Even if we assume, for the sake of argument – or “completeness,” as mathematicians put it – that at least some passenger screening measures protect us from at least some acts of terror – I do not believe that these measures are worth their cost.

I say again: even if passenger screening (which probably does not work) is protecting us from acts of terrorism (though, roughly speaking, there’s no reason to expect such things), I still say it’s too expensive.

I can’t add up the exact numbers, but I can point to how it would be done. Let’s pretend that by eliminating some “security” measures we allow some number of “terrorist” events to take place. Compare the estimated costs of this (imagined) terrorism with the estimated costs of the (real) measures that are supposedly preventing it. Start with obvious observations such as:

  1. The Transportation Safety Authority. For their staff of 50,000; their metal detectors and x-ray machines; their dogs, uniforms, buildings, cars, coffee-cups and so on, we are spending over five billion dollars per year.
  2. Effects on travelers. About two million people fly every day. “Security” measures cost them dearly.
    • Direct expenses. People have to buy new stuff (for example, shoes with no metal in them) and they have to replace stuff that was confiscated (lipsticks, nail clippers, sports drinks – whatever it is fashionable to confiscate these days).
    • Indirect expenses. An hour to get through screening is an hour when you could have been doing something else both more productive and more enjoyable.
    • Inconvenience. We have to add some sort of inconvenience cost, even if it’s not measured in dollars – for the hassles, fear, humiliation, invasion of privacy, infringement of civil rights, warrantless suspicion, reinforcement of racial stereotypes… don’t even get me started. How to calculate the cost of these effronteries? We could ask how much people would be willing to spend to skip them. There’s going to be some sort of average offer. Imagine it’s a hundred dollars per trip. (Some people would go much higher.) For two million trips, that’s an incovenience cost of 200 million dollars a day, or 73 billion dollars a year.
  3. Effects on the economy
    • The airlines are in trouble… but they seem always to be in trouble. Maybe that’s just the way of the world. Let’s set it aside.
    • American businesses that rely on travel – which is almost all of them, I would imagine – are paying for “security” measure with diminished productivity, efficiency, and agility. The opportunity cost must be staggering.
    • Airport passenger screening is among the many “security” measures that contribute to world-wide distrust in, and even distaste for, Americans. This too must take a severe toll on American businesses.
    • If the Treasury is finite, then any funds for “security” have inevitably to be diverted from other projects. Almost any of these will have more utility, given that “security” per se has no utility at all. Here are some examples of programs that have acknowledgedly suffered in recent years:
      • Health care
      • Education
      • Physical infrastructure – can you say “Katrina”?
      • REAL crime prevention!

As you can see, the list is mighty long and mighty expensive. And these are just the first few things that come to mind.

Before we go further, I want to call your attention to the “health care” item under “funds diverted from other projects.” On the scale of countries, a diversion of funding is a diversion of mortality. Reduce spending on health care, and more prople will die. I don’t have an estimate on the trade-off, but there definitely will be one. “Security” spending might save lives later, but it is definitely costing lives now.

I think I will end this post here. I want to list more categories, and I want to fill in some numbers, but for now let’s just get the general idea out there.

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