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Would You Fly Liberty Air?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A thought experiment highlights the need for balancing freedom and risk.

Full-body scanners, invasive pat-downs, harsh carry-on restrictions—has the Transportation Security Administration gone too far? Critics and defenders of the TSA tend to talk past each other, so I propose a new approach to answering the question. Let us imagine there were a major airline that could opt out of all TSA regulations. Call it “Liberty Air.” Liberty Air openly advertises that it takes zero safety precautions when it comes to screening passengers and baggage. Would you fly on this airline?

The upside to Liberty Air’s approach is a far more pleasant airport experience. Liberty Air has no metal detectors, so there are no long lines after you get your ticket. Get to the airport ten minutes before take-off, not two hours. Pack whatever you want in your carry-on, including “dangerous” liquids, disposable razors, a hunting knife, whatever. If you have a laptop, don’t worry about taking it out of its case. Wearing a metal belt buckle? Have a lot of keys? Don’t want your Blackberry to leave your sight? No problem. You won’t have to juggle your boarding pass, your driver’s license, your cell phone, and your laptop. No need to take off your shoes. Don’t feel hassled to collect all your belongings pouring out of the X-ray machine—there is no X-ray machine!

Does the added risk outweigh the benefits? This is the question everyone should ponder.

Most important of all, Liberty Air does not do body scans. No machine will take revealing photos of you, nor will X-rays zap you, nor will any uniformed official fondle you in the name of national security.

Not only is Liberty Air more pleasant to fly, it’s also easier on your wallet. Free from paying for security officials and upkeep for expensive equipment, Liberty Air passes the savings on to you. No “September 11 security fee” on your bill. You pay only for the flight, not for the TSA bureaucracy.

Of course, there’s an obvious downside to Liberty Air: it is clearly more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Does the added risk outweigh the benefits? This is the question everyone should ponder. Would you fly Liberty Air, or would you still choose a TSA-compliant airline?

I have posed this question to several friends and colleagues, and a majority say they would choose Liberty Air. Their reasoning is simple. Although the risk of terrorism is higher, the chances of an attack on any given flight are still exceedingly small. How small? Consider that driving in a car is many times more likely to be fatal than flying in a plane. Even if Liberty Air were also many times more dangerous than regulated airlines, it would merely approach the risk level of driving rather than flying.

Free from paying for security officials and the upkeep of expensive equipment, Liberty Air passes the savings on to you.

My unscientific poll notwithstanding, many people will still choose the TSA and the relative security it provides. Nevertheless, the fact that a substantial number of Americans would opt for Liberty Air suggests a major disconnect between TSA policies and public opinion. After all, the TSA should be engaged in the same cost-benefit calculus that I outlined above. It should balance freedom and convenience with security, but—like nearly all bureaucratic agencies—it has come down far heavier on the side of security than many Americans prefer. To make matters worse, the TSA has made this choice for everyone, not for just the most security-conscious citizens.

To bolster the argument, imagine that Liberty Air actually employs a little bit of security. Let’s say it checks IDs against a government database in order to prevent people on a terrorist watch list from boarding. For those of you previously wary of Liberty Air, would you fly it now? Maybe Liberty Air also bans knives and guns from flights. How about now? Maybe it also makes certain high-risk passengers go through metal detectors. Is that enough? I imagine many readers on the fence are now leaning toward Liberty Air. The point is that the security precautions most Americans consider sufficient will likely be far less stringent than those the TSA employs.

Wearing a metal belt buckle? Have a lot of keys? Don’t want your Blackberry to leave your sight? No problem.

The “Liberty Air” thought experiment highlights the need for balancing freedom and risk. A surprising number of TSA supporters have missed this point. In defending TSA procedures as crucial to national security, they rarely mention that Americans may legitimately prefer to trade some of that security for freedom and convenience. The defenders' implicit assumption—and the government’s—is that the only acceptable number of terrorist attacks is zero. That assumption fails to weigh the costs of security against the benefits, and it is the kind of thinking that ratchets government regulation up and up, beyond levels most Americans find acceptable.

We need alternatives to the TSA so that passengers can decide for themselves whether procedures like full-body scans are worth the time, expense, and embarrassment. A good first step would be to allow airlines some flexibility in how they handle security. Airlines could decide whether and when to use full-body scanners, for example, and passengers could vote with their wallets by not flying on the airlines that use them excessively. Any approach to security that gives people more choices would be an improvement over the TSA’s heavy-handedness. Once all options are on the table, I expect freedom-oriented airlines to do brisk business. Sign me up!

Jason Richwine is a former National Research Initiative Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Richwine also wrote the immensely popular “Are Liberals Smarter than Conservatives?” and proposed “A Smart Solution to the Diversity Dilemma.” Marc Thiessen suggested, “Let’s Give Thanks for the TSA,” Jonah Goldberg considered “Travel, the TSA, and Teutonic Terminology,” and Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling said “Airport Security—Let’s Go Private.”

Image by Flickr/Alex E. Proimos.

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