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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Is there a TSA?

It's not really to make air travel safer.

As protests increase against the offensive pat-downs allegedly designed to make flying safer, we really should not be shocked that government employees are abusing air travelers. Furthermore, it should astonish no one who understands government that what is happening at the nation’s airports is the natural result of giving federal agents near-unlimited power.

In 2002, after enduring a cross-country flight, I wrote an article predicting a number of things that would happen after the government finalized creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I’m sorry to say that my predictions have come true – and then some. I noted that while security screenings under the old system were cumbersome, nonetheless the incentive structure that existed then at least gave one a fair chance to catch one’s plane:

…[W]hile the FAA sets the rules for screeners, the screeners are still employees of firms hired by the airlines. Because of this, they do have an incentive for passengers to make their flights on time. (This does not mean that everyone will make it through security on time, but at least the incentive is there for screeners not to overdo their searches.)

Once screeners become full-fledged government employees, however, the incentives structure will change dramatically. The inspectors will be working for the federal government and will have no obligations at all toward passengers, except to treat all of them like criminals.

Indeed, that is what has happened, and the situation only is escalating, with John Pistole, the current head of the agency, declaring that he is determined to “take TSA to the next level.” Apparently, the next level includes brutalizing passengers whose “crime” apparently is to want to get on an airliner, a practice that Pistole has defended at every turn under the auspices of “fighting terrorism.”

“Protecting” American travelers seems to include brutally strip searching a young boy, threatening people who prefer to leave the airport rather than submit to a nude scan or a de facto sexual assault with fines and imprisonment, and soaking a man in his own urine. In Atlanta a TSA agent grabbed a young child from his mother, took him to another location, leaving the woman frightened and sobbing.

None of this makes flying safer, but that really is not the mission of the TSA, no matter what its PR agents might say. The purpose of government, and especially government agents like the TSA, is to send a message about who has power and authority – and who does not. As I wrote in 2002:

…[I]t is quite likely that screeners and other government security personnel will be more rude toward passengers than they are at present.  While some of us have suffered through some brutal searches, I fear the worst is to come.  Again, airline employees, while they can be disagreeable, do have at least some incentive to treat their customers with some decency.  Federal employees will have none.

When my family and I went through security lines, there was some grumbling, although I could tell that many of the screeners at least were trying to be as fair and helpful as possible, given the difficult situation all of us found ourselves.  However, I suspect that when the government takes over all security, anyone who makes even the slightest complaint quickly will be banned from their flight.  Look for airport workers to become more surly and less helpful, as their government status will give them power to harass people.

That is exactly what has happened. No one should be surprised that the government “hammers” at the airports see everyone else as a nail.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.