The Spectacle Blog

The TSA Can’t Help Being Annoying

By on 11.15.10 | 2:38PM

With the holiday travel season approaching fast, public anger at the federal Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) increasingly invasive airport passenger screening procedures - full body scans and pat downs - seems to be growing louder by the day. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano argues that these measures are necessary to maintain an adequate level of security for the nation's air travel.

Indeed, some types of safety measures, including passenger screening, are needed for air travel safety. The problem with the current security regime is its structure. In a way the TSA can't help annoying travelers with petty, intrusive rules. It is in its nature, as a top-down, government regulatory bureaucracy. By design, it's good at promulgating and enforcing rules, not so much at turning on a dime to react quickly to potential threats, which have an annoying habit of turning up unexpectedly and be ever shifting.

Hopefully, the public anti-TSA backlash can lead to greater public debate over the nature of government institutions and the incentives they face, compared to those in the private sector. At Forbes, Rhodes College economics professor Art Carden launches a strong early volley in this debate, arguing for abolishing the TSA.

But won't that compromise safety? I doubt it. The airlines have enormous sums of money riding on passenger safety, and the notion that a government bureaucracy has better incentives to provide safe travels than airlines with billions of dollars worth of capital and goodwill on the line strains credibility. This might be beside the point: in 2003, William Anderson incisively argued that some of the steps that airlines (and passengers) would have needed to take to prevent the 9/11 disaster probably would have been illegal.

This makes me wonder, as I often have, of what exactly goes through the mind of Naderite self-styled safety advocates when they advocate some new "safety" requirement. Do they really believe that companies have no economic self-interest in helping protect the safety of their customers? An auto manufacturer whose vehicles can't withstand accident impacts or a restaurant where people routinely get food poisoning won't stay in business for long.

That kind of failure to account for incentives underlies a lot of economic fallacies. It also distorts the political debate, by making possible the notion that taking an activity out of the marketplace somehow obviates any self-interest surrounding it. In fact, government intervention simply shifts self-interest from the voluntary exchange of the market to the coercive functions of government. The TSA debate is no different, as Washington Examiner columnist and former CEI Warren Brookes Fellow Tim Carney notes.

If you've seen one of these scanners at an airport, there's a good chance it was made by L-3 Communications, a major contractor with the Department of Homeland Security. L-3 employs three different lobbying firms including Park Strategies, where former Sen. Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., plumps on the company's behalf. Back in 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed D'Amato to the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism following the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Also on Park's L-3 account is former Appropriations staffer Kraig Siracuse.

Finally, as David Henderson notes at EconLog, in his discussion of Carden's article, private responses to terrorist threats can be as valuable as government-directed ones.

The clearest cut success stories we have are of other passengers using their local knowledge to thwart the shoe bomber, the underpants bomber, and the United flight #93 bombers. Of course, there's a huge difference between my first two examples and the third. In the third case, all the passengers died. But, as I said to a flight attendant when I traveled on a Boeing 777 from LAX to Boston on September 22, 2001, on a nearly empty flight that United had offered to let me out of with a full refund, "The reason we're safer now is that we passengers are never again going to think about a hijacking the same way. We're not going to sit passively as the FAA told us to."

The TSA isn't probably going away any time soon. However, the backlash can bring about some needed changes, in addition to introducing more questions about the role of government into the public debate - all the while air travel becomes even more unpleasant.

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