President Abraham Lincoln famously spoke of his desire "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
One of the obvious points he was making was that government exists to serve the citizens it represents, not the other way around.
But that sound view gets little respect in Washington today. Sometimes that disrespect shows up in overt ways, but sometimes it is subtle, as in the debate over Congress' outlawing the sale of lots of traditional incandescent light bulbs, in favor of more energy-efficient bulbs.
Some people like the new bulbs, even though their up-front cost is a good bit higher than the cost of traditional bulbs. At any rate, light bulb selection should be a case of "To each his own," not a matter for congressional dictation.
But U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu got embroiled in the debate, suggesting that the federal government knows better than private citizens how they should spend their money.
He said that despite their high initial cost, energy-efficient bulbs will eventually save consumers some money. That may be so, but Chu has no interest in letting consumers make that choice for themselves - and bear the financial consequences, good or bad. He said it is appropriate for Congress to forbid the continued sale of older, incandescent bulbs, because, in effect, Washington knows best.
"We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money," he said in a news conference.
The trouble is, the wasteful federal government is in no position to decide for the American people what constitutes a "waste" of "their own money." There are some real downsides to the new energy-efficient bulbs, such as the need to go through a complicated cleanup process if the bulbs break, because they contain mercury. The bulbs also take longer to turn on. Those factors lead some consumers to prefer traditional bulbs, even if their long-term cost is higher.
But whatever type of bulb you like, that should be a decision for consumers to make, not a choice for Washington to be "taking away."