Bryan Caplan  

Global Utilitarianism and Airport Security

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Garett's main point - air travel terrorism has enormous social costs counting the effect on foreign policy - is clearly correct.  The straightforward implication: Mildly reducing the risk of terrorism with major inconvenience for air travelers easily passes a cost/benefit test.

However, none of this argues in favor of mere security theater - like making sure people's tickets match their I.D.  In fact, Garett's point is an powerful argument against security theater.  First, security theater is a waste of resources that could be reallocated to actually reducing the risk of terrorism.  Second, and more importantly, security theater probably increases public resentment against all airport security. 

Closing question: I'd be curious how far Garett would take his argument.  Couldn't terrorist attacks on trains, malls, sporting events, or bridges also have massively bad effects on foreign policy?  How expansive and pervasive would a global utilitarian's security measures be?


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
8 writes:

Don't let foreign terrorists into the country. If foreigners aren't around, they can't blow your citizens up, which then causes your citizens to drop bombs on other people.

libfree writes:

I'm usually very convinced by Garrett's reasoning but not on this one. We could spend money more effectively by increasing the air Marshalls and securing cabin doors. We like the idea of security more than security itself.

Jim Rose writes:
Couldn't terrorist attacks on trains, malls, sporting events, or bridges also have massively bad effects on foreign policy?

there is just something about airports that makes them a good places to bomb.

the bombing must be inside the plane - not just before to the security screening point. that is not challenging enough to make a point.

Keith K. writes:

"that is not challenging enough to make a point."

Really? If a terrorist got in line in security during the christmas holiday rush and blew up an airport regulation sized suitcase stuffed with dynamite or C4 impregnated with nails, that WOULDN'T make a challenging enough point?

PrometheeFeu writes:

I fully disagree regarding your point on security theater. Yes, intrusive security theater would go away. But people are willing to pay to feel better. I predict that there would be immense amounts of cheap, un-obtrusive security theater. For instance, in French airports, a voice periodically comes on the loudspeakers warning everyone to immediately report unattended luggage. There would be lots of burly uniformed men carrying assault rifles and patrolling with explosives-detection dogs. Every flight would have a prominently featured "flight security officer" who would personally be the size of a mountain. The sort of thing that makes everyone feel like somebody is taking care of this whole security thing.

Of, course, there would also be more subtle actual security measures to actually try to detect bombs, deter hijackers etc... Airplanes exploding are bad business.

Slocum writes:

The reason airport security is a stupid waste of time and money is that a terrorist doesn't have to get past security lines to attack air travel -- just pull a big bomb in a wheelie bag into the middle of a crowded security line and...BOOM. And if that happened, what security measures could be put in place to prevent a recurrence? Think about it.

Why hasn't such an attack already happened? A) Terrorists are completely stupid, or B) Terrorist organizations don't have anyone on the ground in the U.S. willing and able to carry out such attacks (or attacks on other obvious soft targets). I think the correct explanation is pretty obviously B rather than A.

RPLong writes:
Mildly reducing the risk of terrorism with major inconvenience for air travelers easily passes a cost/benefit test.

As I indicated under Garett's post, I am not sure why this is such a foregone conclusion. Would someone mind assuming that I am totally dense and explaining it to me as though I were a 6-year-old? How in the world do such massive costs compensate for the miniscule benefit obtained?

Was Caplan being sarcastic and I just didn't realize it?

Chris H writes:

Jim Rose writes:

that is not challenging enough to make a point.

So is this implying that the challenge of actually accomplishing the deed is what makes terrorists try to do that act? Wouldn't that then imply that the security procedures at airports encourage terrorists to make them targets?

This actually has even worse implications for the idea of "security theater." If security theater makes an attack seem more difficult without actually doing so, then it encourages more attacks that are going after "challenging" targets with no benefit to more of the terrorists being stopped.

Nathan Smith writes:

Liberty-loving Iraqis might find the externalities to be positive. If Garett had been an Iraqi, would he have preferred the superficial security of totalitarianism to liberty? Or, like most Iraqis, would he have welcomed the liberation of the country?

Nyongesa writes:

I always thought one of the central geniuses of OBL (evil genius if you will, i'm agnostic about the word)was that he effectively invoiced us, the average citizen, for the middle eastern portion of our Foreign Policy costs. He closed the circle bringing the cost all the way back home where it hurts.

For a wealth society, high military spending is an affordable cost, BUT every time I stand in line, take off my shoes, and step into a back scatter machine to be imaged "naked" OBL is making me dance, and he does it to EVERY one of us. We can no longer avoid acknowledging the pure connection between our actions in the world and our daily lives here.

From a personal level, OBL and his brethren represent the antithesis of my belief system, and the cost is well worth it, BUT i still resent him pushing me around, literally.

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