It’s not enough that the Transportation Security Administration wastes hours upon endless hours of time. It’s not enough that they confiscate our Chapstick and toothpaste and claim that it is for our own protection. It’s not enough that we must fork over our ID at five different checkpoints before boarding a plane, and have strangers paid with our tax dollars rifle and snoop through our bags again and again.
No, that’s not enough to keep us secure on our airline flights. Now we must be careful not to wrinkle our noses, press our lips together, raise our upper eyelids, or — Heaven forbid — thrust forward our jaws.
Here is a graphic from the New York Times that illustrates what the TSA will now regard as suspicious behavior:
Ah, yes, the six faces of the terrorist.
How much more of this will the American people take? Already a stroll through the airport feels like a step into a dystopian movie. We are searched, snapped at, and ordered around. People glumly walk from place to place as the loudspeaker blares: “Report all suspicious persons to the authorities!”
The answer is that people will put up with much more and much worse. As much as people loathe the invasions of privacy and the inconvenience, and as much as people roll their eyes in amazement and frustration, so long as people grant that there are such things as suspicious behaviors and real threats, and that the government is the right party to deal with them, these humiliations will continue.
And truly, how can we know when the government has gone too far? We can understand why the TSA would ban people from carrying machine guns on planes, but what basis do we have to say that it can’t ban lipstick too, provided it can be shown that a lipstick container can carry explosives? Aren’t we just arguing about the details of proper management?
One method we can use to discern whether the government has gone too far is to imagine what private security officials on private property might do. In this case, there is a range of issues to consider, and none yields decisive answers.
Based on extended experience, banks and jewelry stores are probably more likely to act on looks and facial expressions than they are to search people for toothpaste and pocket knives. Who is to say that the TSA in charge of airline security shouldn’t do the same?
This is not a defense of the TSA. Far from it. The criticism of the TSA needs to go beyond merely addressing this or that overreach or poor management practice. It must get to the heart of the economic and political motivation behind all these increases in security concern.
The core problem concerns institutional intent. Is TSA really trying to protect us? Surely that defines part of its mission. But every bureaucracy is self-interested in a way that receives no discouragement within the public sector.
Yes, the TSA has stopped some bad guys. But we can’t know for sure whether stopping bad guys is just the excuse it uses to serve its larger driving mission, which is to bolster its own budget, public prestige, and power.
Moreover, even if we could somehow be certain that security was its number one goal, why should this goal be pursued with complete disregard to the customer? When the private sector seeks to ferret out bad guys, it goes overboard to make life wonderful and non-humiliating for the good guys.
This is the difference between the public and private sector. The private sector is always seeking and soliciting the affections of the people, in the hope that the people will deign to part with their money in exchange for the good or service the firm provides. That’s not an easy thing to do. You have to be pretty wonderful in order to get people to voluntarily purchase your stuff as versus save the money or spend it elsewhere.
Indeed, it is the private sector that really deserves the name public sector because it constantly seeks input from every source to serve the public, and constantly tries to accommodate every public wish.
Disneyland, for example, seeks to provide its customers a roaring good time. But in order to do so, it must also provide a secure environment. Its security, however, can never come at customer expense. It wants to go about the business of keeping dangerous people under control in the most inconspicuous way possible. No one feels stepped on or kicked around or abused when private security is at work. Its top priority is to distinguish between friend and foe.
Someone might object that it is precisely because the private sector must always make nicey-nice with customers that it is not well equipped to deal with terrorists. In fact, the last thing a private company wants is for customers to feel threatened for their lives when boarding an aircraft. No institution has a higher incentive to protect its property and the lives of its customers than an airline. The difference is that it faces a feedback mechanism that informs management how much investigation and personal discomfort is too much relative to the really existing risk.
Frankly, the TSA doesn’t care a flip about the customers in their role as payers who have to be served. That’s why they treat you like chopped liver, and that’s why they have no real interest in distinguishing good guys from bad guys. Their every incentive is to treat us all like we are the children of Mohammed Atta al-Sayed.
Others may fundamentally object to my claim the TSA is not primarily interested in security. The best way to understand this is by reference to an institution with which we have even more experience: the welfare state. In the same way, it is not primarily interested in relieving the plight of the poor.
If anything, the welfare bureaucracy benefits most by increasing the number of the poor and keeping them that way for as long as possible. Only by maximizing the number of poor people who need assistance can a welfare bureaucracy thrive. The poor are what provides the welfare state its raison d’tre.
So the welfare state faces perverse incentives. This is one reason the welfare state didn’t work. So it is with the security state. It only benefits from increasing insecurity and fear. The more threats there are to security, the better off it is.
Finally, the money that runs the security state is not a drain on a business’s bottom line, so there is no one setting out to find ways to reduce the expenditure. Rather, the money comes from the taxpayers who need to be cajoled into coughing up more, and the best means of doing that is by scaring people and increasing their sense of insecurity.
In some way, too — and this is unthinkable — the security state actually benefits from disastrous mistakes that result in loss of life. These allow the bureaucracy to say: we told you so; we should have had more money and power.
Yes, it’s true that the welfare state made some poor people better off than they might have been otherwise. But it also created more poor people and extended their plight and sense of dependency. The welfare state grew and grew, and so did the number of people it served, but society was worse off as a result. It was a very bad idea to have ever given the state the responsibility for the job, since it is institutionally unequipped to achieve the results it promises.
So it is with the security state. We give it power, we permit it to run itself with no oversight, we put up with its excesses, and we have a hard time imaging what life would be like without it. Well, it’s time we start imagining, because the result of the security state will be more insecurity, more costs on the rest of us, and ever more sectors of our society invaded by these overlords more interested in themselves than the public.
This is how it must be because the bureaucracy exists and thrives outside of society and at society’s expense. If you don’t like it, and if you believe that the most suspicious persons of all work for the TSA, you had better furrow your brow in private. A public display might result in detention.