TSA: Thou Shalt Acquiesce

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As a 40-year
student of bureaucracy, beginning with Ludwig von Mises’s great
little book, Bureaucracy
(1944), I have come to recognize a series of near laws governing
bureaucracy. This one is, as far as I can see, unbreakable, comparable
to the law of gravity.

Some
bureaucrat will enforce a written rule in such a way as to make
the rule and the bureaucracy seem either ridiculous, tyrannical,
or both.

There is no way
to write the rules so that some bonehead in the system will not find
a way to become a thorn in someone’s side – a thorn that cries
out for removal.

There are corollaries
to this iron law of bureaucracy.

  1. The bureaucrat
    in question will not back down unless forced to from above.
  2. His superiors
    will regard any public resistance to the interpretation as an
    attack on the bureaucracy’s legitimate turf.
  3. The bureaucracy’s
    senior spokesman will defend the policy as both legitimate and
    necessary.
  4. Politicians
    will be pressured by voters to have the policy changed.
  5. The bureaucracy
    will tell the politicians that disaster will follow any such modification
    of the policy.
  6. The public
    will finally get used to it.
  7. The politicians
    will switch to some other national crisis.
  8. The internal
    manual will then be rewritten by the senior bureaucrats to make
    the goof-ball application mandatory.
  9. Senior management
    will increase the budget so as to enforce the new policy.
  10. Politicians
    will acquiesce to this increased budget.

This leads me
to North’s law of bureaucratic expansion:
Any
outrageous interpretation of a bureaucratic rule, if widely resisted
by the public, will lead to an increased appropriation for the bureaucracy
within two fiscal years.

There is an exception.

If
the enforcement of the interpretation requires major expenditures
for new equipment, the process will take only one fiscal year.

THE SCANNERS

The new scanners
are expensive. Some firm is making a bundle of money by supplying
them to the TSA. It is clear – transparent, even – that
this technology is coming to an airport near you.

It is fun to imagine
that the TSA screeners get their jollies by subjecting people to the
process. This is unlikely. Most employees in a bureaucracy want to
decrease the number of tasks they are required to perform. Like all
of us, the want more for less. Adding a step is not in their self-interest.

On the other hand,
it is in the self-interest of their supervisor. Now we come to another
law of bureaucracy, an extension of Parkinson’s famous law: “Work
expands so as to fill the time allotted for its completion.” Professor
Parkinson had another law, less known but more rigorous: promotions
take place when a bureaucrat increases the number of employees subordinate
to him. Parkinson worked out the numbers in the 1950s. It was no joke.
There is a large body of academic articles devoted to this rule. Here
is a recent example.

The supervisors
want these scanners. They want employees with their sanitary gloves.
These people must be trained to do these jobs. They must be moved
out of the line. This means the supervisor will be able to call for
additional staff. His budget will rise.

The official goal
of the scanners is to discover ever-more concealable explosives.

I rue the day
when a terrorist on a plane blows it up by inserting a powerful explosive
into a large orifice.

Talk about bin
Laden winning the war! If the see-through scanners are there to detect
explosive underwear, think of the anal bomb’s impact on airport security
procedures.

“No,” you think
to yourself. “It could not go that far.” You are ignoring Law #1:

Some
bureaucrat will enforce a written rule in such a way as to make
the rule and the bureaucracy seem either ridiculous, tyrannical,
or both.

I assume that
there are terrorists out there who think up low-tech weapons, not
for terrorizing the populace, but rather for the annoyance factor.
It give TSA an opportunity to tighten the screws.
Osama:
“Hey, guys. I’ve got one. What about some PETN in a condom?”

Massam: “Where
should Allah’s Devoted One hide it?”

Osama: “Where
the sun don’t shine.”

Ayman: “Now
that’s really good. Can you imagine what the TSA will do with that
one?”

Abu: “Assume
the position!”

Saif: “Toward
the East!”

Osama: “It’s
time to invest in latex gloves.”

OVER THE
LINE

While the #1 rule
is unbreakable, it is not yet possible to predict which bureaucrat
will adopt which goof-ball application of the bureaucracy’s general
assignment.

The scanners have
pushed a vocal minority of the public over the line. “This goes too
far!” Yet, on the face of it, the procedure seems harmless. No, there
will not be any explosives discovered. But there is no big risk to
the traveller, other than missing a flight. That threat will pressure
travellers to get into line early. That will demonstrate the power
of the TSA. That is good from the point of view of TSA’s senior officials.
It means that they can ask for a larger appropriation next fiscal
year. “We are experiencing long lines and delays. We need more personnel.”

The public is
under assault by every conceivable government agency. This is so common
that the public no longer senses it. Hardly anyone knows that the
“Federal Register” publishes 70,000 pages of regulations each year:
fine print, three columns. These rules are rarely rescinded, only
added to.

