Abolish the TSA: Column
Glenn Harlan Reynolds 5:18 p.m. EST December 2, 2013
This government agency is unpopular and unnecessary.
If people miss their flights, or give up on flying because it's a hassle, the TSA doesn't suffer.
If bombs got through, the consequence probably wouldn't be higher-ups at TSA losing their jobs.
The TSA is more about "security theater" designed to give the appearance of security.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States took a number of rapid actions. One was the passage of the Patriot Act, which I regarded as a mistake then, and which doesn't seem much better now. Another was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucratic monstrosity that doesn't seem to have done much to keep us actually, you know, safer. And another was the federal takeover of aviation security by the Transportation Security Administration, which also seems to have been a bust.
There's now some talk about repealing or revising the Patriot Act, and the failure of the Department of Homeland Security to do much good seems pretty widely acknowledged. But it's widely accepted -- even by the Government Accountability Office -- that the TSA's army of unionized federal employees is no better, and perhaps worse, than private screeners.
This should come as no surprise. When, as was the case before 9/11, security screeners were contractors employed by airlines, they had every incentive to do a good job: Airlines don't want their planes hijacked or blown up. And they also had every incentive to be speedy and pleasant: Airlines don't want to irritate their customers, or to make flying an unpleasant experience in general.
Federal employees have no such incentives, and it often shows. If people miss their flights, or just give up on flying because it's too much hassle, the TSA doesn't suffer. Even if bombs or hijackers get through, the most likely consequence isn't a bunch of higher-ups at TSA losing their jobs -- when does anybody in the government get fired for failure these days? -- but rather an increased budget and more staff "to make sure this won't happen again." The incentives don't align.
Most other advanced nations use private screening services, and their security is just fine -- and, according to most accounts, less of a hassle for travelers. Some American airports, from San Francisco to Jackson Hole, are already trying out that approach. Why not take that national?
One reason, of course, is that the TSA's bloated unionized workforce will oppose it. But the TSA is also one of the most unpopular agencies with the public. What's more, as Bruce Schneier notes, it has never caught a terrorist. It's not about security, but about "security theater" designed to give the appearance of security. I think the traveling public has caught on to that, and travelers account for more votes than screeners do.
We wanted to be sure that something like 9/11 could never happen again, but as Brad Todd wrote just a few days after the attacks, that was already made sure of by the passengers' themselves on United Flight 93. As Todd wrote:
Just 109 minutes after a new form of terrorism -- the most deadly yet invented -- came into use, it was rendered, if not obsolete, at least decidedly less effective. Deconstructed, unengineered, thwarted and put into the dust bin of history. By Americans. In 109 minutes. And, in retrospect, they did it in the most American of ways. They used a credit card to rent a fancy cell phone to get information just minutes old, courtesy of the ubiquitous 24-hour news phenomenon. Then they took a vote. When the vote called for sacrifice to protect country and others, there apparently wasn't a shortage of volunteers. Their action was swift. It was decisive. And it was effective.
The 9/11 attacks worked because they caught people -- used to theatrical hijackings that didn't kill anyone -- by surprise. Once Americans figured out this new game, which took, as Todd notes, only 109 minutes, they put an end to it by themselves. The creation of the TSA didn't do any good, and it costs a lot of money, and it does a lot of harm. Put an end to it.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He blogs at InstaPundit.com.