David R. Henderson  

Abolish the TSA

What Technology Wants... Ich Auf Deutsch...

Art Carden has an excellent article on Forbes.com in which he advocates abolishing the TSA. I give a segment on this in my econ class when I discuss, at length, Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society." How does Hayek's article apply? The clearest cut success stories we have are of other passengers using their local knowledge to thwart the shoe bomber, the underpants bomber, and the United flight #93 bombers. Of course, there's a huge difference between my first two examples and the third. In the third case, all the passengers died. But, as I said to a flight attendant when I traveled on a Boeing 777 from LAX to Boston on September 22, 2001, on a nearly empty flight that United had offered to let me out of with a full refund, "The reason we're safer now is that we passengers are never again going to think about a hijacking the same way. We're not going to sit passively as the FAA told us to."

At the Left-Right conference on war and peace last February, when I talked to Ralph Nader about the TSA's new naked-picture policy, he said he thought we could beat this one. I'm starting to think he's right. And let's remember the stakes. It's not just our privacy, our dignity, and our right not to be sexually assaulted. It's also about our lives. People who decide to drive rather than take a short-haul flight will face approximately 80 times the fatality rate per mile that people on commercial airlines face. The TSA is killing people. I supervised a Masters' thesis on this at the Naval Postgraduate School.

BTW, I have a new hero: John Tyner. He kept his cool and even remained polite. Impressive. He deserves the President's Medal of Freedom.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Does "clearest cut" mean "observable"? We're probably looking at a highly, highly selected sample here. It excludes:

1. Observations that are selected out because they didn't even try because they didn't think they could get past the TSA or didn't want to take the risk, and

2. Cases that did try that the TSA weeded out that we don't know about. I'm not aware of any of these cases (duh!), but we do know about plots foiled by law enforcement not on planes, so it's not implausible at all the the TSA foiled a few. In fact, it's not implausible at all that every change in TSA policy we've seen so far has been set off by an incident they're keeping under wraps.

This is not a case, of course, for the kind of intrusive TSA policies we've been hearing about lately. I'm of the opinion that they almost certainly are inappropriate. It's also not a case against your Hayekian point. I'm in strong agreement with you on that. It's simply to say that the accuracy of your point in favor of the power of local knowledge in this circumstance is by no means a refutation of the TSA itself.

Carl writes:

That guy really missed his flight simply because he didn't want to be patted down? What's his problem?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ironic, isn't it Carl? You have the balls to make a scene but you don't want to show them off :)

Eric writes:


This is an honest question, not rhetorical. You are anti-war, but expect the passengers not to sit passively. I'm assuming you expect them to attack the hijackers in some fashion. This risks the lives of many innocent passengers and, as in war, it's not clear whether the hijackers are the type A (who are unlikely to kill anyone)or Type B (who are planning to crash the plane into a building). Would you participate in the attack on the hijackers? What level of certainty about the various unknowns would you need?

FC writes:

Did Nader talk about Zionist domination of Congress? Or does he only share that speech with select audiences?

David R. Henderson writes:

Good question. I'm antiwar in the sense that I'm against every war the U.S. government is in and every war that it has been in since the Revolutionary War, with the possible exceptions of WWII and the war of 1812-14. (The more I've learned about WWII, the more anti-WWII I've become, with deviations around a trend.)
In other words, I'm not a pacifist. I wrote about the distinction here
Re your other questions, "Would you participate in the attack on the hijackers? What level of certainty about the various unknowns would you need?"
I would participate if I had answered the second question to my satisfaction. I don't know how to put a number on the level of certainty. Read my Peacemaking at a Raiders' Game article and see how I did it there.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Carl and Daniel Kuehn,
Interesting, isn't it? Some people will do a lot for a principle. Martin Luther King was willing to risk jail.
I don't recall Ralph mentioning that. I think he did his anti-corporate jihad, but it's been 9 months and I don't totally remember.

Andy writes:


Are you suggesting NO security at airports? As in, get on the plane with whatever you'd like to carry? Or are you suggesting that we go back to metal detection only and no weapons of any sort (which as we know is difficult to define)?

Not rhetorical, not attacking, I just want to know what you think is the right level of pre-flight passenger screening.

As for the link to John Tyner and his adventures. I'm not sure that anyone who'se response to "please step into the scanner" is "I don't think so!" and who's response to a description of the pat down is "if you touch my junk I'll have you arrested" should be on your list of heros.

rapscallion writes:

I'm willing to be persuaded that there are no feasible, effective methods by which the government can screen out terrorists at airports, so it would be better to just save ourselves the hassle and do away with most of the current, invasive screening processes. Nevertheless, I find myself uncharacteristically unsympathetic to the civil libertarian complaint that I've heard the most lately: it's wrong for the government to screen us in a way such that detailed naked images of our bodies are created.

