Blogs > Liberty and Power > The False Dichotomy of the Status Quo and “Privatizing” the TSA

Nov 27, 2010 2:16 pm

The False Dichotomy of the Status Quo and “Privatizing” the TSA

In a column in Saturday’s Guardian, Amanda Marcotte tries to play, in her words, “Mercutio” in the ongoing TSA drama by being part of the “progressive civil libertarians” who object to the TSA’s new procedures but who are not in favor of “privatizing” them.  Her dismissal of the conservative criticisms as mere cover for outsourcing to private companies what the TSA is doing ignores the very different criticism being made by libertarians like myself.

We agree with her that the question is not who should grope us, but whether such gropings should happen at all or are even necessary.  I have certainly raised the question of whether or not the scanner/pat-down combination is effective in providing actual protection against terrorism, or whether it’s just “security theatre.”  In addition, I’ve made the point that any intrusive form of “security” is likely to discourage people, on the margin, from flying, inducing them into the far more dangerous option of driving.  The new procedures, whether done by the TSA or a private firm, are ineffective, privacy violating, and will cause American deaths.

Marcotte should take seriously the libertarian alternative, which is to turn security over to the airlines themselves. Aside from the very obvious fact that the airlines have the most to lose if a plane gets blown up, which provides them with strong incentives to get it right, the airlines would not want to create a security system that discourages people from purchasing their product. What profit-seeking entity would want to enrage its potential customers with intrusive methods such as nude scanners and intimate body searches? Only an institution that had no incentive to care what its “customers” think, nor any way of figuring out what trade-offs they would accept, would do so. And that institution is the government or any other monopoly provider.

Any airline who adopted the TSA’s policies would quickly find that the competition would have every reason in the world to develop a more customer-friendly and safe way to protect their customers and their millions in physical capital. As I have also pointed out several times in the last week, the Israelis seem to do just fine without scanners and officially-sanctioned gropings, so there’s no reason to think airlines couldn’t do the same. It’s interesting that the “progressive civil libertarians” who were (rightly) so skeptical of the government’s ability to get correct information on WMDs in Iraq and to “rebuild” that country aren’t equally skeptical of the government’s ability to ever get airport security right. If Iraq was all about “the show,” why should we ever believe government-provided airport security will ever be anything more than “security theater?”

Rather than “privatizing” the TSA and putting it in the hands of equally unresponsive, even if private, government contractors, why not let the airlines themselves compete to provide the mix of security and passenger comfort that the American public wants? If people really do want security theater, airlines who don’t provide it will have a reason to do so. And if others want a different trade-off, because we don’t want intrusive pat-downs or ineffective and equally invasive machines, we’ll find an airline that provides it.

The progressive left claims to be skeptical of top-down, large scale, one-size-fits-all solutions to social problems, preferring, they say, the bottom-up and local. They are also supposedly opposed to monopolies like the TSA. Okay, let’s see if they mean it. Libertarians are equally suspicious of those sorts of solutions, and there’s nothing more one-size-fits-all and top-down than the TSA. Right now that size is not fitting an increasing number of American fliers. Why not join us libertarians in supporting not the “privatization” of the TSA, but the de-monopolization of airport security and the end of the TSA? What reason does the left have to think “this time” government will get privacy issues right?

Let the discovery process of decentralized market competition work to figure out the trade-off that Americans want. And let’s put an end to state-sanctioned nude photos and gropings, whether they are done by the TSA or a “private” monopoly contractor.

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