David R. Henderson  

TSA: Totally Subjugating Americans

The Park Ranger and the Museum... In Defense of Supernanny...

I've been working on what TSA really stands for and the title above is the one I've narrowed in on. I'd be interested in hearing yours.

A few developments. First, TSA has backed down on groping or taking nude pictures of pilots and I think it's mainly due to one pilot, Michael Roberts, taking a stand last month. On the Hannity show the other evening, Hannity asked Roberts what his objection was and Roberts answered that he didn't want TSA taking a picture of his penis. Hannity was nonplussed, as if, somehow, Roberts had used a bad word. What would Hannity have preferred: junk?

Second, some of these TSA people seem shameless. Check out this story about how TSA agents caused urine to drip down a man's leg, even after he warned them this would happen, and never even apologized.

Third, "Flying Fish," who blogs about travel tried to paint a sympathetic portrait of TSA employees by reporting on a survey he did. Here's how he summarized it:

Each of the 17 TSA TSOs that responded to me detailed their personal discomfort in conducting the new pat downs, with more than one stating that it is likely they are more uncomfortable performing the pat down than passengers are receiving them.

"Oh," I thought, when I read this, "good for them for at least feeling bad about it."

Then I went and actually read their comments. I recommend that you do the same. Here are a few:

"Even worse is having to try and feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers and we seem to get a lot of obese passengers!"
"I am attracted to men, not women and if I was attracted to women, it would not be the large number of passengers I handle daily that have a problem understanding what personal hygiene is."
"Yesterday a passenger told me to keep my hands off his penis or he'd scream. Is this how a 40 year old man in business attire acts? He'll scream? My 3 year old can get away with saying he'll scream, but a 40 something business man? I am a professional doing my job, whether I agree with this current policy or not, I am doing my job. I do not want to be here all day touching penises."

Get it? Their discomfort has to do with how icky we are and has nothing to do, apparently, with the fact that they're violating us and our rights. And, sure enough, some of them remind us that they're just "serving their country" and following orders.

Fourth, in his column today, George Will ran with my idea that John Tyner be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Fifth, talking about the President, Obama has weighed in from his safe perch wherever he is. Here are two highlights from the news story:

Obama acknowledged that as president he does not have to go through pat-downs and other normal security procedures at airports, since he flies on Air Force One.

"One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes huge inconvenience for all of us," Obama said.

"All of us?" Really, Mr. President?

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Regulation

COMMENTS (38 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

I'm furious about how ridiculous American airport security has become. Still, I don't think it would make me feel better about this if Mr. Obama had to experience this too.

If we all demand personal searches the system will breakdown. The cost will be too high. This is one of those rare circumstances where individual disobedience can really make a difference.

We can all still demand hand inspection of our bags because of film. If everyone demanded hand inspection of their bags that system would breakdown too.

David R. Henderson writes:

I wouldn't feel better if Obama were experience it too. I was simply calling him on his deceit.

Rick Ankrum writes:

TSA = Touch sensitive areas

Kurbla writes:

It seems to me that you're arguing "statist" side of the fence.

  • Shouldn't libertarian believe that people who fly over my head, over my land, without my permission actually usurp my property rights?
  • Shouldn't libertarian support the measures that discourage usurpers of my property rights?

Where is error in that reasoning?

David R. Henderson writes:

What gives you the right to prevent people from being 30,000 feet above you? Also, this might not be a show-stopper for you, but the only way to prevent this "usurpation" is to prevent people from flying.

lukas writes:

Kurbla, that depends entirely on whether you subscribe to the ridiculous theory that whoever owns a piece of land also owns everything located vertically beneath or above it, no matter how remote.

rjs writes:

a good linked litany of TSA abuse:


rapscallion writes:

I agree that the TSA is doing a lot of things badly, but I still feel it's a wee bit opportunistic for libertarians to castigate the TSA while not discussing what the--almost certainly more effective--market solution is likely to be: de facto discrimination against people with arab and muslim backgrounds; that's the elephant in the room.

physEcon writes:

Only problem with Totally Subjugating Americans is that the TSA also subjugates others, no one escapes. How about Totally Screwing Aviation?

