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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14759/the-tsas-false-tradeoff/

The TSA’s False Tradeoff

November 25, 2010 by

The national furor over the TSA’s new procedures has elicited the typical response from the bureaucracy and its apologists. These invasive scans and “enhanced pat-downs” are for your own good. You don’t want another attack, do you? FULL ARTICLE by Robert P. Murphy


NotMe November 25, 2010 at 9:32 am

I am not even American, but I truly am lamenting what America is turning into. That so many would support such degrading practices just to stop a single terrorist attack. I would guess that many would even ban their constitution if it could somehow stop terrorism. Whatever happened to “give me liberty or give me death”.

Jack Roberts November 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

What happens if the TSA screws up, and a major terrorist incident occurs?

Where does it end ? Last Christmas we apparently had an underpants bombers which was used as the justification for invasive body scanners. Next will be an anus bomber and we will be required to go through mandatory cavity searches.

Tim Kern November 25, 2010 at 9:57 am

I addressed this “calculation” problem in 2006 (http://mises.org/daily/2186), and the calculation hasn’t gotten any harder since then.

The TSA has already wasted more American lifetimes than the attackers of 2001 — and that’s a fact.

Rich November 25, 2010 at 10:12 am

Presumably driving is (still) more hazardous than flying so TSA actions that result in Americans taking to their cars rather than their jet-liners will result in an increase in mortality and injury.

FAM November 25, 2010 at 10:35 am

Excellent points for discussion, but missing an important consideration – national security. No nation farms out it’s national security to the private sector.

Jack Roberts November 25, 2010 at 10:53 am

National security is just one of those buzz words though, much like the war on terrorism. You can not secure a nation just by creating a government department and then force them to use terminology like national security. In fact the USA does “farm out its national security” to organisations like XE and other private military contractors.

There are incentive problems when we leave security up to a government department, i would feel much more secure with a private security organisation and it would most likely be a less invasive process as well.

Tim Kern November 25, 2010 at 10:54 am

Yes, FAM, but if this were about security, it would be a different discussion. If “security” were a real concern, we wouldn’t be allowed to bring CDs on board. (Did you ever snap one in two? It makes several really sharp “knives.”) Further, as many have pointed out, people like the underwear bomber wouldn’t likely be caught by these scans or even by the groping.It’s not about security. Even if there were some enhancement of security, the cost/benefit is tremendous, compared to other things we could be doing.This, like most government programs, is about enhancing government power (building a police state, if you prefer the term) and creating a voting base of federal job-holders, to enhance job security for the bureaucracy.

El Tonno November 25, 2010 at 11:03 am

The Nation says It’s the Libertarians who are confusing them People!

Glenn Greenwald is disgusted:


“Today, The Nation — a magazine which generally offers very good journalism — subjects John Tyner to similar [smear] treatment, with such a shoddy, fact-free, and reckless hit piece (by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine) that I’m genuinely surprised its editors published it. Beyond the inherent benefit of correcting the record, this particular article is suffused with all sorts of toxic though common premises that make it worth examining in detail.

The article is headlined “TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal,” and is devoted to the claim that those objecting to the new TSA procedures — such as Tyner — are not what they claim to be. Rather, they are Koch-controlled plants deliberately provoking and manufacturing a scandal — because, after all, what real American in their right mind would do anything other than meekly submit with gratitude and appreciation to these procedures?”

Rick November 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm

The mainstream media took Opt Out Day – a small part of the anti-scanner movement – and exaggerated its potential for “disruption” yesterday. It was never going to be that big. Just peaceful and voluntary civil disobedience from a relative few who happened to flying yesterday.

But when predictably it wasn’t the big climatic airport battle the national media made it out to be it was immediately labeled a so-called “flop”. It’s like the TSA press release to the AP was already written and just waiting to go. This after a week of “Shut Up and Get Scanned” editorials in major market newspapers. TSA of course played along.

It was a national media creation designed to marginalize protesters and dissent, and to hard sell the full body scanners. Shameful. The only “astro-turf” going on was from the mainstream media and TSA.

But then to see some on the left allege anti-TSA “astro-turfing” and smear Tyner was very disappointing, but not surprising. Some on the left have been so consumed by Koch conspiracy theory and snarks aimed at the Tea Party that their intelligence and integrity has suffered for it, as The Nation demonstrated yesterday. But I was happy to see Jeremy Scahill, a Nation writer, also blast it as a shameless smear job.

