In June, the European Union passed legislation requiring all mobile devices to use one specific port type (USB-C) for re-charging their batteries.
US Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) , Ed Markey (D-MA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) think that’s a great idea, and that the US should adopt it as well. They’ve asked Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to come up with a “comprehensive strategy” to take charge of how you charge your phones, tablets, etc.
“Consumers shouldn’t have to keep buying new chargers all the time for different devices,” Warren tweeted on July 7. “We can clear things up with uniform standards — for less expense, less hassle, and less waste.”
Looking to government for “less expense, less hassle, and less waste” is like looking to your favorite local buffet restaurant for fewer dishes and smaller portions. Expense, hassle, and waste is pretty much the dictionary definition of what government does. This case is no exception.
Let’s take this astoundingly stupid idea from the top on those three metrics.
Expense: At present, we’re all free to choose the devices we buy and, if we’re worried about the expense of chargers and cables, choose devices which are compatible with each other. If your phone with a micro-USB port dies, you can buy a new phone that’s compatible with the chargers and cables you already have instead of having to buy new USB-C cables.
Hassle: Right now, you can walk into pretty much any electronics, department, or even convenience store and find a cable to fit your needs. A government-imposed standard will, over time, result in older types of cables becoming “specialty” items that are harder to find.
Waste: Right now, you can re-use your existing cables with new devices. A uniformity requirement will eventually put those existing cables in landfills as you move on to new devices which are, by law, forbidden to use them.
And all that’s just on your end. How much cost, hassle, and waste will the proposed standard impose on manufacturers whose current devices come with now-illegal ports? Those devices will have to be re-designed. The factories that make them will have to be re-tooled, workers re-trained.
Let’s add a fourth item to the list of reasons legally required uniformity is a bad idea: It will slow down technological innovation.
Suppose the government requires all devices to come with USB-C ports. Who’s going to spend the money to develop USB-D or some other new port technology, even if that technology would likely prove much more efficient, reliable, etc.?
The regulatory delays and expenses in getting better charging devices to market would make innovation much less profitable … until and unless the government REQUIRED the new port, which would put you right back in the same expense/hassle/waste position as when the first requirement was imposed.
If 1880s legislators had imposed “uniform standards” on transportation, we’d all still be staring at the rear ends of horses from our wagons. And spending proportionally more of our time and money to get from hither to yon.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.