It's obviously the case that people can and do sneak explosives onto planes by concealing them about--and sometimes inside--the body. If the only way to prevent this from happening is with a naked scanner, so be it: we ought to value preventing death more than people's discomfort at the idea that a random TSA screener might know what they look like naked.

Yes, of course, if body scanners aren't effective we shouldn't use them, and if TSA employees abuse their power they should be fired if not prosecuted; but we should agree that if the only relevant tradeoff is between body anxiety and life loss, well, that one's obvious.

Kit writes:

Unfortunately, IMHO, the only thing that the TSA represents is that the terrorists have won. We have gone from a generally acceptable screening process that was effective against all but the most determined attackers to a burdensome, time consuming, wildly more expensive process that may not be any more effective in the long run.

Pre-9/11 going through security was a free-for-all, anyone was allowed to pass through. Now I have to unpack and partially disrobe, after they've looked at my U.S. Passport and matched it to my boarding pass.

Now we have asinine airline luggage policies which further distract the (marginally effective) TSA and increase the odds of something slipping through. I departed DCA for MIA in December 2004 with a 6 inch dive knife unwittingly stowed in my carry-on regulator bag. TSA didn't catch it but cruise line security did when I was boarding the ship. There's a wonderful example for you.

David R. Henderson writes:

Andy asks, "Are you suggesting NO security at airports? As in, get on the plane with whatever you'd like to carry?"
No. I believe in a free-market solution. Just after 9/11, Delta had a plan to have a retired FBI agent on every flight. FAA nixed it.

TimA writes:

Terrorists WILL attack another airplane, and I would not be surprised if it happened within the U.S. What is the marginal value of a life saved from terrorists vs. a life lost driving? The trade-off is one that people do not consider.

If full-body scanners increase the chance of a successful detection from a base of 10% to 20%, would you advocate their use? Consider that scanners add wait time ($), maintenance/personnel costs ($), prevent airlines from instituting efficient security measures, and deter privacy-conscious people from flying.

I'll give you some estimated numbers to illustrate the point.

Chance of terrorist attack on an airplane : Expected rate of terrorist-caused airline deaths of U.S. citizens per year : 2.5 / year
Expected rate of terrorist-caused airline deaths per year (in the U.S.) : 0.5 / year

Increased cost of safety measures : $5-10 per person per flight (taxes, ticket, whatever)
Decreased number of fliers : 1 passenger per 10 flights (~3,000/day)
Increased number of automobile miles per day : 250 * 3000 = 750,000
Number of increased-driving-related fatalities : 2.8 / year (1 per 100,000,000 miles driven)

Now, you could take your added security measures and say that they decrease the chance of an attack by 500%, and if my estimates are anywhere near right, they still cost more lives on average than they save.

This does NOT take into account the inconvenience, time, and money we spend for this tiny increase in safety. I could probably add some numbers for increased numbers of stress-related deaths as well.

But...how can a person argue against something as "good" as "more safety?"

MernaMoose writes:


Nevertheless, I find myself uncharacteristically unsympathetic to the civil libertarian complaint that I've heard the most lately: it's wrong for the government to screen us in a way such that detailed naked images of our bodies are created.

So if you have no objections, and don't get why others do, then I have to ask: just how far are you willing to go with all this, in the name of "safety"?

Are you still going to be saying the same thing you do now, when they start doing bodily orifice checks on your way to your plane? Because after all somebody could stuff something up there.

In fact that idea's been floating around for a long time, and the body scanners aren't going to catch it. There are always going to be explosives whose E-M properties are close enough to body tissue, that you will never be able to design a body scanner that can see them.

As it's been said, the TSA will only catch the stupid terrorists. But it only takes a slightly smarter terrorist to realize you need to put your bomb where the sun don't shine, because they can't see that with their amazing new body scanners.

The ones who pulled off 9/11 weren't stupid.

Profiling all Muslims would be a surer bet, but there are still so many ways to infiltrate the system.

It's hard to argue (rationally) that these strip searches are really buying us much of anything in the security department. But it's quite easy to see the damage being done by giving all this power to yet another government agency.

The power of the TSA is arbitrary and absolute, for all practical purposes. I presume you see no problem with that part of it anyway?

rapscallion writes:


I simply pointed out that IF body scanners are efficacious in screening out terrorists, and IF the TSA is being professional in its administration of them, then I didn't consider anxiety about being seen naked by strangers who see thousands of other naked people everyday a sufficient bad to outweigh the good of preventing terrorist attacks.

Of course, there are always line-drawing arguments: even if everyone only walked through regular metal detectors instead of full body scanners, the logic of the slippery-slope retort, "well, then, what about body cavity searches..." would still apply. Personally, I see a world of difference between kinda-nude images and body cavity searches.

To cover all my bases: I should be clear that I, too, would support a market solution over a government-imposed one, but don't think it will ever happen. Why? Because the completely free market solution would probably be simply to single out people with muslim and arab backgrounds for special scrutiny, but that's just not happening any time soon.