Pat writes:

For the first time my family will not be together for Thanksgiving. I will not let my children fly over to see me until the TSA regulations become reasonable. For the first time I will not fly to see my children during Christmas either. I am scared to death of TSA, and will avoid flying anywhere until TSA removes this intrusive, scary regulations. At the end, it is the american people and particularly, the airlines who will suffer most.

Bob writes:

Like the old "Twilight Zone" episode...

TSA = "To Serve Americans"

... it's a cookbook!

Andy Hallman writes:
I agree that the TSA is doing a lot of things badly, but I still feel it's a wee bit opportunistic for libertarians to castigate the TSA while not discussing what the--almost certainly more effective--market solution is likely to be: de facto discrimination against people with arab and muslim backgrounds; that's the elephant in the room.

That depends partly on whether the market solution would entail invading Arab and Muslim countries. If national defense were about defense rather than projecting power in the Muslim world, my guess is that airline security would not be much of a problem to begin with, at least in the United States.

Further, if market mechanisms were allowed to operate, and the result was that more Muslims immigrated to the US, the number of non-terrorist Muslims in the country would grow, and perhaps the ratio of terrorist Muslims to non-terrorist Muslims would become so small that it would cease to be a useful piece of information (assuming it isn't already). If the US continues or expands military operations in the Middle East, I doubt that will occur, however.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andy Hallman,
Well put. BTW, I read your autobio and I think, on that basis, you might enjoy my monthly column on antiwar.com.

Anonymous writes:

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physEcon writes:

I wonder sometimes if these new ridiculous practices are viewed as a plus by some as they will encourage people to take ground transportation and possibly lead to increased support for a high speed rail network.

Kurbla writes:


    "What gives you the right to prevent people from being 30,000 feet above you? Also, this might not be a show-stopper for you, but the only way to prevent this "usurpation" is to prevent people from flying."

If I had the right to prevent people from being 3 feet above me - while I peacefully sit on my property - how I lost that right if they are 30 000 feet above me? What happened between 3 and 30 000 feet?

You and your readers might be interested in seeing a number of posts on the TSA by libertarians/classical liberals on our blog. Here are three of note:




David N writes:

An airport scanner may be to Obama what a supermarket scanner was to Bush I.

Pandaemoni writes:


For that matter, why stop at the edge of the atmosphere? What of all the satellites we should knock out of orbit?

There has to be a rule of reason. Someone three feet over your head would be a significant annoyance, someone tunneling 30 feet below your property might also be a bother. You likely would never even notice a plane that was 30,000 feet straight up, and if you did you'd likely discover that said plane was not quite "straight" up, and so not over your property anyway. (Or, if it were, it would be in and out of "your" airspace in less than one second.)

By the same token things floating through the molten mantle do not become yours when they happen to pass 1000 miles under your home.

It's hard to believe this issue would really bother anyone quite so much as it seems to bother you.

Did you file a lawsuit when you discovered water, sewer, gas and electrical easements run across your property? (As I am sure they do.) That seems a much more practical issue for which you'd likely find greater support.

Oh and TSA = Thorough Sexual Assault

Lars P writes:

So how did we get here?

I think this is a case of an organization being tasked with a narrow objective to be reached at all costs.

In a sane world costs and benefits are weighed against each other to figure out what to do.

But the mandate for the TSA is to minimize the risk for terror attacks on airplanes, period. Nothing else is a factor in their decisions.

BTW, the only sure way to accomplish this is to abolish air travel completely, and long term I guess that's where this will lead, if left unchanged.

To get out of this, our leaders will have to admit that having a plane fall out of the sky every few years can be an acceptable cost for getting other benefits. I don't think that will happen soon...

Incentives matter.

