The Republicans will control the House of Representatives and are bracing for a long battle over the president’s health care proposal. In the spirit of bipartisanship and sanity, I propose that the first thing on the chopping block be an ineffective organization that wastes money, violates our rights and encourages us to make decisions that imperil our safety. I’m talking about the Transportation Security Administration.
Bipartisan support should be immediate. For fiscal conservatives, it’s hard to come up with a more wasteful agency than the TSA. For privacy advocates, eliminating an organization that requires you to choose between a nude body scan or genital groping in order to board a plane should be a no-brainer.
But won’t that compromise safety? I doubt it. The airlines have enormous sums of money riding on passenger safety, and the notion that a government bureaucracy has better incentives to provide safe travels than airlines with billions of dollars worth of capital and good will on the line strains credulity. This might be beside the point: In 2003, blogger William Anderson incisively argued that some of the steps that airlines (and passengers) would have needed to take to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, disaster probably would have been illegal.
The odds of dying from a terrorist attack are much lower than the odds of dying from doing any number of incredibly mundane things we do every day. You are almost certainly more likely to die or be injured driving to the airport than you are to be injured by a terrorist once you’re in the air, even without a TSA. Indeed, once you have successfully made it to the airport, the most dangerous part of your trip is over. Until it’s time to drive home, that is.
Last week, I picked up a “TSA Customer Comment Card.” First, it’s important that we get one thing straight: I am not the TSA’s “customer.” The term “customer” denotes an honorable relationship in which I and a seller voluntarily trade value for value. There’s nothing voluntary about my relationship with the TSA.
A much more appropriate term for our relationship is “subject.” The TSA stands between me and those with whom I would like to trade, and I am not allowed to without their blessing.
Second, the TSA doesn’t provide security. It provides security theater, as writer Jeffrey Goldberg has argued. The kid with the slushie in Tucson before the 3-ounce rule? The little girl in the princess costume at an airport I don’t remember? The countless grandmothers? I’m more likely to be killed tripping over my own two feet while I’m distracted by the lunacy of it all than I am to be killed by one of them in a terrorist attack.
For even more theater of the absurd, consider that the TSA screens pilots. If a pilot wants to bring down a plane, he can probably do it with bare hands, and certainly without weapons. It’s also not entirely crazy to think that an airline would take measures to keep their pilots from turning their multimillion-dollar planes into flying bombs. Through the index funds in my retirement portfolio, I’m pretty sure I own stock in at least one airline, and I’m pretty sure airline managers know that cutting corners on security isn’t in my best interests as a shareholder.
And the items being confiscated? Are nail clippers and after-shave the tools of terrorists? What about the plastic cup of water I was told to dispose of because “it could be acid” (I quote the TSA screener) in New Orleans before the 3-ounce rule? What about the can of Coke I was relieved of after a flight from Copenhagen to Atlanta a few months ago? I would be more scared of someone giving a can of Coke to a child and contributing to the onset of juvenile diabetes than of using it to hide something that could compromise the safety of an aircraft.
Finally, most screening devices are ineffective because anyone who is serious about getting contraband onto an airplane can smuggle it in a body cavity or a surgical implant. The scanners the TSA uses aren’t going to stop them.
Over the next few years, we’re headed for a bitter, partisan clash over legislative priorities. Before the battle starts, let’s reach for that low-hanging, bipartisan fruit. Let’s abolish the TSA.
Art Carden is an assistant professor of economics and business at Rhodes College. This article first appeared on his Economic Imagination blog at Forbes.com.