One good thing about yesterday was that the anti-scanner and TSA movement received a lot more attention than it otherwise would have.

Tom Rapheal November 25, 2010 at 11:27 am

The hijacking problem is easily solved a security issue though. Doors only openable with on the ground source. Or no doors at all. Give pilots guns with bullets that can’t shoot through the fuselage.

The chances that an airline is hijacked again is minimal, even with current security because the passengers on the plane would storm the cockpit.

Really, there are nearly an infinite number of ways to eliminate this threat that it is ridiculous

Walt D. November 25, 2010 at 11:42 am

You are all totally underestimating the probability of a Roman Catholic nun or priest smuggling a bomb aboard a plane. Why take on this risk when you can prevent it with a nude body scan or groping?

Tim Kern November 25, 2010 at 11:45 am

I fear the discussion is departing from economics (reality) into politics (something that is not reality). Are we really accepting of the idea that the TSA represents security? At what cost? How does one (first measure; then) value the incremental degree of security the TSA has produced?

Red herrings — like pistols in little girls’ teddy bears (Did the girl know she was carrying it? What would she have done with it, had she known? Did someone else plant it on her? Note that “who” and “why” and “where they were” have never been established. Is the mere existence of a pistol some kind of security threat — even when no one knows it’s there) — capture imagination, but do little to enhance the facts surrounding the reality of the threat.

And no, perception is NOT reality. Reality is reality, and the closer our perceptions get to reality, the better our decisions can be. (Note that the quality of the decision is limited by the closeness of perception to reality, but is not guaranteed by it. Some people are just stupid, and their decisions may be stupid, no matter what their factual base. But the first step to making a good decision is a grasp of reality.)

lester November 25, 2010 at 12:19 pm

My fear would be the airline with no security would face insurance that would make tickets 5000 dollars a piece or something.

Also, one thing I’ve noticed in this is people agitating for the Israel style profiling. From what I understand the Israeli style would mean interviewing absolutely everyone on the flight before the flight. That seems a little crazy. and whats to stop a terrorist from just practicing up and giving really nondescript answers?

In the end the foreign policy issues will eventually have to be brought up, much to the consternation of virtually every mainstream commentator save Buchanan and Paul.

Walt D. November 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm

” That seems a little crazy. and whats to stop a terrorist from just practicing up and giving really nondescript answers?”
OK – how many terrorists have made it through security onto El Al planes?
The TSA said they had to grope nuns because a terrorists could disguise themselves as nuns. This is a stupid argument – how many questions would a catholic security officer have to ask to identify an impostor? Probably one or two.( Pick any random question from a catechism.) A security check where everyone was asked questions, like at immigration or customs would take less time than the current scans or groping.

ABR November 25, 2010 at 1:17 pm

If the twin towers had had anti-aircraft guns on the roof, would the owners of the towers (assuming the owners had been private) have been justified in shooting down the planes that eventually destroyed the towers?

If so, then owners of buildings could protect themselves from damage. Individuals could choose not to enter buildings that are not adequately protected.

Should the airlines be 100% responsible for hijack destruction? If I own a car, and someone steals it, am I responsible for the damage the thief causes? Am I responsible if I left the car unlocked and the keys in the ignition?

John Doe November 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Murphy seem to be avoiding one option:

No screening and no insurance.

That’s how the president flies!

Ohhh Henry November 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm

But more importantly, it’s possible that the “efficient” number of terrorist incidents — for the rest of US history — is not zero. In fact, no matter what procedures are implemented, it’s always possible that wily terrorists will still manage to beat the system. In real life, we can never guarantee safety. This is why so many pundits’ discussions of airline travel miss the mark completely: they assume that there is some objective answer of “the right” amount of security, when this is a complex economic question.

The calculation problem, although it is valid, is hardly relevant. The question is not, “What is the right amount of security for Americans,” the question is, “What is the right amount of security for the people who hold a monopoly on its provision within American airports.”

The “right” amount of security, and the type of security, is whatever maximizes the gains (money, prestige, power) of those who control the monopoly.

