With their new policy to allow small knives on airplanes the Transport Security Administration (TSA) is in the news once again.
The numbers may come as a surprise, but most Americans support at least some of the procedures of the TSA. A 2012 Gallup poll showed that “54% of Americans think the TSA is doing either an excellent or a good job of handling security screening at airports.” A 2010 CBS News poll showed that over 80% support the full body scanners. Why such support? The public must believe that TSA procedures enhance security and increase their safety. And behind the belief that the TSA is useful is the belief that government is here to serve the people. But is that really so? Does protecting you really guide every decision that the TSA makes?
What if instead government agencies served their own interests? Although those in the position of leadership may often be motivated by things other than public service, we do not have to assume bad intentions to explain bad decisions on the part of government employees. We can grant all the good intentions we want to government employees, but good intentions are not enough.
People respond to incentives. Government workers make bad decisions because the incentives that guide their behavior are simply not the same as the incentives that guide the behavior of people who compete to win the loyalty of the consumer.
Recently, I was in line at airport security after 9 pm. Like other travelers, I was there to catch the last flight of the night. The line was moving slowly, and clearly there was concern on the faces of some travelers: “Will I miss the last flight of the night?” A TSA employee was going up and down the lines to make sure that passengers had every last lotion and cream out for inspection. “We are not like some other airports,” he shouted. “We are going to get you for going for going 1 mile over the speed limit.”
One traveler shook the TSA’s agent hand. I couldn’t hear the words, but judging by the TSA’s agent face, it seemed the traveler was thanking him for a job well done. And the TSA agent was indeed doing his defined job well and with sincere effort; whether he was protecting passengers was another question.
The former TSA head, Kip Hawley said he supports a new TSA policy allowing small knives on planes. In fact, he believes the new policy does not go far enough; it should, he said, allow travelers to bring instruments such as “battle axes (and) machetes” onto planes. When I first read this, I reflexively checked to see that I had not accidentally landed at the satirical Onion website.
Hawley said, “You cannot necessarily prevent violence on an airplane, but that is not the TSA’s mission. TSA’s mission is to prevent a successful, catastrophic terrorist attack.…”
In other words, if a terrorist with a machete kills everyone on board the plane and yet the plane lands safely, the TSA would have successfully done their job. Could a representative of a business that depended on serving the needs of consumers take such a position?
The problem is that no matter how insane the TSA’s policies, the TSA continues to be funded with taxpayers’ money. They are a government monopoly; they can choose to serve themselves as well as their politically connected cronies from whom they buy dangerous and ineffective scanners. What else are they buying?
The TSA is a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Recently it has been revealed that the Department of Homeland Security has ordered heavily armored personnel carriers as well as 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition—enough to sustain a 20 year war.
Do they have dark motives? Are they preparing to make war against Americans, as some believe? Ralph Benko writing in Forbes has a simpler explanation. He writes: “About 20 years ago this columnist worked, for two years, in the U.S. Department of Energy’s general counsel’s office in its procurement and finance division.” “Wise to the ways” of the bureaucracy, Benko offers a simple explanation: They have no incentives to not be wasteful. Why wouldn’t they buy what they felt like buying and what their cronies sell?
So we come full circle; good intentions are not enough. For sound policies to emerge, what is needed are incentives to serve the public. Decision makers in government monopolies do not have those incentives which only competition provides.