In light of the recent avalanche of media coverage targeting airline security, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly outline a libertarian approach. Here is what we know:
1. Terrorism is not the product of one single group under the direction of one single leader, but a conglomeration of loosely organized, decentralized organizations from the Middle East. They overwhelmingly profess allegiance to Islamic religious beliefs. However, Islam is not only factionalized (Shiite Sunni etc.) but also highly decentralized, and therefore there is no one-single Islamic leader that has control over other groups. The vast majority of these “Islamic Extremists” live in poor Middle Eastern and African countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia etc. The vast majority of them are poor, male, illiterate, and unemployed. The majority of these potential terrorists have never flown in a plane.
2. All governments thrive on fear, and gain power over citizens by promising protection from threats. Invariably, the illusion of security is achieved at the expense of personal liberty and efficiency. The modern world is rife with both real and imagined threats. Americans have become increasingly risk-averse and therefore expect our government to protect us from an ever-expanding list of potential threats: influenza, balloon mortgages, unemployment, hunger, stupidity, rising gasoline prices, urban violence, sexual predators, contaminated food, and suicide bombers.
3. In the modern world perfect security is impossible because there is an infinite number of potential threats and an infinite number of ways to incite fear through the media. Threat-mongering enjoys a bull market. Therefore, if you watch CNN, or follow Internet news sources, you would think that we live our lives on the brink of disaster, when in fact most of us lead extraordinarily safe lives.
So what would a libertarian conclude about all of this? First of all, most of us would argue that we cannot afford to protect ourselves from an infinite number of potential threats, therefore security-rationing is inevitable. Most of us libertarians believe that the terrorist airline threat is greatly overblown. Moreover, our ongoing wars against local, regional, national, and international "Radical Islamic Groups" tend to manufacture more terrorists. Every time a drone missile kills an innocent (or guilty) woman or child, friends and family members seek revenge. However, they are not likely to buy an airline ticket to the United States. Given what we know about the efficiency of airline security, if terrorists were really interested in (or capable of) blowing up airplanes at will, there would have been many more air disasters. The fact of the matter is that you are safer on an airplane than in a car or a hospital. And finally, I think all libertarians agree that the airline industry is much more likely to be able to make rational assessments of the terrorism threat, and develop reasonable airline security policies than a governmental agency.
So what do we do? End the various instantiations of the “War on Terror” (along with the “Drug War”), let the free market sort out the degree of threat, develop useful technologies such as scanners, and biotechnical identification cards. Then, turn those “no-fly lists” over to the real experts: Federal Express, Wal-Mart, and Disney Corporation. Check out my recent APLS Blog Entry.