cap dishwashers at 3.1 gallons of water (who came up with that figure?) result in dishes that get less clean, which means a second run or washing dishes by hand. Low-flow toilets might use less water per flush, but are they actually saving water if you must flush two or three times to do the job?

Rule-making bureaucrats rarely consider such questions — and we mustn’t ask them. The experts know best, we’re told. We’re supposed to accept on faith that they possess the knowledge to find the Goldilocks zone in energy savings.

They don’t, however, and often we simply end up with appliances that are much worse.

In a sense, the Biden administration tacitly admitted this. Instead of making a compelling case illustrating how much energy and resources its policy would save, it argued the Trump administration’s rule was legally “invalid.”

In truth, it’s the federal government’s attempt to regulate our cleaning and washing appliances that is legally invalid.

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they conceived of a federal government of limited powers, one whose purpose was to protect individual rights. The powers of the federal government were carefully enumerated; the Bill of Rights contained a list of what the federal government could not do to you, not what the government must do for you.

Over the last century, this conception of government slowly eroded.

It began in earnest in 1942, many argue, when the Supreme Court upheld a fine against a man named Roscoe Filburn. The Ohio farmer was growing wheat on his own property to feed his own stock, which ran afoul of a New Deal law that regulated wheat in a misguided attempt to “stabilize” prices.

The Constitution doesn’t mention price controls or wheat, any more than it mentions dishwashers, but the high court (by then packed with New Dealers) ruled in favor of the government, citing the Constitution’s commerce clause.

The ruling opened the door to a massive expansion of federal power, since virtually every economic activity imaginable falls under commerce to some degree. Everything from light bulbs and refrigerators to stoves and furnaces and beyond is now considered fair game, in addition to dishwashers.

This is what the famed 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat would call the law perverted — a chasmic deviation from the law’s true moral purpose of protecting life, liberty, and property. If America continues down this path of unlimited federal powers, lousy dishwashers and low-flow showers will one day become the least of our worries.

Editor’s note: This article originally was published by the Foundation for Economic Education

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