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Wait Until the Feds Take Over

June 14, 2002

Tags The Police State

As others may also attest, I have never viewed flying as particularly pleasant, and a recent cross-country trip I took with my family did nothing to change my thinking. It is difficult enough to fly alone or with a spouse these days, but three small children--and all of our luggage--tend to multiply that misery. Even in the best of times, flying with little ones is a challenge; in this day of increased airline "security," the task becomes one of endurance and misery.

For those who have not flown commercial aircraft since the September 11 attacks, you are in for a rude awakening when you take to the skies again. You have not faced the insanity that passes for modern airport security, but when you do, remember that I have warned you. The procedures will surely inconvenience you (at best) and, at worst, leave you as vulnerable as those poor passengers and tenants of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were on that fateful day.

Moreover, if you believe things might improve, think again. The federal government has not yet fully taken over the airport security apparatus, and when it does, we will see the present calamities multiplied manifold.

There is good reason for making this prediction, as I will point out. Furthermore, it is not a mystery as to why the federal government will make commercial flying worse than it is now. Instead, it is as simple as Ludwig von Mises’s dictum that government intervention into peaceful, private activity will make things worse rather than better.

Congress began to insist shortly after the attacks that airport security workers be made federal government employees, even though there is no evidence that the attacks occurred because of breakdowns in the private security systems at the Boston, Newark, New Jersey, and Dulles airports where the hijacked planes originated. Fresh from being awarded his Nobel Prize in economics, Joseph Stiglitz even declared that federalizing the workers would thus serve as a "signaling" device to demonstrate that airport screeners would be of "higher quality" than lower-paid private workers.

Congress and President George Bush apparently bought into Stiglitz’s idea, and soon after the hijackings, the new security system was born. It now awaits being fully implemented, although airlines and airports have already told Congress that all of the multi-million-dollar luggage screening devices the government has mandated cannot possibly be put in place by the legal deadline.

As it does in so many other situations, Congress simply picked an arbitrary time limit. Furthermore, members of Congress acted without any regard for common sense, something that hardly is surprising. What should not surprise anyone is that when the government’s system is fully implemented--should that ever happen--the situation in the nation’s airports is likely to be so bad that the airline companies are likely to suffer the Vietnam Syndrome: In order to save the airline industry, we will have to destroy it.

There is, of course, one sure way to prevent airline hijackings; do not allow anyone to fly anything. Just like a zero mile per hour speed limit would eliminate all automobile accidents, keeping people out of the air is a guarantee of airline safety. While the feds are not likely to accomplish that feat, they certainly will be keeping large numbers of people from flying simply because the process will become way too cumbersome.

Economists, whether they be mainstream or of the Austrian School, know that incentives direct the choices individuals will make, and people involved in airport security are no exception. When the incentives are political in nature, things take on a near-unreal air. For example, while people look on incredulously as airport workers nearly strip-search 80-year-old grandmothers and small children while permitting young men of Middle Eastern extraction to board aircraft unchallenged, we must remember that the workers are acting according to the rules and incentives laid down by their political bosses.

First, as the unfolding pre-September 11 evidence has demonstrated, a few federal law enforcement officers suspected some of the very hijackers who at that time were taking pilot lessons might be planning to commandeer and fly passenger aircraft. However, because FBI officials feared being accused of "racial profiling," it is likely that they downplayed the officers’ warnings.

(Attorney General John Ashcroft already had gone through a bruising confirmation in which he was all but accused of being a racist. One of the things Ashcroft said he would "not tolerate" was racial profiling, so his underlings certainly did not wish to do anything that would make their boss appear "racially insensitive." Ignoring potential Middle Eastern terrorists was one of those actions, apparently.)

Because political correctness has reached epidemic stages in the United States, it is clear that the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airport security, fears offending certain ethnic groups as much or more than it fears more planes being hijacked. While numerous people have pointed out the folly of these random searches of people, it is also a given that they will continue, given the present political climate.

Second, while the FAA sets the rules for screeners, the screeners are still employees of firms hired by the airlines. Because of this, they do have an incentive for passengers to make their flights on time. (This does not mean that everyone will make it through security on time, but at least the incentive is there for screeners not to overdo their searches.)

Once screeners become full-fledged government employees, however, the incentives structure will change dramatically. The inspectors will be working for the federal government and will have no obligations at all toward passengers, except to treat all of them like criminals.

In this new atmosphere, one can expect a number of things.  First, searches will be slower and more cumbersome, since the fewer people who actually get through, the lower the probability that a plane can be hijacked.  Empty seats on flights will not matter to federal employees whose paychecks will come courtesy of the taxpayers.

Second, it is quite likely that screeners and other government security personnel will be more rude toward passengers than they are at present.  While some of us have suffered through some brutal searches, I fear the worst is to come.  Again, airline employees, while they can be disagreeable, do have at least some incentive to treat their customers with some decency.  Federal employees will have none.

When my family and I went through security lines, there was some grumbling, although I could tell that many of the screeners at least were trying to be as fair and helpful as possible, given the difficult situation all of us found ourselves.  However, I suspect that when the government takes over all security, anyone who makes even the slightest complaint quickly will be banned from their flight.  Look for airport workers to become more surly and less helpful, as their government status will give them power to harass people.

No doubt, we can look forward to congressional hearings when airline passengers will tell of airport horror stories perpetrated by federal security workers.  Sympathetic members of congress will listen attentively, just as they listened when citizens told of being harassed by Internal Revenue Service agents.  Those same members will excoriate whoever is head of the security agency, just as they did the IRS administration, then give the agency even more power to harass people. 


 
William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him MAIL.  See his Mises.org Articles Archive.


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