Last week, I took an airplane from Vancouver to Atlanta, to give some lectures at the Mises Institute. I took a cab to the airport, since I would be away from my summer home for over two weeks, and this would be cheaper than parking the car at the airport for all that time. I had in my possession a letter, with a Canadian stamp on it, that I really wanted to get out into the socialist mail system. I had intended to mail it the day before, but in the rush of traveling, I had forgotten all about it, until I arrived at the airport.
Happily, there was a post office box right there at the airport, and I dropped the letter into it. But, then a thought occurred to me: this facility was one of those where you pull down a little door like contraption, put the letter in, close the door to make sure the letter was indeed posted, and then close it one last time. Although I only place in it a thin letter the opening was wide enough to mail off a package of a size sufficient to hold 3—4 hard cover books, or maybe a half dozen paper backs. Whereupon it suddenly hit me, far more disquieting: the opening was sufficient, more than sufficient, for a terrorist to place a bomb, a reasonably big one, into that container. He would not have even had to commit suicide to do so. A weight of explosives small enough to fit into that opening could have done a powerful lot of damage, murdering dozens if not scores of people in a crowded airport. Timed to explode 10 minutes later, the perpetrator could have gotten off scot free.
Then, I noticed something else. Although I had to ask directions for the location of the post office box, the same was not true for trash cans. They were literally all over the place, in plain sight, dozens of them placed every 20 yards or so, as far as the eye could see. Each of them, in this particular airport, had a circular hole at the top, measuring more than my hand span (about 8 inches). These were in effect an open invitation to our friends from the terrorist community.
I thought about sharing this information with any one of the myriad of guards, busy bodies, uniformed gropers, policemen, checkers, x ray people, who infest a modern airport. I did not do so for several reasons. One, although I had plenty of time before my scheduled departure (one of the "conveniences" of modern air travel is that you have to waste an inordinate amount of time arriving early), I anticipated the reaction of any of these worthies to whom I might confide my apprehension about post office boxes and waste receptacles, along the following lines: "Come with us, please." Whereupon I would have been detained for hours at best, and days in jail at worst, for intensive questioning. "What business are you in?" "Have you ever published or said anything critical of the government?" ("Me?" Certainly not," might not have been able to withstand even the most cursory of scrutiny in such circumstances.) "Why are you so concerned about bombing?" "Are you a terrorist?" "Do you know anyone from Iraq?" "Do you profess the Muslim faith?"
As I say, speaking up in this public-spirited way would have made me miss the plane, or worse. Instead, I started writing up this column in the airport, while awaiting my departure. Paranoid that I am, I am now keeping my eyes peeled for shifty looking characters putting packages in waste cans (there being no post office boxes in sight, I’m not worried about them). I’m also worried about minions of the state. I am also busily looking over my shoulder as I write, making sure no one is looking at what I write, attempting to decipher my handwriting (I write by hand in airports and later type up what I have written).
But here I’m relatively safe. I can barely read my own handwriting. Then, too, there is something off-putting to me about aiding and abetting these inept airport guardians of ours. They are agents of an institution Spooner has called "a band of murderers and thieves."
While I have no doubt that were I to see one of them drowning I would toss him a life raft (heck, I am an excellent swimmer with life guard training, I would probably jump in to save him even at some risk to my own life), I would do so only out of appreciation of our common humanity. I would do so despite his role as an agent of the state apparatus. Here, did I but make any suggestion to the police about postal boxes and trash cans being an invitation to terrorists, I would have been helping them in precisely this role. As I say, off-putting.
Why are these morons so stupid? Why do our "protectors" pat us down and search for, of all things, nail clippers? Why do they adopt the identical procedures at every airport? Do they not realize that this makes it easier for the bad guys? Why do they act so as to make it prudent for us to get to the airport two hours before a flight, wasting zillions of man-hours? Why don’t they focus their attention on young men of Arabic appearance, who have been responsible for a very high proportion of all such incidents?
