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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TSA and the Road Away From Security and Liberty

The holiday season has arrived and with this time of the year many of us will embark on travels across the country to visit friends and family. There is, however, a new controversy this year in the stepped up security efforts of the TSA. Particularly the use of full body scans that have been employed throughout the countries airports. According to one news report 64% of Americans support this increased effort by the TSA.

This is unfortunate. As this nicely represents the Clichés of Socialism Number 26, “I prefer security to freedom” by Leonard E. Read. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” (see Robert Higgs’ Book as well). While it is true we are not surrendering all our freedoms through the use of the TSA for our airport security, we don’t have to fly after all, it is certainly a step in the wrong direction.

As Read points out, there is no real tradeoff between security (in the traditional sense) and freedom. They are not mutually exclusive. Personal achievements and savings provide a backdrop for many to fall back on in hard times and competition provides the incentives to create a safer and more secure environment for us all to interact. As Read says, “Freedom sets the stage for all the security available in this uncertain world.” What does this mean for the TSA issue? Well, for starters there is no reason to believe the airline companies could not, and would not, provide more than adequate security. Security, after all, is important for an airline’s reputation, which it has large sums of money riding on. If they mess up then they will go out of business and another airline will step up and fill in their shoes. Now with the use of a government monopoly in charge of all security that incentive is gone.

Instead, the type of second type of security is sought after, namely “the guaranteed life.” This is the use of the state to remove our personal responsibility and live at the expense of others. This is why Frederic Bastiat defined the state as “the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” In reality, there is no such thing as a free lunch and this situation will have its unintended consequences (see Steve Horwitz on CNBC on this). Instead of through a process of competition we have left airport security in the hands of a government bureaucracy. This raises the costs of government. When the TSA messes up it will not go out of business but instead seek more government funds. Eventually this leads to insecurity as the government stretches beyond its means. The more we expect the government to do, taking away our personal responsibility in the process, the more freedoms it will take away. In the case of airport security the responsibility should be left in the hands of the airlines who have an incentive (which the TSA does not really have) to provide a safe travel environment for travelers.

This recent issue with the TSA Body scans illustrates the sad fact that our society is increasingly saying “I prefer security to freedom.” This needs to be reversed before it is too late. As H.L. Mencken said many years ago and is sadly still true today, “Most people want security in this world, not liberty.” The state loves this and will attempt to use this to their ends. After all, to quote Mencken again, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” If there is a real terrorist threat to our airports then all the more reason to leave it to personal responsibility. Real strength and security comes from freedom not by running and hiding. Leave the provision of security to the freedom and competition of the market place.

Download the Clichés of Socialism Number 26 by Leonard E. Read here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.