Our current government shutdown has no end in sight, with both sides dug into positions their respective bases won’t let them abandon. As this game of chicken drags further on, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has gotten more attention than usual.
TSA workers have started calling in sick, slowing down airport lines, and even prompting some terminals to be closed in major cities. While some pundits have pontificated on the chance that a TSA strike could end the shutdown, hardly anyone else is asking a far more interesting question: Do we even need the TSA at all?
After all, complaining about the borderline sexual harassment we all have to go through to travel is a pastime for Americans of all stripes. The proposal gets more serious, though, when one examines the “success” rates of the TSA as well as its costs. Study after study has shown the TSA to be utterly incompetent and incapable of protecting travelers.
A 2015 investigation found that undercover agents were able to smuggle through banned weapons or mock explosives 95 percent of the time they tried. After those results became public, the head of the TSA was reassigned, but the agency is still failing at its only job. A follow-up investigation in 2017 found that the crack team of blue-shirted gropers protecting us from terrorists was still failing at a rate upwards of 70 percent.
The Very Definition Of Security Theater
In other words, the TSA doesn’t actually protect us from anything. They are the very definition of security theater. They provide a feeling of security without the security itself.
They actually make us less safe, in a way. I’m no counter-terrorism expert, but it’s not a great idea to crowd large groups of people together at a soft target for terrorists. The masterminds of the next would-be 9/11 don’t even have to get all the way to a plane when the TSA corrals an entire plane’s worth of people into a small area as they wait in line to have their bodies scanned. It’s not like there’s any meaningful security between the drop-off curb outside and the security lines at most airports.
Some folks may hear this argument and point out that there hasn’t been a massive, aircraft-based terrorist attack in the United States since the TSA was established shortly after 9/11. They’re correct to point this out, but wrong to attribute this to the TSA. The reason we haven’t seen any additional 9/11-style attacks is due to changes in how the crew on commercial aircraft handles those situations.
Prior to 9/11, pilots were told to comply with hijackers and calm the situation until the plane could get onto the ground and have authorities handle it from there. Officials hadn’t really considered that a plane could be flown by a terrorist and used as a weapon. Now, aircraft crew are instructed not to comply with hijackers, and cockpits are more secure. That procedural change, combined with the presence of air marshals, has prevented another 9/11. We could easily keep air marshals and get rid of the rest of the TSA and be just fine.
One thing the TSA is good at is spending money. The agency’s annual budget is around $7.5 billion. Regardless of which part of the political spectrum you come from, we can all agree that money could go a long way elsewhere. The service the TSA currently provides could easily be privatized, saving taxpayers a ton of money.
Most airports in Europe and Canada have outsourced security to private contractors, and the TSA has deals with more than 20 U.S. airports that allow them to use private companies to conduct security screenings instead of TSA agents. These screenings must comply with current TSA protocols, but I’d go a step further. Let the airports or the airlines do it themselves.
Everyone involved has a strong incentive to provide high-quality service––nobody will fly on an airline known to have security problems. We’ll get a more efficient process from both a time and financial standpoint by taking this job out of the government’s hands.
Let’s Take Away TSA’s Outsized Political Leverage
One more benefit of privatization is that we’ll never again have a situation where low-level federal employees possess the kind of political leverage they do right now. With each day that passes, lines at airports get longer and longer due to TSA agents calling in sick.
Whether you like government shutdowns or hate them, we all know this won’t be the last one. There’s no reason for our entire air transportation network to be held hostage because of a completely unrelated problem in Washington. A debate over a border wall shouldn’t affect our ability to fly, and the defection of TSA agents from their job shouldn’t influence immigration policy. With privatized security, the federal government will have their hands in one less area that it should have nothing to do with, and that’s a good thing.
Many air travelers hate the TSA for a reason: they fail at their main job but never seem to miss that half-empty water bottle in your backpack or four-ounce gel in your toiletry bag. The agent with the metal-detecting wand is more likely to catch your private parts on a pat-down than he is a weapon. It’s time to abolish the TSA and let the market replace it with something better. Even if you’re skeptical, can it really get much worse than a 70 percent failure rate?