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Don’t Federalize Airport Security

Recent proposals to “federalize” airport security run counter to the common-sense notion that local matters are best managed by local people. Moreover, the history of federal intervention—in labor relations, health care, natural resources, occupational health and safety and a host of other areas—suggests that federalizing airport security would bring equally disappointing results.

Studies by the General Accounting Office and the Department of Transportation Inspector General, as well as the horrible events of September 11, show that airport security does need a major overhaul. Adopting a federal one-size-fits-all system, however, runs the risk of lulling Americans into a false sense of security. At best, it would be a poor way to foster innovation and accountability.

Compare the U.S. Postal Service with FedEx and you’ll see why. Simply put, federal administrators lack the incentive to do a good job. If a local airport-security manager fails, everyone knows whom to hold accountable. If a federal administrator should fail in one or two major cases, in contrast, he can always claim to have done a good job because “the system worked for 99 percent of airports.”

Responsibility for airport security has been haphazardly divided among various parties—local law enforcement, the airlines, the airports, and the F.A.A.—resulting in poor accountability. However, accountability won’t be improved by simply placing all aspects of airport security in the hands of a federal agency.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have recently demonstrated appallingly poor performance and accountability. Why would a new Federal Airport Security Agency do any better?

We need to create an institutional structure that aligns the interests of all involved in airport security, a system that will foster innovation and accountability. Such a system can be created and operate successfully only in the private sector.

In recent years, many European airports have been privatized, resulting in improved service—including security—and accountability. That result benefits everyone. The United States should embrace such reform, not run away from it by placing all its eggs in a socialist basket.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. His many books include most recently Taking a Stand: Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy, as well as such volumes as Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity, and Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.

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Organized into 99 short, accessible chapters Taking a Stand offers the grand opportunity to make Robert Higgs’ vast insights available to general readers by combining his keen analysis with his engaging wit, humility and compassion.

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