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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14644/on-transportation-security/

On Transportation Security

November 15, 2010 by

My Forbes.com article proposing that we abolish the TSA has gotten a surprising amount of attention; it’s up to almost 70,000 views with over 3,000 Facebook shares and 500 tweets. Not bad for an article that’s about 18 hours old. Here are a couple of additional thoughts to further the conversation:

1. Airport security is necessary. I repeat: airport security is necessary, just like security just about anywhere is necessary. Just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean that government has to provide it. But why?

2. The Knowledge Problem is Everywhere. Abstracting from invaded privacy and the like, the fact that airports and the TSA are government-owned and therefore not responsive to profit and loss signals means that they don’t have the information they need if they are going to make rational decisions about the kind of security that will be provided. In short, socialization eliminates calculation. If I may self-promote, I raise some of these issues in my review of G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, which will appear in The Freeman. To whet your appetite, here’s David Gordon’s review.

3. Institutions Matter. Several people have pointed out (correctly) that most of the people who work for the TSA are courteous and professional. That has definitely been my experience. Most of the people I have dealt with in TSA security lines have been very courteous and very professional. When my luggage has been searched, they have generally been careful with it. They have also been careful to let me know exactly what they are doing. When I lost my passport in Italy last month, pretty much everyone I dealt with from the US Embassy, the Italian police, and airport security in Milan, Amsterdam, and Memphis was courteous, professional, and helpful. You’ve probably read horror stories about TSA sexual assaults, to be sure, but I’m not convinced they are representative. I can’t stress this enough: in my experience, and in what I would guess is the experience of most travelers, TSA employees are almost always nice people who are just doing their jobs.

But you can be very courteous, professional, helpful, and nice while you’re wasting people’s time and making them worse off. As Jagdish Bhagwati said at the Southern Economic Association meetings last year, the world is full of people who are doing absolutely horrible things to others, all the while thinking that they are helping. The problem isn’t that the TSA is run by the wrong people. The problem is that the TSA exists in the first place. As I tell my students, when the incentives are right, good things happen in spite of bad people. When the incentives are wrong, bad things happen in spite of good people.

4. There Are Alternatives. Economists take a lot of flak for not being able to predict exactly what will emerge in the absence of this or that favored program like the TSA or agricultural subsidies or what have you. That’s the nature of emergent order, though. Order, like barbecue, is defined in the process of its emergence. We can’t know the “right” type of security infrastructure until it is revealed through the market process. There remain margins on which competition is possible. The Southern Economic Association meetings are in Atlanta next weekend. I will be driving with my family, and then I will be taking Greyhound from Birmingham to Memphis and back on Monday and Wednesday so that I can teach my Tuesday classes (here are my earlier comments on the TSA and Greyhound). We were planning to do all this even before the public furor over the TSA, but I’m even happier with our decision now.


Boelinger November 15, 2010 at 10:55 am

Mr. Carden merely argues against the TSA from a pragmatic premise (..TSA procedures don’t work well and it’s the wrong kind of organization to stop & search innocent people). He seems oblivious to the basic issue… thus in effect, fully endorsing the corrupt basis of overall government “search authority”.

The real TSA problem is that they are criminals– directly violating the legal rights & freedoms of millions each day.

The American rule-of-law has been lost.

Trivia over specific TSA search procedures ignores the HUGE fact that any government ‘Search’ of an individual & his property is an absolute crime (absent a judicial warrant and/or specific probable-cause). This is fundamental United States constitutional & statutory law since founding of the Republic. Such loss of basic legal rights isn’t even noticed by most– and even cheered by many, who falsely believe they are safer.

The primary purpose of the 4th Amendment was precisely to prohibit the government from exercising such general Stop/Search Authority against the public. A general stop/search authority is extremely dangerous & unreasonable to the liberty of a free citizenry.

“General” reasons for searching anyone-or-everyone … like ‘general crime-prevention’ -OR-’general anti-terrorism’ efforts are PROHIBITED by the 4th Amendment. General or even ‘random’ searches are direct violations of Constitutional law.