Liam writes:

This entire TSA nonsense has gotten completely out of hand and I have tried to find certain facts (with no luck) such as, are children exempt? My daughter is almost 15 and I would not allow her for a moment to step into a scanner to be viewed naked. And if I don’t allow her to be viewed naked my alternative is molestation? I assume the definition of what constitutes molestation still applies. (The crime of sexual acts with children up to the age of 18, including touching of private parts, exposure of genitalia…)

And since it seems nobody has brought this up the 4th Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

If we were all required to strip naked prior to boarding an airplane would that be reasonable? If you do find it unreasonable then what is the difference between actually being naked and being seen naked?

Plus I am concerned that being a foreigner in the US, while I am trying to depart I would be asked to either being seen naked or molested and I am not allowed to decline either and just leave without detention and a hefty fine. However since I must travel by plane (as I live in Singapore) it would seem that my only option would be to take ground transport until I am safely in Canada and then fly from there.

But what happens if my company requires me to go to our HQ in Palo Alto? What will happen when I explain that to depart I must take an extra day or two at their expense in order to reach Canada or Mexico so that I can fly from there and that they must also bear the cost of this. If they decline and I am subsequently dismissed are they within their rights? This crosses my mind because next year I will indeed need to fly to California and I am concerned.

And all these considerations stem from the fact that the TSA (on behalf of the Federal Government) has the power to violate people’s fundamental rights. Do I have a right to basic human dignity? Do I relinquish that right because I have chosen to work at a company that sends me to the US every now and then?

I live in a very restrictive society and yet I only need to pass through one metal detector which is situated just in front of the boarding gate. Until that moment I could easily be carrying a weapon. And the people at the security check are not armed. And there is no profiling of Muslims as Singapore is surrounded on all sides by poor Muslim countries and a large percentage of residents are Muslim. And yet the Government would never institute the procedures that people need to go through in the US even though they easily could with practically zero backlash since they control the local press.

It’s ironic that I seem to have more rights in a country that actually has far less.

And Kurbla: To answer your silly question Class G Air Space starts 600 feet above the ground and not 3 feet. And as you have no way to legally control what happens at heights much lower than that directly over your property it seems a waste of time to discuss it. Though please feel free to build a fence around your yard 30,000 feet high.

Tracy W writes:

while not discussing what the--almost certainly more effective--market solution is likely to be: de facto discrimination against people with arab and muslim backgrounds

Actually not. Let's say that people with Arab and Muslim backgrounds are singled out a lot more. This gives a massive incentive for terrorists to plant the bombs/guns/whatever on someone with a different background. If, say, elderly Chinese women are not being searched, kidnap an elderly Chinese grandmother's two-year old granddaughter, and send her a package with a note saying "Carry this package onto the plane, and your granddaughter lives. Tell the police and she dies." The terrorists could include the two-year old's little finger as a symbol that they're serious.

For me to believe in racial profiling at airports as a solution to terrorism requires believing that terrorists wouldn't do that sort of thing. I don't know about you, but I can't be so innocent.

MernaMoose writes:


while not discussing what the--almost certainly more effective--market solution is likely to be: de facto discrimination against people with arab and muslim backgrounds; that's the elephant in the room.

You aren't making any sense here. First you admit it would be more effective. But then you have heart burn with the "discrimination"? You must have a very much left-wing liberal concept of what "discrimination" is, to make this kind of statement.

There's no elephant. There's just the fact that 9.5 out of 10 terrorists in recent history have been Muslims. And while we can talk all day about AQ recruiting non-Muslims to carry out attacks, that's a far, far bigger pipe dream than the very real possibility that a Muslim terrorist would attempt to bring a bomb onto a plane concealed in a body cavity (which, as I've read, has already been done over seas).

If suicide bombers were easy to find, we'd be seeing a lot more bombs going off in the US. The fact that there are so few of them, indicates the suicide bombers are not easy to find. It's hard enough to find willing bombers among Muslims, and virtually impossible outside their ranks.

btw, anyone who believes that if the US wasn't in the M.E., then the Arabs would suddenly stop attacking us, is on Fantasy Island. The "Bin Laden said....." line doesn't hold water for 1 nanosecond -- he's the freaking enemy. You can believe him if it makes you feel better, but don't expect the rest of us to believe him.