This is surely due to a combination of political correctness run amuck, and to monopoly operation. As to the former, I once in a benighted mood thought it would disappear under the pressure of life and death situations. Not so, not so. The evil Red Cross accepted blood donations from homosexuals without testing them for fear of offending them, and thereby infected with the AIDS virus hundreds of hapless and trusting hemophiliacs. And now, the forces of political correctness would rather see innocents blown to smithereens rather than engage in eminently justified racial (sexual, and age) profiling.
As it happens, however, looking askance at young male Arabs in airports and other such sensitive places is no such thing. It is, rather, criminal profiling. It would only be racial profiling if inspectors subjected to heightened security, say, Arab grandmothers, who have not at all been linked to terrorist acts. Why do airport security guards target young attractive women? (Okay, okay, we all know the answer to that one.)
The other element is lack of competition. Why is this so important? Well, there are imbeciles, also, in the private sector of the economy. Grocers who don’t wash their floors. Filling stations located on cul de sacs. Restaurants whose chefs can’t cook their way out of a paper bag. But what happens with such ineptitude? The market’s system of profit and loss, or weeding-out firms that cannot cut the mustard, is the difference between the two very, very different sectors of the economy.
Idiocy in the private sector exists, but it is continually being pared away. No such fail-safe mechanism underlies and supports government enterprise. Imagine if safety protection at airports were run under the free market sector, and one firm, the ACME agency, paid great attention to nail clippers and black grandmothers, but ignored garbage cans and Arab males of a certain age. There is a name for such companies, and the name is "bankrupt." They would be eliminated, forthwith, through the competitive process.
It does not matter that our homeland security people wear uniforms. Or must pass civil service types of exams, where they answer theoretical questions theoretically. Or are forced to attend training sessions, where they see films of past events. There is simply no automatic mechanism that continuously improves quality, as occurs every day in the market place. We do not owe our reasonably good pizzas, shoes, and bicycles to geniuses. Rather, to this weeding-out system.
The people supposedly protecting us from terrorists at airports are cut from the same cloth as those who run the motor vehicle bureaus, the post office, and the alphabet soup regulatory agencies. Try reasoning with the denizens of these organizations.
I do not say that nothing will ever be done about potential dangers posed by the receptacles at airports. Even without a market system, common sense may yet prevail. But don’t hold your breath.
Maybe I should shut up about this entire topic. Maybe I should not be raising this particular safety issue, lest the terrorists add this new technique to their repertoire. After all, I am a member of the air-traveling public, and I have many loved ones who are, too. I thought about that. But, I believe that the terrorists are smarter than the air safety bureaucrats. If I publicize this potential danger in the manner I am now doing, maybe this threat will become officially recognized, anticipated, and dealt with: no receptacles of this type in airports any more. Or, maybe fully transparent ones.
On the other hand, if I keep silent about it, the murderers of innocents will undoubtedly adopt it. But in publicizing the matter, am I not violating my own principles, or, at least, my revulsion at supporting the government? No, I am not. There is all the world of difference between public speaking, or writing in a format such as the present one, knowing full well that agents of the state can access such information and analysis, on the one hand, and, on the other, helping them directly, for example by mentioning this concern to one of their ilk at an airport, or directly consulting with them on such a matter, whether for pay or not.
Take an analogy. In the next year or so, a book of mine on privatizing highways will be published. In it I state that a competitive system for roadways would likely engage in peak load pricing that would radically decrease traffic congestion, and would institute a number of safety devices which would greatly reduce highway fatalities. Will the authorities read this book and implement some of these suggestions? Possibly. This will not stop me from publication. But were I actually to consult with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as does an otherwise libertarian Reason Foundation, then I would, in my own opinion, be acting inconsistently with this philosophy.
I take that back. Did my "consulting" with them consist of no more than telling them to disband, and privatize all roads, streets, highways, etc., then that would be entirely compatible with the libertarian philosophy.
The other day I received a telephone phone call from the State Department of the U.S. They wanted to consult with me about how best to improve the Iraqi economy. I mentioned a consulting fee of $400 per hour, and not an eyelash was batted. Then, I said that I would consult with them only on the topic of the immediate withdrawal of all US personnel from that country, since I opposed their incursion. The spokesman’s response was to politely hang up. But suppose he had persisted. Would I have acted improperly as a consultant? I think not, as long as I advocated nothing incompatible with libertarianism.
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.