Airport security is a sham

I’m flying tomorrow, so that means it’s that time of year where I’m treated like cattle by the TSA again. It’s worth taking this moment to ponder why we even have the TSA. And airport security is no better in other countries. Trust me, I’ve flown a lot.

Airport security is an example of “security theater”. Wikipedia defines that as

the practice of investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to achieve it.

There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, and a certain ritualistic nature: take off your shoes and belt, go through the detector, prostrate yourself before the employee who may or may not be a sex offender, and let them have fun groping you. It’s kind of like a rain dance. If we go through this humiliating, abusive and nonsensical procedure, maybe we’ll be safe and the terrorists will go away?

But they won’t, because the TSA is ineffective at their stated job. Their performance at actually detecting terrorists is abysmal. In one test, they only detected 5% of threats they were tested for.

So if they’re so laughably bad at their jobs, how come they’re still around? If you were hired to do a job and you failed 95% of the time, would your boss still hire you?

Well, for one thing, the government doesn’t just get rid of incompetent people. I mean, if it created such a dangerous precedent, where would all the other bureaucrats and politicians end up? On the curb? It’s not like they’re good at anything in the real world. If there’s one thing we can consistently say about governments all over the world, it’s that they’re great job security for incompetent people.

On a more serious note, one possible reason is money. As with almost all things the government does, money plays an important factor. Certain companies, such as the ones that make the body scanners and various other detectors, make a lot of money from government contracts. And no doubt the politicians who pass these laws are on the boards of these companies or get some form of kickback.

“greater U.S. government shift toward using the high-tech devices could create a boom for makers of security imaging products, and it has already created a speculative spike in share prices in some companies.”

James Ridgeway, The Airport Scanner Scam

And then there’s the sad fact that the government has no incentive to succeed. Why would they be effective at stopping terrorists? If there were no terrorism, hundreds of expensive government programs would have no justification. The TSA, the DOD, the NSA, they all desperately need there to be terrorism every now and then to remind Americans why they should trade in their rights for the false promise of security. If we lived in a safe world, these agencies would have no reason to exist. And it’s not like failing at their job, which the TSA does literally 95% of the time, has gotten rid of the agency. With no reason to succeed and every reason to fail, is it surprising the outcome is what it is?

The TSA is too expensive

As with all government programs, the cost to benefit calculation never enters the equation. A fundamental law of economics is that whenever resources are transformed, the value of the outputs have to be greater than the value of the inputs. If you’re going to buy some flour, sugar, and chocolate chips to bake cookies for sale, the value of the cookies sold has to exceed the value of the ingredients. Otherwise, you’re not only making a loss, you’re actually destroying value. That’s why profit is so important: it’s the best measure we have of whether something being done actually adds value to society or not.

So how much does the TSA cost?

The researchers found that reinforced cockpit doors come at an annual cost per life saved of $800,000—a great investment. […] On the other hand, another security feature designed to prevent a 9/11–style attack, the Federal Air Marshal Service, has an annual cost per life saved of $180 million.

Using the same formula* as the researchers (and some similar assumptions), I estimated the same costs for airport pre-boarding security. TSA checkpoints have an annual cost per life saved of $667,000,000—two-thirds of one billion dollars.


Kriston Capps, Airport Security: Astoundingly Expensive and 95 Percent Ineffective

So the TSA pre-boarding security theater costs 667 million dollars per life saved. That’s insane!

The real purpose of the TSA

Inefficiencies and costs aside, I think the TSA is mostly there to intimidate and humiliate Americans. To make warrant-less, unconstitutional searches of their person and property a routine that they’re used to having to do to travel. Once they became used to TSA checkpoints at airports, they rolled them out to train stations and stadiums. At this point, a checkpoint could be setup anywhere, and Americans, so used to being poked, prodded, and questioned, wouldn’t even put up a fight about it.

It’s the same reason schools across America bring in drug dogs, search students, and setup CCTV monitoring in schools. It’s not for the students’ safety, it’s training. Training for a police state. Training to be in a prison that spans the entire country. Training to be an obedient slave.

“Ihre papiere, bitte” was a phrase Nazi police officers used to demand documents from Germans, and it’s one way they identified Jews and others they wanted to murder. It used to be a mark of totalitarianism that would send chills down people’s spines. Now, in Belgium, a country that suffered at the hands of the Nazis, citizens are legally obligated to carry their ID cards with them and must show it to police when stopped.

In the UK, if asked by security at the border to give them your password to your phone, laptop, and any other electronics, you must comply or face 5 years in prison. US border security does the same thing. So do the Canadians.

This insidious march towards a police state is happening across the world, and it can only lead to one outcome. The same outcome it has always led to in the past. Suffering and death on a massive scale.

Free market security

Let’s take a break from the doom and gloom for a moment and talk about an alternative. After all, it’s not a problem if there’s no solution, right?

First of all, keeping passengers safe on an airplane is the airline’s and airport’s responsibility, not the government’s. The same way keeping people safe on a roller-coaster is the theme park’s responsibility. Right now, with the government handling responsibility for security, security failures are not the airline’s fault, and so they don’t suffer the negative consequences when planes are hijacked and blown up.

In the free market, that would all change. Airlines would be ranked on their security track records. If one airline’s security measures are lacking, customers might choose another. The ability to differentiate yourself on the market won’t be limited to a good track record in airplane hijackings either. For instance, since more security costs more money and takes longer, some airlines could offer cheaper and faster flights by making security more lax, while travelers that want to be safer might opt to wait an extra half hour and pay a bit more for the privilege.

Airports could have different security checkpoints for different groups of terminals (and different airlines), with some offering lower security but faster travel than others.

With the twin pressures of having a good security track record on the one hand, and saving costs on the other, airlines and airports are likely to build efficient and cheap security systems, and with competition being fierce, airlines that grope you less are likely to get more customers.

Everybody wins. Except the government and the TSA, of course. Which is why this isn’t happening today.

How dangerous is flying, anyway?

Finally, it’s worth remembering that your odds of being on a plane hijacked by terrorists are 20 times lower than your odds of being hit by lightning.

So relax, enjoy the flight, and imagine how much better airport travel would be without the government groping you for no good reason.

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