A Libertarian Perspective on Airline Security: Abolish the TSA and Let the Market Work

Could TSA-style irradiating porno scanners, digital strip searches, near-naked photos, genital gropes, breast feel-ups, and invasive pat-downs be found in airports in a libertarian -- that is, a free -- society as a condition of getting on a flight?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. And so could body cavity searches and enhanced pat-down procedures that would make sexual assault a welcome relief.

No, I am not making a sick caricature of libertarianism. Not only am I a libertarian, I am a libertarian who vehemently objects to all of these things as gross invasions of liberty, privacy, decency, civil rights, and the Fourth Amendment.

Libertarians are sometimes accused of being utopian, having their head in the sand, and pointing out what's wrong without offering any real solutions. Clearly, the draconian rules and procedures relating to airport security have steadily grown worse since the creation of the TSA in 2001 and the federalization of airline security. Americans of every political persuasion are currently outraged over the new full-body scanners and enhanced pat-down procedures.

So what is the libertarian solution? And how could it possibly include invasive techniques?

The libertarian solution is not to reform the TSA, change the pat-down procedure, use less-revealing pictures on the porno scanners, let us keep our shoes on, and start permitting larger tubes of toothpaste in carry-on luggage. The libertarian solution is one based on liberty and private property.

The first thing that needs to be done is that the federal government needs to cease its control of airline security. No more TSA, no more federal rules, no more federal regulations, no more federal mandates, no more federal oversight, no more "September 11 security fee" of $2.50 per enplanement. This is already the solution to practically every other problem in the country, be it education, health care, or the economy -- get the federal government out of it. Anything short of severing federal control over airline security is no real and lasting solution.

Turning airline security over to state and local governments is not a good option. Although we have a federal system of government where, in the words of the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people, " airline security should not be one of those powers anymore than mall security should be one of those powers. And aside from the issue of the proper role of government, it should be pointed out that state and local governments can be just as bureaucratic, just as wasteful of resources, just as burdensome, and just as tyrannical as the federal government, they just don't have the money and the military that the federal government has. Airports that are owned and operated by municipalities should be sold to private concerns, but that is an unrelated topic beyond the scope of this article.

This leaves only one possibility for control of airline security: airports and airlines. Yes, the actual businesses that own and operate the airports we fly out of and the airlines we fly on. Airports and airlines have tremendous incentives to keep undesirable people and products off their flights to protect their passengers and preserve their multi-million dollar airplanes. Airports could provide security and passenger screening, leave these things up to each airline, or share responsibility with the airlines.

Some airports might allow family and friends to wait with you for your flight and/or meet you at the gate when you return. Others might restrict airport access to flyers. Some airports might require an extensive background check or an invasive pat-down as a condition of getting on a flight. Others might simply require a driver's license and a walk through a metal detector.

Some airlines might allow pilots and passengers to have weapons and station armed security guards on each flight. Others might prohibit any metal objects. Some airlines might have no restrictions on liquids brought onto flights. Others might have severe limitations on anything carried on the airplane.

The possibilities in a free society are endless.

Airlines that objected to security procedures at an airport would have the option of not flying out of that particular airport. Passengers that objected to security procedures at an airport or a particular airline would have the option of going to a different airport or using another airline.

Could the owner of an airport require anything he wanted of passengers before they boarded an airplane in his airport? In a libertarian society -- that is, a free society -- the answer is a resounding yes. However, TSA-style security procedures would likely and soon cause a backlash from the flying public and cause the owner to make changes or face the loss of patrons willing to fly out of his airport. With the federal TSA, passengers have no choice as to whether they want to be violated.

Airports and airlines should compete for customers, just like any other business. They could and should compete on the basis of ticket price, on-time departures, frequent-flyer program, comfort, safety record, service, baggage fees, carry-on requirements -- and security procedures.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says the TSA is "doing what we need to do to protect the traveling public. " But short of the federal government ending its grip on airline security, what will protect the traveling public from the TSA?

- By Laurence M. Vance