MernaMoose writes:

Well, if any of those if's held up, you sort of might have a case. But those are a lot of big if's there.

And I'm not making slippery slope arguments. If terrorists are determined to be terrorists -- and we must presume they are -- then they'll put their bombs where ever they must.

Upon which, the "need" for body cavity searches must be deemed as real as the "need" for what they're now doing, and we should then logically be screaming that they haven't implemented body cavity searches as part of the deal.

I'm glad that you see the existence of lines somewhere though, with the body cavity search. But many of us draw this line a little further out.

Jaap writes:

ok, profiling ALL muslim- and arab-flyers would work... if all terrorists were indeed muslims. what if a recent convert white woman would blow up a plane, or even less likely, a non-muslim, non-arab passenger would do something terrible (but we all know white people are no terrorists, right? McVeigh, Unabomber, prolife-activists... ).
unthinkable, so let's just profile all 1.2 billion muslims in the world.

all these measures have little effect preventing terrorism, but do impair our freedom.

Kit writes:

I'm not advocating zero security, and I could have been a bit more complete in my initial response. The implication being that pre-9/11 it was a free-for-all, now we're on the verge of strip searches for all - so perhaps we should seek balance somewhere between. If you fly to the UK on a regular basis you can enter the country with a retina scan. I fly ~15 domestic round trips per year on average and would gladly have my ID stored if I could walk through the metal detector without having to take off my sneakers.

My son is in boarding school and he has been unlucky enough to get pulled nearly every time he leaves Philadelphia for an up-close inspection by TSA. He's a 16 year old caucasian flying with a US Passport.

I'm not confident in the new measures (see all the other posts re: determined attackers) and think that the only thing worse than no security is the illusion of complete security.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I'm reminded of the famous quote by RW Emerson, who was in jail because of an unjust law. Thoreau asked "What are you doing in here?" to which Emerson replied "What are you doing out there?".

We are on the brink of large-scale civil disobedience on this subject.

@Eric - There is a cheap joke about having a pacifist try to explain their philosophy while you bash their nose. I'm not a pacifist but there is no parallel between defending your person and the international intrigues that bring a State into a war. I would expect a pacifist to join a mob that overwhelmed a group of hijackers.

Carl writes:

I'm all for less government mandated security at airports and am sympathetic to abolishing the TSA.

However, in this particular circumstance, John Tyner does not deserve admiration in my opinion. It seems as if he was perfectly fine being patted down until he learned that *OMG* another man's hand might touch his scrotum!

Sexual assault, right! Well, no, it's a standard pat down. There's nothing sexual about it. Your scrotum is a body part just like your leg.

"if you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."

Really? "If you touch my junk"? Somebody is watching too much Bevis and Butthead.

This guy thinks he's standing up for liberty, but he's really standing up for grown men acting like fifth grade boys.

Tracy W writes:

Carl, as a woman, I have only observed a man's body from the outside. But, given my observations, I find it extremely implausible that the scrotum is a body part just like a leg.

Carl writes:

@ Tracy W -
Not sure what you are observing, but as a man I can most definitely tell you that the scrotum is a body part.

Tracy W writes:

Carl, your claim was that it's a body part just like a leg. The "just like" is the bit I'm extremely skeptical about.

Ella writes:

Jaap, there are two problems with your "whites are terrorists" theory:

1. None of those people attacked airplanes or mass transit of any kind. (In fact, the "pro-lifers are terrorists" meme is largely fabricated. A better choice would be environmentalists.) So, there's no reason for trying to catch Terrorist Type A in a Terrorist Type B scenario.

2. If you can catch 99% of a certain type of criminal by looking for a single identifier, wouldn't that make it EASIER to catch the other 1%? I mean, if I can screen out 99% of all terrorists or hijackers by stringent rules on allowing Muslims to fly (something that is relatively easy to detect), then doesn't it allow me to focus more resources on the 1% that is harder to detect? Right now, all you have is white noise (pardon the pun), and it's not effective for anything.

Jaap writes:

1. big buildings are of course no problem.

2. and that's why we should trample on the rights of everyone who looks like the guys of the flavour of the week.

TimA writes:

Not that I disagree with your point Jaap about rights, but Muslims are more like the terrorist flavor of the last 40 years. I don't think it's anything indicative about Muslims in general or individual Muslims, and I think it will change over time.

Maybe I should draw a Venn diagram.

Jaap writes:

40 years? 10 years ago nobody cared about muslims.
we had problems with seperatist groups, reli-crazies (Koresh, the Japanese dudes with the Sarin-gas), lone lunatics, left-wing/right-wing radicals...

this article might be something for you:
of course, this article is not adding up the death-toll of all terrorist-attacks, but it should make you think. in reality terrorism is probably evenly distributed among religions.

besides, terrorism is just violence that is not state-sponsored. this means a.o. that violence sponsored by the USG is not counted...

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