Many foolish Americans accept the outrageous government excuse… that citizens automatically waive their Constitutional rights and consent to illegal search when they travel, especially on commercial airlines. That excuse is absurd; freedom of movement & travel is the most fundamental definition of liberty & freedom. The 9th & 10th Amendments to the Constitution most assuredly protect that basic freedom to travel unmolested by government agents.

Nationwide criminal organizations should be vigorously prosecuted and eliminated.

joshua November 15, 2010 at 11:48 am
Ohhh Henry November 15, 2010 at 2:44 pm

It is not a “knowledge problem”. It is a motivation problem. They are not motivated to provide efficient, effective security because they are a monopoly. Instead they have every motivation to provide inefficient and ineffective services, because this is the only way that a monopoly can increase its revenues.

Imagine if the people at your local garage slashed your tires and vandalized your car instead of fixing it. Could they get away with it? If they had competitors, no. If they were a monopoly, yes. Making your car worse than it was before is not just ONE way of increasing their revenue, it is the ONLY way that a monopoly can do so.

The problem is not one of “imperfect knowledge” at all. It happens that the government doesn’t know how to satisfy its citizens – but that doesn’t matter one bit. Even if they had the knowledge, they would have no motivation to satisfy the public and therefore they will not do so.

Phinn November 15, 2010 at 5:13 pm

The motivation problem you describe is, at base, a knowledge problem, I think.

Prices and revenues (and money generally) are really just information. Every person acts with a view toward improving his quality of life, but everyone’s idea of what constitutes improvement is different, people have different time preferences, and there is always a scarcity of just about every resource one may use to pursue it (there’s always a scarcity of time, if nothing else).

In other words, motivation toward improvement is a constant across all of humanity — we are all motivated to achieve some goal, which is always some form of improvement, even if that goal is merely leisure, or the desire to maintain a preferred status quo. It’s information that tells each of us which behaviors lead to subjective improvement, and which do not.

In that sense, I think Misesian economics is highly compatible with the psychological theories of Alfred Adler — he posited that everyone has a goal, and it is subjectively defined — an idea about some state of affairs that would constitute an improvement in your life. His theory was that troubled or self-destructive people are not consciously aware of what their true goal is. They may have repressed it, and be pursuing it unconsciously, but they still have a goal, and it still motivates and guides their choices. Even people who, on the surface appear to be pursuing sub-optimal or even self-destructive behaviors are, at base, pursuing a goal which they subjectively consider to be an improvement of their status quo. Even though most people would see a self-destructive goal as a detriment, not an improvement, the self-destructive person sees it as offering some perverse benefit.

So, let’s consider the motivations and information available to a government agent. This person (whether a TSA agent, or managerial bureaucrat, or cabinet member) has just as much motivation to improve his life and pursue his goal (however it is subjectively defined) as anyone else, but he has no access to information that will tell him which behaviors lead to this “improvement.” From his perspective, the only information he receives tells him that it’s beneficial to him if he:(a) talks up the problem the agency supposedly exists to solve, and (b) keeps the internal squabbling to a minimum. Almost zero information flows to him from the airline passengers.

That informational vacuum (lack of paying customers) is filled instead with political information. It means that the TSA responds to every economic choice by making political calculations — every personnel problem becomes a union problem, and every inconvenience is transferred to the person with the least power to compalain. None of those decisions increases or decreases the TSA’s profit by one red cent, because the TSA has no profit. (Profit is just the market price for the entrepreneur’s portion of the revenues, and government has no entrepreneurs.)

Christopher November 15, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Don’t forget the TSA came about due to the failures of the private security companies (9/11) .

Scott D November 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Right, because it was the private security that could have ultimately discovered and confiscated the box-cutters that the hijackers used. Right, Christopher?

Oh, wait, actually…

…at the time box cutters—the apparent weapons of choice for the hijackers—were FAA approved, so it would have been illegal for the airline security agents to have confiscated them.