For anyone who knows any history, Bid Laden's first broadcast after 9/11 was loaded with Pan-Arabism. He was making a power grab for control of the Islamic universe. America is just a convenient scapegoat.

They'd hate us even if we weren't in the ME. Hard core Muslims hate anyone who isn't part of the Islamic universe.

TSA = Totally Screwing All

Liam writes:


You said "They'd hate us even if we weren't in the ME. Hard core Muslims hate anyone who isn't part of the Islamic universe."

You mean extremists? The nature of extremists is to lash out at and blame those who don't subscribe to their ideology. Religion has little to do with it. Christian Extremists, Maoists, Jewish Extremists, etc...

You seem to be implying that violence against against Non-Muslims is “part if the Islamic universe” for those who are devote Muslims.

Am I reading that correctly?

MernaMoose writes:

It wouldn't make me feel any better if Obama and all of congress had to go through the same screening the rest of us do. Nor would it make me feel any better about ObamaCare if Obama and all of congress had to live with these laws they've passed, just like the rest of us (but congress is exempt from the restrictions of ObamaCare).

But I wonder, if they did have to live with it, would it have made a difference in the legislation they passed?

We The People seem to have grown quite an Aristocracy, and it has become quite arrogant.

wintercow20 writes:


Property rights bundles change when the economic value of what sorts of things are in that bundle changes. Before airplanes were invented, the value of the part of the home ownership bundle, "air in a column up to 30,000 feet above your home" was more valuable to you than to airlines. Now, it is likely the other way 'round. Coase reminded us how hard the transactions costs problem would be with all airlines negotiating with all homeowners for access to this airspace, and it is very likely that the value of being allowed to fly at those altitudes exceeds the discomfort and cost to us of having airlines do this. In a non-transactions costs world with perfectly defined property rights, the rights to the air column at 30,000 feet would be bid away from homeowners if that was already part of the bundle, and would have remained with airlines if not already part of the home-bundle. The courts have recognized this.

On the topic of the post, Professor Henderson, some students and I were discussing the question of whether the TSA groping would actually be a violation of the Rule of Law as the classical liberals understand it. The Rule of Law requires that the "law" apply equally to all, and that it be predictable and general. Absent the possibility that some groups can be exempt from groping, would the TSA invasions violate the Rule of Law? I'll keep my 2 cents to myself for now. Thanks.

Tracy W writes:

And while we can talk all day about AQ recruiting non-Muslims to carry out attacks, that's a far, far bigger pipe dream

You think it's a pipe dream? Personally, I think it's a nightmare.

charles ewell writes:

TSA......"Thousands Standing Around"

Hired Mind writes:

So TSA personnel face some discomfort doing their job? Boo hoo hoo.

As an airline traveler, I face groping, violation of my 4th Amendment rights, humiliation, beating, fines, and jail.

Cry me a river, TSA.

rapscallion writes:


I appreciate that you read my comments, but you keep putting words in my mouth. I think that giving extra scrutiny to people with Arab and Muslim backgrounds is likely to be the most cost effective method of preventing terrorism on airplanes, taking the number and ideological bent of terrorists as fixed. However, I agree with Andy Hallman and David Henderson that our foreign policy greatly exacerbates the threat of terrorism from Muslims, and that a more libertarian foreign policy would greatly obviate the need for discriminatory security processes.

When I say that such discrimination is an "elephant in the room," I mean simply that it isn't something anyone wants to discuss because it's so unpopular, not because it's not the least bad of the feasible options. In the same sense, politicians who promise to cut the budget without going into detail about exactly which popular programs they are going to cut, are trying to avoid, "an elephant in the room."

Andy Hallman writes:


There's just the fact that 9.5 out of 10 terrorists in recent history have been Muslims.

You're looking at the wrong population. The question we need answered is "What percentage of Muslims who fly in the US are terrorists?" But even that assumes Muslims are easily identifiable. I think it's more likely that the discrimination will be based on skin color.

It's hard enough to find willing bombers among Muslims, and virtually impossible outside their ranks.

