by Aaron Lydement, Sydney-based fund analyst specialising in commercial real estate and Mises Institute member

In airports around the world, harsher security measures are being implemented in an effort to prevent acts of violence. The critics of the new measures argue that such procedures are similar in nature to a police state and are an infringement of individual liberty. The proponents of the new measures argue that they are needed in order to provide the people with security. Who is right? Is there even a right answer? How does a rational, logical person make sense of this argument and by what standard can they evaluate the arguments to determine the best course of action? This short paper will outline why the question of security or liberty is a false choice and will argue that by ensuring liberty, the society always receives the amount of security it deems necessary.

If you heed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And if you listen to the current American President, Barrack Obama “…enhanced security measures are necessary to keep America safe.” The good and honest citizen is now posed with stark choice when considering government security at an airport, Security or Liberty?

It is important first to define exactly what liberty is. Liberty is the freedom of a human being to engage in any activity their mind and body are capable of and engage in any mutually agreeable transaction with other human beings provided it does not involve coercion or in any way infringe upon those same rights of others. They have the freedom to choose, which also means they can say no; they can choose to not give their consent to any action that involves them. In a libertarian society the person must agree and thereby give their consent to any action involving their property rights — a person’s property includes their mind and their body. This naturally extends to any good or material object that was produced from that person’s endeavours.

So what does a well-meaning citizen do? “I like liberty”, the good citizen may say and the citizen readily acknowledges that it is important and may continue in their logic that “in times like these with all that is going on we need to be secure, after all what’s the point of liberty if we don’t have the security to enjoy that liberty?” The citizen accepts that at the airports, full body pat downs, full body x-rays and the forced removal of clothing are intrusive but what other option is there? Fair point, it is a tough choice; one which on the surface has many shades of grey and no clear right or wrong answer.

This conundrum is the result of a false choice: security or liberty? In a society where all parties have their liberty, security is not compromised but continually responds to the demands of the public.

First let me briefly define what is meant by a free society. In a truly free society all parties are equal under law; there is no discrimination against ability, wealth, the colour of a person’s hair, their productiveness (or lack thereof), their physical attractiveness (or lack thereof), their intellect (or lack thereof), what family they came from, their race, their sexual preference or their spiritual convictions (if any) and lastly if they are a nice person or if they have a personality that the majority of a voting public find unpleasant. I wish to emphasise that this lack of discrimination applies to the rule of law only. Individuals can freely discriminate (i.e. choose not to associate with) on whatever grounds they deem relevant, as they have the liberty to choose. This holds true whether that relationship is spiritual, business/work related, based on friendship or if it is romantic in nature. For example, if you don’t like the look of a person or their personality, don’t hire them, work for them, socialise with them or engage in a romantic relationship with them. If you can come to a mutually consensual agreement with an absence of coercion on all sides, then the individual liberties are preserved. Other individuals are free to judge, approve, disapprove of those choices but they have no right or legal power to intervene and use coercion to create an outcome that they find pleasing.

Where does that leave federal government agencies such as the United States of America’s Transport Security Administration (TSA), which carries out activities such as airport scanning, x-ray body scans and pat downs? Simply, under a free society these functions would no longer be provided by any government agency.

The good citizen would be right to question what would replace the TSA, how this would work, what the implications are, and how this could possibly be consistent in providing the travelling public with security. I will attempt to answer these reasonable questions.

What would replace them?

With the TSA abdicating their duties, the individual airlines would have to operate their own security procedures. This would mean airline operators such as American Airlines, Air Canada, British Airways, Qantas and United Airlines would each be responsible for securely seating their passengers from the airport terminal and into their seats.

Security procedures could also be provided by the owner of the airport for the airlines that use their services but this paper will focus on the airline industry. However, the principals of individual liberty, freedom to choose and security that apply to airlines, apply to all businesses including airport proprietors.

How would this work?

