The anti-economics of 'freedom fondles'

Do TSA techniques ask us to sacrifice personal freedoms in exchange for security, or security theater?

Ted S. Warren / AP
A TSA agent displays a laminated card printed with the text of what agents are required to say to any passengers who 'opt out' of body scanners, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Nov. 24. Is the choice between freedom and security a false dichotomy?

Debra Saunders refers to the new TSA techniques as “freedom fondles.” Here’s a letter I just sent to the Birmingham News, which ran her column this morning:

In her Thanksgiving Day column, Debra Saunders asks whether we are “a nation of whiners” because we object to “a pat-down designed to prevent another 9/11.” Ms. Saunders premise, that the enhanced security measures will make us safer, is incorrect. As airport security becomes more onerous, more people will be induced to drive. As driving is more dangerous (per passenger mile) than flying, research shows that the lives allegedly saved by enhanced security will come at the expense of even more lives lost on the country’s highways. If the goal is to reduce the number of people who die unnecessarily, the TSA’s new security measures will not merely be ineffective. They will be counterproductive.

Unfortunately, a lot of commentators on both the left and the right have focused exclusively on debates over racial profiling and civil liberties. Responses on the part of major media outlets–the L.A. Times has encouraged us to “Shut Up And Be Scanned” while the Santa Fe New Mexican has urged us to “bend over”–have been less than encouraging. I have found the TSA’s invasions of persons and property offensive for years, but to restrict the debate to these contentious talking points misses the larger point. The TSA exists to provide not security, but what experts call “security theater.” The TSA agent with his hand in your pants is not there to to provide you with security. He is there to provide you with the illusion of security. If we are really interested in saving lives, the question we should be asking isn’t what kind of airport security the government should provide, but whether the government should be in the airport security business at all.

Ms. Saunders’ core argument is that we should be willing to trade off a little bit of liberty in order to get more security. In the case of the TSA, however, we are sacrificing liberty to get nothing.

Questioning the TSA is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ve written four articles for about the TSA (1, 2, 3, 4) and a handful of Mises blog posts (1, 2, 3). Ed Stringham has an excellent post in which he makes a very important point: government was not instituted to internalize externalities and provide public goods. Government was instituted to “coerce money from the public for the benefit of the rulers.” The recent TSA fracas is but another illustration.

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