But then came
the immortal words: “my junk.” Somehow, that phrase began to spread.
The public gets it. It doesn’t get the “Federal Register.” The scanners
have become the symbol of the entire burdensome mess that we deal
with, every day, morning to night.

There is no way
to predict which preposterous intrusion will catch the public’s fancy.
Like the particular rule implemented by a faceless lower bureaucrat,
the specifics are not predictable.

We forget that
the universal outrage in East Germany in the 1980s was the absence
of bananas in the stores. The secret police were everywhere, and had
been, from 1934 on. The residents had acquiesced sullenly for decades,
but finally that one issue pushed them over the line. After the Berlin
Wall came down, Germans were seen holding up bananas. It was the symbol
of their liberation.

The scanners are
the symbol of our submission.

The TSA now has
a problem. It’s not Congress. It’s not President Obama. It’s YouTube.
It’s Saturday Night Live.

And now, by popular
demand, I offer a delightful collage of videos. There is music. There
is an SNL skit. David
Letterman does one of his Top Ten lists.

What is the head
of the TSA – John Pistole (I am not making this up) – able
to do with any of this? He tells us that this is necessary for our
security.

Do most people
believe him? A CBS poll reveals that over 80% of Americans think the
see-through scanners are acceptable. But
they don’t like the pat-downs.

My guess is that
the scanners are a done deal. At some point, the prime time jokes
will cease. It will be old news. The American public is not willing
to sustain a long-term resistance movement against this latest technological
intrusion. But the digital underground will keep the story alive.
The outrages – which there will be (Rule #1) – will continue,
and they will spread virally.

CRITICAL
MASS

The bureaucrats
now face a problem that they did not face a decade ago: YouTube and
Facebook. Posting by posting, these stories will steadily undermine
people’s confidence in the system. It is like the famous Chinese water
torture: drop by drop, they get people’s attention. Posting by posting,
the legitimacy of the Federal government is undermined.

This will eventually
produce a minority of citizens who will say, “No more.” Issue by issue,
outrage by outrage, the number of people who have been pushed over
a line will grow.

This is why the
Tea Party exists. It reached critical mass in the aftermath of the
bailouts: Bush’s (Goldman Sachs) and Obama’s (Goldman Sachs). There
is a growing minority of people who are convinced that the Federal
government is acting against their self-interest.

Now the law of
bureaucracy works against the government. The outrages are cumulative.
Those 70,000 pages a year add up. This is nothing new. But the YouTube
is also cumulative. The stories do not go away anymore. They are there
for anyone to pick up and send to friends at any time.

Always before,
cumulative bureaucracy grew, but protests were rare and short-lived.
They went away when newspapers got thrown out. We could call this
the bird cage effect.

Today, digital
storage has undermined the bird cage effect. Old stories can be dredged
up with a Google search.

The individual
issues are like suitcase nukes. They attain local critical masses.
They push people over the line, issue by issue. Issue by issue, there
is an explosion.

What threatens
the Federal government is the critical mass of too many suitcase nukes.
This will set off a chain reaction.

The trigger will
probably be a financial crisis that pushes T-bond interest rates through
the roof. The PIIGS in Europe are now experiencing this, nation by
nation. This will continue. It will become cumulative.

When the Federal
government sends checks that no longer buy much, there will be a chain
reaction. The public remains loyal because it is paid to remain loyal.
The Federal government’s creditors are sustaining the entire system.
When they finally say, “no more” (at today’s interest rates), the
explosion will take down what remains of the government’s declining
legitimacy.

Legitimacy is
the key to the cumulative process. People pay, people consent, people
“assume the position” only because they believe that the Federal government
protects them, and is there to support them when tough times arrive.
They do not care who funds this, as long as no one asks them to pony
up the money.

CONCLUSION

Increasing Federal
debt allows the public to avoid the pain of paying for the safety
nets and subsidies. But increasing bureaucracy is an annoyance that
confronts us daily. Voters do not understand the capital markets.
They do understand pat-downs.

The government
is vulnerable, because it cannot pass a law against bureaucratic rule
#1. It cannot stop some bureaucrat from enforcing the letter of some
regulation. The list of regulations grows by 70,000 pages per year.
It is cumulative.

We
should enjoy what is happening to the TSA. We should send along videos
to those we interact with. We must use the tools at our disposal to
remind people that the government is intrusive, the government is
stupid, and the government does not back down.

When the day of
fiscal reckoning arrives, and there is no way to get the money for
another bailout except from the Federal Reserve System, we will have
an opportunity to remind the people around us: “We told you so.” More
to the point: “We told you why.”

Rule #1 can be
stopped in only one way: to cut off the funding. That can be done
in two ways: (1) outright government bankruptcy; (2) inflation.

Either way, we
told them so.

November
27, 2010

Gary
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible
.

The
Best of Gary North

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