But while an average passenger may view the TSA as an inconvenience—perhaps even a worthwhile one—there is a movement afoot among some conservatives and libertarian opponents of the security state to abolish the TSA completely and treat boarding an airplane like boarding a train or a bus. And these arguments could be respected, if they had the remotest degree of sanity.
The most recent editorialist to make an argument for abolishing the TSA was Dylan Matthews of Vox. Now, one would expect arguments against the existence of the TSA to center around to basic concepts: either the TSA is ineffective at preventing attacks, or that the amount of security that TSA requires us to undergo is ineffective. The former might be an argument for abolition, the latter an argument at least for reform. But Matthews' argument is neither:
A literature review by George Mason's Cynthia Lum and Rutgers' Leslie Kennedy and Alison Sherley shows that studies testing the effectiveness of airport security — specifically, of metal detectors and security screenings — found, on average, that the measures in question prevented about 6.3 hijackings over the years examined. If that were all they found, that'd be a pretty solid case for the TSA.More below the fold.
But the attacks weren't simply being prevented; they were being displaced. While there were 6.3 fewer hijackings, there were 6.8 more "miscellaneous bombings, armed attacks, hostage taking, and events which included death or wounded individuals (as opposed to non-casualty incidents) in both the short and long run." Making hijackings harder, in other words, didn't reduce attacks, but encouraged would-be hijackers to attack through other means.
Matthews isn't arguing that the TSA isn't effective in preventing attacks on airplanes; he concedes, after all, that security protocols prevent hijackings. Instead he's arguing that we shouldn't be in the business of preventing attacks on airplanes at all. After all, if we prevent attacks on airplanes, terrorists will simply attack elsewhere, so why bother? Matthews makes no mention of the fact that bringing down an airliner is a horrific event with certain mass casualties and is not simply an "event that includes death or wounded individuals" like the armed attacks and hostage taking he is including as part of his argument against security protocols. Even more dishonestly, Matthews uses these numbers—a lack of reduction in overall attacks—as evidence that the TSA "isn't doing its job," even though its job is to prevent attacks on transportation targets and the very numbers Matthews cites seem to confirm that it is doing exactly that. By the same argument, Matthews should make sure to leave his front door wide open at night. After all, what's the good in preventing burglary if that burglar is just going to strike elsewhere?
But as crazy as Dillon's argument for abolishing the TSA is, his argument for what should replace it is even worse: a privatized model where each individual airline is responsible for its own security protocols.
What to do, then? Simple: just abolish the agency. This is hardly an extreme proposal; members of Congress, including influential figures like Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Congressman John Mica (R-Florida), have endorsed it. The Cato Institute's Chris Edwards wants to privatize the TSA and devolve its responsibilities to airports, but that preserves far too much of the status quo. Better would be to make security the responsibility of individual airlines, so as to allow competition on that dimension.Let's game this scenario out a little bit. Matthews envisions a scenario where more carefree travelers like himself who have less regard for their own personal safety will have airlines that choose to offer no security screenings so people like him can show up to a flight 20 minutes beforehand and walk right onto the plane. Will it actually turn out that way? Probably not. Because safety is paramount, the far likelier result is a scenario where this hypothetical free-market system actually results in airlines competing against each other to outdo each other on security protocols. So the likelihood is that the free-market-competition scenario wouldn't result in less security anyway, especially in a litigious society where low-level security protocols would likely result in very high-priced lawsuits.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, that there were an airline out there that specifically chose to appeal to customers who believed that the security theater of the TSA is all hogwash and were desperate for a security-free experience. Theoretically, there might be an economic opportunity there—until the first incident of hijacking or terrorism aboard a low-security airline. When that happens, airlines would once again start falling all over themselves to offer even more stringent security procedures to appeal to a very scared public. And perhaps, after a decade or more, when the memory of the most recent devastating tragedy fades away, the cycle would begin again.
The bottom line is that Matthews' suggestion for how we should run security at airports would not create the paradise he desires. Instead, it would leave us with a privatized hellscape where mass casualty incidents cyclically alter the free-market selling points that airlines use to attract customers.
Perhaps that's an ideal libertarian paradise. But given the choice between that and the scanner? I take the scanner.