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.

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

Copyright © 2010 Gary North