Christopher November 16, 2010 at 9:39 am

I forgot the quotes around “failures”.

Slim934 November 16, 2010 at 4:22 pm


You need to be careful about sarcasm quotes on a blog like this.

They can make ALL the difference sometimes.

Rick November 15, 2010 at 6:44 pm

And the failure of the CIA, FBI, Bush and Clinton administrations, and a failed foreign policy of interventionism and military misadventures.

Christopher November 16, 2010 at 9:35 am

Harder to sue the US Gov’t than a pvt security firm.

Andrew_M_Garland November 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm

If you drive a car, your lifetime risk of dying in an auto accident is 1 in 100, and the probability of an injury requiring hospital treatment is 5 in 100.

The risk of dying in an airplane is much less, even with terror attacks. The only reason that we have this “security theater” is that career federal bureaucrats now have careers based on making us “safe” no matter what the cost or indignity.

Surly there should be some level of anti-terrorist security. There is a good case that this security should concentrate on police work rather than underwear searches.

Schneier.com – The Comparative Risk of Terrorism
- – schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/01/the_comparative.html

Schneier.com – Beyond Security Theater
- – schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/11/beyond_security.html

Mike S November 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Exactly. When did we become so terrified of terrorists?

Home of the brave, remember?

Also, as the passengers of Flight 93 proved, the “take over the plane to crash it into a target” strategy stopped working within hours of it being used successfully. The horror of 9/11 wasn’t that planes were crashed, the horror was that they were crashed into targets with devastating effectiveness. But that was defeated once people knew it was possible.

Phinn November 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm

The 9/11 tactic was defeated as soon as they put locks on the cockpit doors. Really not very difficult.

The whole point of the TSA groping-and-fondling measures is to train and condition us, the cattle, into accepting the authority of the government class. The point is to train people to respond to the assertion of “national security” with reflexive and total submission.

The “war” is not on some mysterious and unidentified THEM. The war is on us, and always has been. The target is us.

How many fingers am I holding up?

Gene Berman November 15, 2010 at 4:44 pm


Your “take” is quite correct–but so is Art Carden’s. There are things governments do that are poorly done or unsuccessful for primarily economic reasons, though they may be entirely in accordance with existing law. There are things governments may do which are entirely viable from an economic point of view but which are illegal intrusions (tyrannical inroads) on the rights of citizens, even according to the existing law of the particular government itself.

In this case, it seems we have a set of government procedures and behaviors that is bad on both accounts (which should not surprise, though few are quite so intrusive on so very many).

Actually, though I appreciate your love of liberty (it’s similar to my own), I would actually argue that, in one certain sense, Mr. Carden’s is the more universal argument. The Constitution is, after all, the “scrap of paper” that the enemies of liberty despise because it stands in the way of their assumption of various powers: it is changeable–entirely legally–by the process of amendment (even though you and I and many others might insist that the first ten amendments–the “Bill of Roghts”–are essentially inviolable and that to change even a single one would render a very different society than that we have by inheritance).). That is to say that the law you cite can be changed if the enemies of liberty muster sufficient support; no amount of support, though, however extensive, can nullify the simple economic law underlying Mr. Carden’s thesis.

Rick November 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

The Israeli’s use behavioral profiling at their airports and do it very successfully. There is no 100% guarantee but I would prefer behavioral profiling over these new full body scans. However, behavioral profiling would require time and money be spent on training and recruiting talented people. Not saying that all TSA people are untalented, but one of the problems is that TSA is relying too much on technology and really just about anyone can look at a image of something or do a pat down.

Peter November 21, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I am curious – what are the events that would have to transpire in order to lead to the discovery of the proper cost of airport security “through the market process”? Ultimately, the free market might be able to find a proper price (either direct cost or indirect cost)for the cost – benefit of airport security. But what kind of events would need to occur to send the proper signals? And how tolerant would Americans be if an aircraft were to be destroyed while the free market was working it’s way to the correct price of airport security?

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