That's not true of the Tamil Tigers.

btw, anyone who believes that if the US wasn't in the M.E., then the Arabs would suddenly stop attacking us, is on Fantasy Island.

It worked when the US tried it in Lebanon. When Hezbollah attacked the US and French troops in Lebanon in 1983, those two governments withdrew their forces, and Hezbollah's attacks against them ceased.

On the subject of suicide terrorism, I highly recommend Robert Pape's book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. For a flavor of the contents of the book, see Pape's interview with The American Conservative.

MernaMoose writes:

Okay. I guess I'm missing the tone in your posts, I'll try to keep it mind for future. I completely missed your intended meaning with "elephant in the room", it makes a lot more sense now.

tech cynic writes:

someone should sue the TSA to demand the right to walk thru the screen area stark naked, to satisfy the security requirement and avoid getting irradiated and groped. if we can't have our privacy when traveling, we want at least to be able to 'give it up' on our own terms.

Sheldon Richman writes:

Touch, Stroke, Abuse.

Nick writes:

Dr. Henderson,

I enjoy your posts a lot and i usually feel you are being levelheaded but I have to side with the TSA workers at least the 'just following orders' ones in this.

You would really expect someone to quit their job in this economy? EVen if they had a moral objection they don't decide the rules, and what they are being asked to do, is fairly minor invasion of privacy they aren't being ordered to deprive someone of their life or property (and no one is being coerced to fly on a plane). I think its a lot to expect someone to quit over this, and certainly no reason to deride these folks who are just trying to do their job.

I dont agree with the TSA procedures but the ones responsible are the administrators and ultimately politicians. While surely some of the workers at TSA may get a 'power trip' its more likely most just want to put keep a roof and food on the table.

Liam writes:


There was another group that also claimed "I was just following orders" and they had a lot more at stake than their jobs.

However, I think the greatest disservice that the TSA does is create the illusion that people are safe flying on US Airlines because of the TSA's actions. People are equally safe flying on Iberia or British Airways and yet they are not required to be seen naked or their privates touched. They also have soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and they have also suffered devastating terrorist attacks.

Though a person may not be coerced to fly and it is obviously your choice to take a plane, does that mean that you should be expected to relinquish your rights so that you can fly? And if you do not wish to suffer at the hands of the TSA and decide to take alternative transport are they not impeding your right to benefit from technology and the miracle of flight?

I do agree that it is the top Administrators who bear a large degree of the blame but I do not agree that you can shrug off your share of it (small as it may be) because you are just doing your job. Bad economy or not.

Nick writes:


First of all let's drop the hyperbole, they arent shoving jews into ovens, its unfortunate that we cant have a reasonable conversation without someone getting compared to a nazi and it diminishes the true horror of what the nazis did.

Second, You can charter a flight, or as you pointed out, travel outside the US and fly from there, so you really aren't being deprived of your right or ability to fly in a plane, as it is *possible* to fly without being screened its just not necessarily convenient.

Third, you have to understand these guys are making 30-40k a year and the requirements of a TSA screener are about the same as a burger flipper at McD's basically a HS diploma, and a clean background check. This is a *very* good job for most of these people and to quit would mean they would forfeit UI benefits in an economy with 10% unemployment (especially as unskilled labor). The incentive to quit is very low especially over a rule they can do nothing about.

if you really believe the low level people should quit over this I dont think you are living in the real world.

Liam writes:


You are really reaching here, Nick. First my reference to "just following orders" was not a comparison to TSA = Nazi. That's ridiculous to assume that I was drawing that comparison. I am referring to how it's rhetoric and an excuse.

And secondly, the fact remains that if I need to drive 16 hours or take a train or charter my own plane, it is still an infringement of my rights. I haven't done anything wrong but I in order to ensure I do not have to submit to what I feel is an unreasonable search I must sacrifice wealth and productivity. But what if I don't have that luxury? Is because I am poor and unable to to accomodate those conditions mean that I just have to take it?

And I NEVER suggested that anyone should quit over this or beleive they should. What people chose to do for a living is their own business and you are putting words in my mouth. I said that you can not shrug off your culpability by saying that you are just doing your job.

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