The TSA on Signalling


Matthew Yglesias has a post about the (one of many) TSA lawsuits I’d like to comment on. He pretty much uses the issue to dig his rhetorical stick into Marc Thiessen…but I want to make a different point:

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a college student who was arrested by the TSA and detained for five hours over a set of Arabic-language flash cards he was carrying.

Nick George, a student at Pomona College in California, was grilled by the TSA on “who did 9/11″ and asked by FBI agents whether he was a communist after airport security officers found Arabic-English language learning cards in his luggage last summer, according to news reports and the ACLU.

This is an obvious case of over-reaction on the TSA’s part. But there is not another entity in the land that is harder to bring a successful civil suit against than the Federal government…and even if the kid happens to win the case, it isn’t clear what retribution that success will bring him. The Federal government gets sued all the time, and it is most definitely still around. The TSA has no incentive to improve its procedures from a civil rights perspective — and every incentive to continue encroaching…after all, after thousands of lawsuits, the TSA will still be around. So the most the kid gets is a token “sorry”, and the people who made the judgement call get fired. Quite the reward.

That is not how things work in a private market. In a private market (with a well-established method of adjudication) it is possible to get sued into bankruptcy, and if that doesn’t happen, your company takes a severe status hit. Just imagine if a private company were to have done this…the airport would likely be searching for a new contract as I type this. Private firms have every incentive to avoid situations like this (or cover them up, if you’re cynical). However, under our current arrangement, the airport is stuck with the ill-working TSA. It is unclear to me why the government sees it fit to spend the money to be entirely vertically integrated, when it could simply run a strong regulatory agency that outlines how private firms would need to perform their duty as contracted security (and also, the airports would expect to do the same), and allow competition. It would save money, and lead to better service. “Terrorism” (as we know it in the United States) is not particularly common…this is a signalling move by the government assert status. Like detaining grannies and infants.

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2 thoughts on “The TSA on Signalling

  1. Like KBR and the rape issues being brought up in Congress recently, a privatized TSA would find its fans and supporters in government regardless of what that privatized TSA does — and the security nuts would likely prevail. How come KBR isn’t out of business yet? Real world examples show powerful corporations involved in government contracting, especially in security issues, will find defenders in government. In contrast, an organization like ACORN…

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