All Commentary
Thursday, February 24, 2011

The TSA Makes Us Safer?

We both have contributed to the debate about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) since the furor erupted over the new “enhanced pat-downs” and backscatter scanners, which some call “porno scanners.” This debate has shown how few are the real defenders of liberty, since even the “liberal” media have lined up with the government. The debate has also demonstrated people’s willingness to believe there is a tradeoff between liberty and security. In our view, no such tradeoff exists: More liberty and less government intervention would provide better security.

One example of media complicity is a Thanksgiving Day column in which Debra Saunders called the enhanced pat-downs “freedom fondles.” Reason editor Matt Welch assembled two sets of links for the Hit & Run blog cataloguing favorable media statements about the new techniques. We have been advised by the Los Angeles Times to “shut up and be scanned.” The Santa Fe New Mexican tells us we should “stand, or bend over, on principle and suffer attendant indignities,” while the Rochester Post-Bulletin tells us to “grin and bear it.” The Louisville Courier-Journal asks, “At what point did Americans turn into a nation of crybabies?”

What’s particularly stunning is how often these defenses of TSA procedures came from the (so-called) liberal press, such as the New York Times or the Nation. Actress Whoopi Goldberg and her left-leaning colleagues on ABC’s The View agreed that those protesting the invasive techniques by slowing down the process at airports are equivalent to terrorists. It is striking how quickly the left adopts “America: love it or leave it” and forgets that dissent is the highest form of patriotism when their guys are in power. Would these people be bending over backward to excuse the TSA if a Republican were in the White House? We don’t think so.

Beyond the media treatments, the idea that we should trade off a little liberty to get more security presents a false choice. The TSA does not provide security. It provides what security experts like Bruce Schneier call “security theater.” As one of us (Carden) wrote recently, the TSA agent with his hand in your pants is not there for your safety. He is there to give you the illusion of safety. The TSA dog-and-pony show is just the government’s very expensive way of saying, “We’re doing something about this.”

If we were serious about security, we would do three things. First, we would eliminate the TSA. It makes flying less convenient and gives people an incentive to drive. Per passenger mile, driving is far more dangerous than flying. The evidence suggests that more people will die on the roads than would have died in terrorist attacks on planes because they are discouraged from flying by the TSA and its new, more invasive procedures.

Second, we should give the airlines responsibility for security. The discovery process of genuine market competition among airlines would determine the degree of security passengers are comfortable with, while also avoiding techniques they find invasive. What profit-seeking firm would want to alienate its customers by taking nearly nude photos or touching “their junk”?

It’s the airlines that stand to lose physical capital and reputation, so they have every reason to get it right. They will certainly be more responsive to fliers’ needs than a monopoly would.

This second point is the response to the claim that we are corporate shills looking to advance a privatization agenda. While there might be some cost savings from privatization, this might also do more harm than good since a “privatized” TSA would do a lot of the same invasive things, only the State would be able to shift blame to the private sector. As a monopoly, a “privatized” TSA would still lack the ability to respond to customers’ desired tradeoffs. What we need is not “privatization” but “de-monopolization.”

Finally, we would get serious about using decision markets for terrorism detection. This idea met with fierce resistance when first introduced—politicians and pundits said no one should “profit from terrorism.” These critics missed the point, though. As economist Robin Hanson has written, decision markets are a very high-efficiency way to obtain information, even when the payouts are small.

Hanson points out that a crucial failing of international intelligence gathering is that information is incomplete and/or flawed. Ironically (and tragically), the political outcry over the Policy Analysis Market (PAM; summarized on Hanson’s website) demonstrated precisely why such a market is necessary. In the face of incomplete and incorrect information and in the presence of important cognitive biases, sources of reliable and unbiased information are indispensable—especially when so many lives are on the line.

The PAM started as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project to allow people to purchase very small contracts that would pay out in the event of a given combination of outcomes. The project drew fundamentally on the insights of F. A. Hayek and James Buchanan, who argued that the process of exchange itself reveals crucial information and generates order. In the early trials of the project, traders were asked to predict different combinations of events that might result from adopting a particular policy.

The Need for Information

As an aside, the furor over the Policy Analysis Market and the ratcheted-up procedures by the TSA are especially interesting in light of the controversy over WikiLeaks. Some have denounced WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, for endangering American lives, and we remain agnostic on this until the fury has settled. Even if WikiLeaks is morally culpable for endangering innocent people through its leaked documents, we would be willing to bet that those who were instrumental in canceling the PAM in 2003, thereby thwarting the open flow of information, are responsible for more casualties by several orders of magnitude. As a rule, more information is better than less.

Bruce Schneier and others argue that the best way to fight terrorism is to identify terrorists rather than scanning grandmothers or treating someone’s urostomy bag as if it were a possible explosive device. One of the best ways to do this would be to develop a terrorism prediction market like the one proposed by Hanson.

The TSA should be abolished and serious, competitive alternatives should be explored. As Carden argued on, “Full Frontal Nudity Will Not Make Us Safer: Abolish the TSA” (emphasis added). The problem with government-run airport security is that it eliminates the market’s search process that would otherwise allow people to discover the most effective and customer-friendly security methods.

  • Art Carden is a Professor of Economics, author, and co-editor of the Southern Economic Journal.
  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.