Time to abolish the TSA?

The problem isn't that TSA has bad practices, the problem is that the TSA exists.

Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union Tribune / AP / FILE
In this Sept. 1 photo, TSA employee Anthony Brock, left, demonstrates a new full-body scanner at San Diego's Lindbergh Field, with TSA employee Andres Lozano in San Diego. The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the machines as a "virtual strip search." Across the country, passengers must choose scans by full-body image detectors or probing pat-downs.

My Forbes.com article proposing that we abolish the TSA has gotten a surprising amount of attention; it’s up to almost 70,000 views with over 3,000 Facebook shares and 500 tweets. Not bad for an article that’s about 18 hours old. Here are a couple of additional thoughts to further the conversation:

1. Airport security is necessary. I repeat: airport security is necessary, just like security just about anywhere is necessary. Just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean that government has to provide it. But why?

2. The Knowledge Problem is Everywhere. Abstracting from invaded privacy and the like, the fact that airports and the TSA are government-owned and therefore not responsive to profit and loss signals means that they don’t have the information they need if they are going to make rational decisions about the kind of security that will be provided. In short, socialization eliminates calculation. If I may self-promote, I raise some of these issues in my review of G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, which will appear in The Freeman. To whet your appetite, here’s David Gordon’s review.

3. Institutions Matter. Several people have pointed out (correctly) that most of the people who work for the TSA are courteous and professional. That has definitely been my experience. Most of the people I have dealt with in TSA security lines have been very courteous and very professional. When my luggage has been searched, they have generally been careful with it. They have also been careful to let me know exactly what they are doing. When I lost my passport in Italy last month, pretty much everyone I dealt with from the US Embassy, the Italian police, and airport security in Milan, Amsterdam, and Memphis was courteous, professional, and helpful. You’ve probably read horror stories about TSA sexual assaults, to be sure, but I’m not convinced they are representative. I can’t stress this enough: in my experience, and in what I would guess is the experience of most travelers, TSA employees are almost always nice people who are just doing their jobs.

But you can be very courteous, professional, helpful, and nice while you’re wasting people’s time and making them worse off. As Jagdish Bhagwati said at the Southern Economic Association meetings last year, the world is full of people who are doing absolutely horrible things to others, all the while thinking that they are helping. The problem isn’t that the TSA is run by the wrong people. The problem is that the TSA exists in the first place. As I tell my students, when the incentives are right, good things happen in spite of bad people. When the incentives are wrong, bad things happen in spite of good people.

4. There Are Alternatives. Economists take a lot of flak for not being able to predict exactly what will emerge in the absence of this or that favored program like the TSA or agricultural subsidies or what have you. That’s the nature of emergent order, though. Order, like barbecue, is defined in the process of its emergence. We can’t know the “right” type of security infrastructure until it is revealed through the market process. There remain margins on which competition is possible. The Southern Economic Association meetings are in Atlanta next weekend. I will be driving with my family, and then I will be taking Greyhound from Birmingham to Memphis and back on Monday and Wednesday so that I can teach my Tuesday classes (here are my earlier comments on the TSA and Greyhound). We were planning to do all this even before the public furor over the TSA, but I’m even happier with our decision now.

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