Inefficiency and ineffectiveness are not merely an unfortunate by-product of the monopolists’ lack of knowledge of the public’s needs and wants, nor is the problem due to their lack of ability to calculate how best to use society’s common resources. It is the fundamental and inevitable nature of every monopoly, that providing wasteful, ineffective services is the policy which maximizes the returns to those who control the monopoly. It is this way because they already “own” everybody’s business. If their revenues are determined by “X” customers times “Y” dollars per service rendered, they cannot easily change the value of “X” to make it either smaller by driving away customers or make it larger by attracting new customers. The monopolists’ revenues will be flat and stagnant unless they can change the value of “Y” to make the price of their service higher. They do so by making their services as inefficient and ineffective as possible.

If the TSA were not human, who were not programmed by nature to follow their own self-interest to the maximum degree possible, then you could question whether these non-humans actually have the knowledge required to operate their monopoly effectively. And, as you say, it is clear that they would lack the knowledge and their monopoly would operate poorly. But they are human, therefore the question of whether or not they have the knowledge of other people’s needs and wants is irrelevant. They have no motivation to serve other people’s needs, therefore they will not.

To a non-monopolist, that is a non-violent person, the question of how to best serve other humans is paramount. They lack the knowledge to serve others perfectly, but what they do have to assist them is customer feedback in the form of bidding on their services, and the existence of competitors who will take away their business from them in a heartbeat if they fail to meet their customers’ requirements. The “knowledge problem” is therefore highly relevant to entrepreneurs in a free market, and not at all relevant to monopolists.

Allen Weingarten November 26, 2010 at 3:23 am

I hold that airlines would do a far better job than government in protecting planes from sabotage. They would probably do something more akin to the Israeli approach, by searching for the perpetrators rather than for the objects they might use. They would also find it advantageous to profile, which includes a disproportionate emphasis on young Muslim males, but is not limited to that criteria. Rather, as any statistician knows, if one can only sample a given number of candidates, he will choose that set which maximizes the likelihood of including the culprits. Can anyone justify sampling by the criteria of political correctness if that reduces the likelihood of locating terrorists?

On the other hand, if there were cases where the government had to protect the population at large, it would be obligated to act, even if it violated the rights of individuals and businesses. Suppose for example, they had determined that Zacharia Moussaoui was the 20th highjacker, on the day before 9/11. I for one would have wanted them to do WHATEVER IT TOOK to prevent the planes from being highjacked, even at violation of the rights of individuals and businesses. I know this goes against the libertarian view, but counter that there are extremes where survival trumps morality. I also know that some libertarians, if faced with the option of either preventing the murder of 100 million people, or protecting the rights of individuals, would choose the latter (because they have told me so). To them defending the rights of individuals is tantamount to a transcendent religious obligation, which I do not share in the event of catastrophic emergencies.

maruta November 26, 2010 at 4:46 am

Weingarten said: “…some libertarians, if faced with the option of either preventing the murder of 100 million people, or protecting the rights of individuals, would choose the latter (because they have told me so). To them defending the rights of individuals is tantamount to a transcendent religious obligation, which I do not share in the event of catastrophic emergencies.”

IMO, very illogical, Sir. Imagine what you would do “in the event of catastrophic emergencies” unless you try to save nobody else than individuals, be it thousands or millions of them? Define what emergency is in your view. Was 911 already a catastrophic emergency before it actually took place? Did you predict it, or foresee it, or know about it beforehand? And then arrest all “young Muslim males” available?

Allen Weingarten November 26, 2010 at 11:20 am

Do you have any doubt that a forest fire is an emergency, or that it can require the destruction of private property to prevent its spread? Do you have any doubt that if a terrorist were attempting to get on a plane, so as to drive it into a building is an emergency, or that it could require seizing someone’s cell phone to prevent it?

My dictionary defines an emergency as a sudden unexpected danger that requires immediate action. Are you interpreting my definition and examples as arresting all “young Muslim males” without evidence of planned terrorism?

Peter Surda November 26, 2010 at 12:02 pm


you pose an interesting question, I have asked myself similar ones in the past. To reformulate it into general terms: the properties of A and B are in potential danger of being violated, and C can only prevent violation of one of them at the cost of causing a violation of another. For some reason (e.g. lack of time), A, B and C cannot communicate and agree to buy each other off.

I came to a relatively obvious conclusion, and then some time later found out that e.g. Walter Block arrived at the same one. It also explains the problems involved in some of the other proposed solutions.

The “solution” is relatively simple. There is no logical necessity for one of the choices to be legal. Once you eliminate that assumption, the problem boils to two options:
- C saves the property of A but violates the property of B, and can be sued and punished for it.
- C saves the property of B but violates the property of A, and can be sued and punished for it.

