The Creation of the Bureaucrat
During the airport-security reform debate of 2001, Congress had the option of permitting the airlines more discretion in securing themselves from the threat of hijacking. Airline security had been imperfect—Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibited commercial pilots from carrying guns, for example—but airlines themselves were capable of improving, and had every incentive to do so.
With the experience of September 11, airlines learned that the old wisdom concerning hijacking (calm the hijacker down and get him to land the plane) no longer applied. Instead, pilots needed the ability to protect person and property. Airlines discovered the dangers that might lurk in luggage and passenger carry-on bags. They were ready to screen passenger lists more carefully. Consumers, meanwhile, were more alert to security issues, and the airlines would have had to compete on the basis of the most superior security, in addition to the usual considerations of price, reliability, and comfort. The industry could respond to real threats without creating unnecessary passenger inconvenience.
But instead, Congress, with the blessing of the White House, short circuited the market process. Paid by government, working for government, and identifying with its interests, the bulk of political decision makers naturally see government as the answer to every major problem. They view the "market" as uncertain and untrustworthy, something to be granted liberality on unessential matters but to be restricted and restrained in all essentials.
Hence, the laws regulating airline security were not liberalized. Instead, Congress created a new bureaucracy, the Transportation Security Administration, to be put in charge of airline security. A National Screening Force was established to examine all bags. Not only that: the government decided to charge consumers a fee (who could object?) for the right to enjoy its newly provided security. This is after taxpayers had already shelled out trillions of dollars to the government to provide defense against terrorism, only to discover that there really was no security against suicidal militants carrying box cutters.
At the time when airport security was nationalized, John McCain said: "This, I think, with the president's signature, will give Americans confidence that their government and their Congress and their president are doing everything possible to improve airport security as rapidly as possible."
But doing everything that the government finds possible isn't the same thing as doing what is necessary according to the assessment of the owners of the airlines and the customers who use them. The TSA has no connection at all to owners and customers. As a result, it is now common for people who fly to return with amazing stories of humiliating and unwarranted intrusions, harassment, and bureaucratic delays. As to whether security has actually been enhanced, it's anyone's guess.
Most pilots are still unarmed. Those that are had to face a thicket of red tape, including an intimidating psychological evaluation, in the course of a government training program undertaken on their own time. Once they are given the right to protect plane and passengers, pilots must still carry their firearm in a lockbox. Meanwhile, federal flight marshals are still rare.
Average passengers, who have borne the brunt of the costs of security guidelines, must obey a codified list of items that can and cannot be carried on planes. Box cutters are outlawed for politically understandable reasons—given government's propensity to protect us all from past threats. Why are people allowed to carry cigar cutters but not razor blades, knitting needles but not ice picks, and nail files but not tiny scissors is anyone's guess.
What makes the people who drew up the list, as versus the airlines themselves, any greater experts on the likelihood that these objects will or will not be used in terrorism? A person who intends to do harm in the sky isn't likely to be deterred by having his cuticle scissors confiscated. Remember too that any object that can be used for terrorism can also be used to protect against terrorism; striping passengers of anything that could be used as an offensive weapon also takes away items that could be used for defensive purposes.
As for bureaucrats now running airport security, they are obeying orders from above, not responding to market needs. They face no competition, have no access to a feedback mechanism of profit and loss, and lack every incentive to actually make good managerial judgments that would lead to enhanced security. They are not owners but rather outsiders to the market process, blind to the needs of consumers, inattentive to the interests of the airlines, and disregarding of the various tradeoffs associated with choosing one method over another.
All of these results could be known in advance, and critics of the program warned that this would be the result. But it is still something remarkable to observe in real life, as I did on a recent flight. Upon entering the airport, confusion was everywhere. No effort was made to make the system transparent to regular people. There were huge scanning contraptions with bags sitting on the conveyor belt (who owns the contract for those and how did they get it?) but it wasn't clear whether one's own bags were supposed to be placed on them or what would happen to them after. What was clear, given the employee badges and demeanor, is that passengers would be in lots of trouble if they did the wrong thing.
The bags took an age to go through, and anything suspicious would prompt the federal employees to open up the bag and wipe a tiny cloth on the contents inside, in four different places. I suppose this is to check for explosives. They then examined the cloth to observe any discoloring. The whole process had the appearance of silly ritual, not an actual security check. What was especially striking was the speed of the operation. The entire airport had passengers and airline employees bustling about here and there. But the federal employees seemed to work outside of time itself, completely oblivious to the tempo around them. They lacked any sign of vigor or initiative.
These federal employees seemed to be vaguely in charge of all things between the time the passengers entered the airport and when they did the final pass beyond the last x-ray machine. They seemed disparaging of the needs of passengers, stationing five employees in a spot that it should take one, and assigning one employee to do a job that should take five. They were probably all nice people but they acted like caricatures of government bureaucrats: at once belligerent and ignorant, threatening and uninterested, detached and intrusive. Their main job seemed to be to muck up the system, and revel in the fact that they were charge. This was Martin van Creveld's "impersonal state" at work.
Security is a service like any another. When the market is in charge, it is something provided when, how, and to what extent it is needed. Risk assessment is crucial. There is no sense in wasting resources on nonexistent threats. Those contracted to provide security must be in a position to respond to the needs of the moment, change their tactics, and outwit the threat. Those who do the job best are rewarded and those who fail are weeded out of the market. Competitive pressures lead to constant improvements in methods and continually falling costs.
The bureau in charge of federal security today bears none of these traits. This isn't because of culpable negligence or incompetence, though surely these factors play a role. It is because they stand outside the market system and are not thus responding to the needs of producers and consumers. Though a new bureaucracy, its employees already fit classic description as given by Ludwig von Mises: "they shun innovations and improvements. They look on every project for reform as a disturbance of their quiet." The absence of market mechanisms "creates insoluble problems. It kills ambition, destroys initiative and the incentive to do more than the minimum required. It makes the bureaucrat look at instructions, not at material and real success." (Bureaucracy, 1944, p. 60–61).
Sullen and incompetent employees are a feature of the private sector too, of course. The crucial difference is that in the market economy, forces are at work to systematically punish the bureaucratic impulse and replace it with something more spectacular: vigor, innovation, and genuine public service to others. In the private sector, failure is punished with losses. After 9-11, we saw what happens when government-provided security fails: government grows.
The success or failure of the Transportation Security Administration will come up for review in a couple of years. We already know what will happen. Plenty of failures will be spotted, as well as many imagined successes.
Regardless of the record, the bureaucracy won't be abolished. It will be "reformed," especially given that a huge new lobbying force now has every reason to push Congress to retain the system. The one reform that the system most needs—namely, to be subjected to the competitive pressures of the market—is not possible in the current framework. The only real solution is the one that Congress rejected back when it had the chance for real reform: total privatization.