All the airlines would have a slightly different procedure. Some will be more stringent than others. Those customers that want to feel absolutely secure would book a ticket with the airline that has the most intrusive requirements. They may also do this as they derive greater satisfaction from the feeling of safety compared to the discomfort of the intrusive procedure. The same would happen for a different person that derives the greatest benefit from travelling with an airline that may scan them for metal objects but does not subject them to physical touch or full body x-rays. An example would be an airline transporting hundreds of people in one plane may have more intrusive security procedures and be more stringent than a private jet service that transports only 6 passengers.

How is it consistent in providing security?

When a person enters a shopping centre, a sports stadium, a pub or night club, these businesses all have their own security and if for example the paying customer feels a high level of frustration at night club security, they can choose to go elsewhere; perhaps to a more relaxed bar where the door man does not act like a contender for Ultimate Fighting Championship. If you feel the security is lacking and you don’t feel safe, you are free to exercise your choice and choose another venue. While the paying customers that are willing to tolerate the discomfort of the nightclub security because they obtain the other benefits the club provides are free to do so. In many cases nightclubs all have a similar level of security compared to bars due to the nature of their business. The security level of a pub, nightclub, dentist, shopping centre, and sports stadium or even the local coffee shop is in proportion to what the proprietor believes is necessary for the smooth operation of their business in serving its customers. There is no fundamental difference in an airline providing security, as compared to other businesses that voluntarily choose to provide additional security for the comfort of their patrons.

What are the implications?

The results, like any competitive process, are based on what the paying public are after. If the customers want additional security, then the security process will become more intrusive as the business attempts to gain market share and profit. This aspect will become another feature of competitive difference between the operators. Like any business, the operator that caters to their customers the best will be rewarded with the approval of the paying public and those that don’t will see their patronage decline. For example, customers such as banks who employ vans to transport large sums of money or other valuables have a very high level of security that relates to the dangers of their industry, whereas a mail courier company that transports documents requires no security. The air transportation industry, like every industry, adapts to the nature of their trading environment.

A final question that the honest citizen may be asking is what happens if someone hijacks a plane from an airline that specialises in low intrusive security checks and uses it as a weapon that hurts others? Firstly, that is one of the reasons major airlines have locked cabin doors where the pilot has access to a weapon. It is the reason why airlines have security in the first place. This is the same as a shopping centre or night club which have stronger security than other services such as the dentist. However the same question could be asked, what if a person catches a bus and uses it as weapon in a crowded area, what then? In this case it is the role of the police to frequent venues and locations they believe are at risk from crime. This applies to all businesses even if those enterprises have their own privatised police force such as in shopping centres, trains, clubs, pubs etc. The exact methods and evaluation of how the police allocate their resources are outside the scope of this paper. The point is that there is no fundamental difference in an airline providing security, as compared to other businesses that voluntarily choose to provide additional security for the comfort of their patrons.

The final implication is that individuals living in a free society would have both their security and their liberty. If instead the power of choice is surrendered to a centralised authority, the individual is at risk from the level of intrusiveness the centralised authority decides is necessary. When you hand over your liberty to a centralised authority you are at risk from that authority you trusted with your protection. You have neither your liberty nor your security.

In summary, the question of liberty or security is a false choice. A free society has by definition the level of security it requires. No more security, no less security and it continually evolves with the changing needs of the public. The biggest danger to a free society has always been the transfer of power from the decentralised citizens to a centralised government. To protect the citizens from their government there are documents such as a National Constitution and for some countries a Bill of (Individual) Rights. That is why there is a Separation of Powers from the Executive (President, Monarch or their representative such as a Governor General), Legislative (Congress or Parliament) and Judiciary branches (State/Provincial and Federal Courts). That is why power is not concentrated in solely a Federal Government but in State/Provincial Governments as well. That is why there is a Police force (largely in the control of the State/Provincial Governments) and a Military (controlled at the Federal level) and therefore no one level of Government has a total monopoly on permissible violence.

Despite all these safeguards, the attacks on the individual’s liberty are ongoing. The battle by those in power to transfer that liberty to a centralised authority which they preside over has been an ongoing feature of the human experience. If the citizens are armed with the knowledge of their rights and of the centuries-old tactics that are used by those in power to subvert their individual rights (such as security or liberty?) and are willing to fight for them, then a society of free people with security and liberty is the only result.