The theoretical argument ends here.

From a practical point of view, the one who’s property was damaged might be persuaded to seek a lesser sentence for C. Or, people sympathetic to the case might organise a fundraiser to pay the damages. Or, if the whole problem was caused by another party, T, the court might decide that a proportion of damages be paid by him rather than C.

In general, there is no need to declare someone’s property rights to be worth less than other one’s in order to solve the puzzle.

carn November 26, 2010 at 12:40 pm

While i agree with the article, as always with such a thing, one question i have:
Why people discussing airline security always ignore the experience of the israeli airline?

It is the top target for any Islamic would-be martyr and yet in the last decades there has be no major attacks. Security there doesn’t include body scanners or pat downs for everyone, but instead trained security personnel use their intelligence to estimate, which passengers are more likely to be a security risk. Such passenger are then checked more through fully.
Of course i understand why mainstream ignores this – it has the consequence that male arabs and male muslims (at least where security has reasons to believe he is a muslim) between the age 15 and 40 receive far more attention than female Caucasian older than 60 and that of course would be horrible discrimination.

But why does the article ignore this?

After all, since it is more customer friendly, cheaper and likely more secure, it would be the method likely preferred by the free market.

Allen Weingarten November 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

‘male arabs and male muslims…between the age of 15 and 40 receive far more attention than female Caucasians older than 60 and that of course would be horrible discrimination.’

That is precisely how the attention to candidates should be given. Those who have committed 90% of the acts of terrorism should be examined 10 times as much as those who have committed 9% of the acts of terrorism, and the same guide holds for many other criteria, such as traveling with one-way tickets, coming from certain countries, etc. It is the principle behind stratified sampling.

Of course there are many other considerations, such as the answer to a rapid series of questions and certain attitudes. Here, it is necessary to have intelligent interviewers, rather than lower waged union workers.

One of the silly arguments used to oppose the Israeli system is that we have 60 times the amount of traffic, despite the fact that we also have 50 times their population. Would anyone argue that we can’t have sufficient taxis or restaurants, as do the Israelis, because we have 50 time their population? Besides, our population is under 1% Muslim, while Israel’s population is about 16% Muslim.

seedye November 26, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Murphy’s argument: magic market fairies will fix anything.

“Market forces” is not a law of nature, it is simply human behavior: individuals making purchasing decisions that are often irrational, and often not in the individual’s best interest. This doesn’t make the economy more “efficient”, it just means that as long as profits are being made, resources can be used as inefficiently as profitable producers want.

A government-only solution isn’t going to be any more efficient. Government spends resources where the political power lies. Keep people afraid (simpler and more compelling than keeping them informed), and there is always money for defense and criminal justice. Even though spending money on human services is often more efficient way of preventing the sort of problems that law enforcement must deal with, the political power lies in producing more security theater.

Should the airport security be run privately or publicly? How about doing whatever works, instead of seeing the solution to every problem needing to be pressed into some ideological mold? For starters, I think most would agree that the TSA overstepped and should be slapped down hard. Does that plan really require a libertarian vs. liberal economics debate?

Anthony November 26, 2010 at 6:09 pm


You don’t seem to have grasped some of the fundamentals of economics. You said “as long as profits are being made, resources can be used as inefficiently as profitable producers want” but that doesn’t make any sense.

If there are two businesses producing a product, one that wastes resources and one that uses resources efficiently, the efficient business would be able to charge a lower price and make the same profit as the wasteful one. Since the efficient business would charge less, customers would leave the wasteful business in favor of the efficient one, driving the wasters out of business. As long as there is competition there is no profit to be made for companies that waste resources.

You are correct when you say that the market consists of human behavior, but your assertion that people make decisions that are not in their “best interest” comes across as arrogant and condescending. What right do you have to tell me what my “best interest” is? How would you know my interests better than I do? A free market necessarily reflects the genuine desires of its participants, and it does so better than any system involving some select people making choices they say are in the “best interest” of the “irrational public”.

Economics in One Lesson (available on this website) is a great resource if you want to broaden your perspective.

Allen Weingarten November 27, 2010 at 4:26 am

Anthony, perhaps the way to describe the market is that individual choice is the BEST possible way to deal with the exchange of goods & services. This allows for the fact that none have perfect knowledge and understanding, but the reward and punishment by the market moves individuals toward ever improved decisions.

Jack Roberts November 27, 2010 at 11:23 am

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