The Security State
The People In Charge telling us that something is Necessary For Our Own Good makes a large number of people accepting of the inconvenience, no matter how asinine or unsupported by evidence.
Kevin Drum engages in an anti-anti-TSA rant, arguing that all of us educated white-collar professionals whining about invasive airport security procedures which are “pretty clearly directed at improving the security of air travel.” Besides, he points out, if you think things are bad now, just wait until you see how much worse they get if another plane goes down!
Matt Yglesias sympathizes with the idea that “public outrage about the indignities it imposes seems to me to be 80 percent middle class white people not liking the idea of being placed in the subordinate position of a dominance hierarchy” but rejects the rest of the argument. Indeed, he contends, “America as a whole is, I think, over-secured against terrorist[s] by this kind of weapon screening.”
One should back up and consider the baseline. If you assume the existence of a person willing to die for Osama bin Laden’s war on America, located within the United States of America, and in possession of a working explosive or firearm, there’s basically nothing stopping him from blowing up the 4/5/6 platform at Union Square or the 54 bus in DC or the Mall of America or even the security line at DFW airport. And yet it doesn’t happen. Does that mean we could get by with no security anywhere? I say: no. But we should start with the idea that the main point of security is simply to push attacks around. The bank has security guards to encourage you to rob the liquor store down the street.
The public choice argument that the government will over-invest in the security of its own facilities and personnel is strong. Airplanes, in this spirit, seem more vulnerable to attack than buses and deserve tougher security. But don’t ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to prevent terrorist attacks,” ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to shift terrorist attacks off airplanes and onto buses”? Much of the resources currently spent on “security” measures would be much better spent on having more police officers. Ordinary violent crime continues to be a very serious problem in America, and reducing its incidence would vastly improve people’s physical security and free up investigatory resources to make serious plots harder to pull off.
Chad Orzel believes that, aside from rationality and liberty, another casualty of all this is the “corrosive effect that silly and inconvenient policies have on people’s attitude to authority.”
If you want a more airplane-specific analogy, think about the ban on electronic devices during take-off and landing. On every flight, they make an announcement sternly warning you that you can’t listen to your iPod until some arbitrary altitude has been reached, despite the fact that there is no significant increase in risk from a passenger having music playing during the start and end of the flight. I know this, because I always blow off that announcement, and listen to my music through the forbidden stretches of the flight.
The net effect of that policy is not to make the plane any safer, but to make me and many other passengers more cynical about airline policies in general. It lowers my opinion of the flight attendants who enforce the stupid and pointless rules, and makes me less inclined to believe anything else they say.
While some of us are indeed cynical, though, most will comply simply because they’re told to. And the incentives all point in the direction of imposing more rules, rather than abolishing the stupid ones. First, as Thoreau notes,
If you value safety over freedom and sanity, if you crave the illusion of 100% security even at the cost of trillions of dollars, interminable hassle, and real people killed or locked in gulags, then the points made by Chad and Matt are irrelevant to you. Sadly, too many people in our culture seem to feel that way. Or at least they won’t question policies based on such presumptions.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bureaucratic inertia is all in that direction. Ezra Klein makes a point I’ve been harping on for years:
The bureaucratic incentives of airport security all point in one direction: toward more of it. You can’t be the director of homeland security who decreed that passengers could keep their sneakers on and then watched a terrorist finally get a shoe bomb to work at 33,000 feet. You can’t be the director of homeland security who knows that three terrorists tried to mix a liquid explosive on a flight and then did nothing to stop them from trying it again. It’s bad to be blamed for annoyances. It’s much worse to be blamed for deaths. And the voters can’t credibly promise to hold the security state blameless for an actual terrorist attack. So the security state, and the people who run it, won’t take the chance.
Aside from a bureaucratic mindset that focuses on only one goal — preventing terrorist attack — without much regard for the fact that it detracts from several other goals — efficiency in time and money, dignity, liberty, and so forth — there’s the fact that the public will doubtless overreact in the event of a successful terrorist attack. But it’s also the case that the mere fact that The People In Charge tell us that something is Necessary For Our Own Good makes a large number of people accepting of the inconvenience, no matter how asinine or unsupported by evidence.