Liberty, Security, and the TSA

James Otteson,

Release Date
November 9, 2011


Civil Liberties

According to Professor James Otteson, there is a trade-off between liberty and security. Consider the recent procedures instituted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the name of defending us against terrorism. Are these procedures too invasive?
This is a fairly difficult question to answer. We all have different tolerances for risk. Car crashes cause many more deaths than terrorist attacks. Swimming pools kill more people per year than accidental gun discharges. Should we completely ban cars, swimming pools, and airplanes? Most people would say no. This is because, as mentioned before, that there is a trade-off between security and liberty.
Professor James Otteson feels that the TSA procedures are too invasive, as we have lost all of our liberty and privacy in exchange for security. As a result, we now have no say in our own liberty or privacy and cannot determine the best trade-off for ourselves.

Liberty, Security, and the TSA
The tradeoff between security and liberty can be illustrated by one issue that’s come to the fore in America recently, and that is with respect to terrorism. So consider the Transportation Security Administration. What is its job? Its job is to ensure our security on airline transportation.
Everybody wants to be secure on airline transportation. But consider the recent procedures that they’ve put in place, which some feel—including myself—to be rather invasive. Is it too much? Well we can’t answer that question until we first realize that there is a tradeoff involved.
The more security we have, the less liberty we’re going to have. And in the case of the TSA, it’s a tradeoff not just against liberty but also against privacy. The TSA is being awfully invasive into our privacy. Well, is it the right amount of tradeoff?
Well consider that individuals are different. Individuals have different tolerances for risks. So, some people are happy to go through the TSA procedures; other people are upset about it. But, think about other activities. Did you drive to work today? You are much more likely to die in an automobile accident than you are by a terrorist action. In fact it’s by orders of magnitude.
Do you have a swimming pool in your backyard? Many more people get killed by drowning in swimming pools than are killed by accidental gun discharges in the United States. Now, does that mean we should ban pools? Should we ban automobiles? One way to make sure, to guarantee that we do not have any more terrorist attacks on airplanes is to ban airline travel. But, of course we don’t want to do that.
Why don’t we do that? Because the tradeoff is too great. Exactly. That’s the point. The problem with the TSA is not just that maybe the place that they’ve put the line between liberty and security is not where you or I would have chosen, but it’s that they’ve chosen to trade off all of your liberty, all of your privacy against security. Once that’s has happened, you and I no longer have any say in our liberty or our privacy.
So, whereas some people may be willing to trade off all of their liberty and privacy for security, most people aren’t, and we no longer get to make that choice. So, the threat to individual liberty becomes even greater now because it is not just that the particular tradeoff is not where we might have chosen it, but that we’ve lost the liberty to make the choice at all.