Heat and Light in a TSA Line

Time was tight and people were rushing to catch flights. This particular terminal in Miami was usually fast, everyone knew, but for some reason, the TSA was seriously understaffed. What do they care whether people spend 90 minutes waiting in the checkpoint? They have no stake in the profitability of the airlines and no real concern for the well-being of the customer.

So there we all stood, being blasted with Orwellian messages like, “If you see something, say something.” Time marched on and the line was not moving. Most people around me were scheduled to fly out in 45 minutes. Then 30 minutes. Then 15 minutes. You could feel the anxiety and sense the rising frustration of the growing crowd.

As the agent checking boarding passes was finally in view, everyone around me witnessed a striking thing. A person reached across the line and offered $20 to a person three people away from the checkpoint. A deal was made, and this guy suddenly moved in front in line. He had a jutting jaw, dark sunglasses and bulging muscles — a perfectly hateable picture of arrogance. The rest of us were pushed back by one person.

All 50 or so people who saw this transaction were outraged. The grumbling began immediately, and then rose in volume until people were becoming alarmingly vocal about it. One person demanded a share in the payment. Another said that he would have charged more if asked. Another said that there was no amount of money he would have accepted.

Oddly, and probably unjustly, all the anger was directed toward the guy who paid, and not, as one might expect, the person who accepted the payment. He was immediately ratted out. A TSA agent intervened and let him through anyway. What happened afterward I will get to in a moment, but let’s first explore the ethics and economics of this transaction.

With nothing to do but stand there, I posed the following questions on Facebook from my digital device. Do you “own” your place in line? What if someone pays the person in front of you to cut in, thereby pushing you back one step? Are you owed some portion of the revenue? But then should the payment taker have to ask permission from everyone behind him before making the transaction?

A lively debate ensued (100-plus posts!). Some said the price should have been higher. Some thought it was a perfectly legitimate transaction. Some said that because we own our place in line, this amounted to theft. But in what sense do we own a place in line? I was trying to understand the source of what seemed like the legitimate outrage and how that accords with our intuitive sense of justice.

Some people said that the whole issue should be decided by the line owner. This is true enough, but impractical. The TSA was the owner, and it posted no rules concerning this issue. That’s also the case with most lines in the private sector, too. People need to draw on some sense of etiquette and manners, but from what ethical principle are these derived?

Everyone’s thoughts here were interesting.

But it was economist Robert Murphy who posted what I found to be the clearest thoughts (which is not to take away from others who added interesting insights along the way).

In Murphy’s view, the payment was just a distraction. You are not permitted to let anyone cut in line, even at zero price. The issue of justice here had nothing to do with payment. Even if you are feeling generous toward someone who is in a special rush, you are bound to stay in the line. This is because your actions affect the well-being of everyone else in a very tangible way.

Nor is ownership as such the issue. People who are lined up are adhering to a social convention of “first come, first served.” The outrage stems from the perception that the rule has been broken. Even if it makes no difference in terms of the time spent in line and whether or not there is money involved, if people value their place in the line — the longer and slower the line, the higher the value — these values must be respected.

This seems right to me. And note that the sense of violation that comes from observing a cutting-in is independent of political outlook. It just didn’t matter one bit whether the people were left or right or free market or socialist or fascist or communist. Everyone has a sense of justice associated with the “first come, first served” idea of allocation of scarce services in this context.

For example, it would have made no sense for a communist to propose that we all institute communism in TSA services. What would this even mean? The service of having your boarding pass checked is a scarce good. With only one agent, only one person can be checked at a time. It defies the laws of reality to propose common ownership under these conditions.

But so it is with the whole of the material world. Scarcity is a fact of life. Scarce goods must be allocated somehow. It contributes nothing to say that they should be owned by all. Scarce goods can be allocated through violence or through the peaceful means of trade and exchange. The case for a free market can be boiled down to this proposition.

In other words, if the people in this line considered their reaction carefully, they would eventually have to conclude that their intuition has deeper implications. Every tax, every regulation, every state intervention amounts to a forced “cutting in line.” This is because every intervention is an act that overrules our personal value scales of what we would like to do with our lives and property. The government is jumping in front of our personal sense of priorities and asserting the government’s own priorities as a replacement, thereby pushing our own preference further back in the line.

Government is not only a robber and thief, but also a violator of our own intuitive standards of taste and manners. Most people do not know this because what government does is largely invisible to our daily lives and spending activity. Were government’s actions on display as aggressively as this line cutter at the TSA, we would see a revolution in short order.

There is a ending to this story. After the jutting-jawed jerk got through the line, the TSA took vengeance, much to the delight of the crowd. They had him take off his hat, coat and shirt, and search his bags with faux interest, one item at a time, strewing out his personal belongs for all to see. The crowds behind him in line passed by and jeered with delight.

I found myself feeling sorry for him and somewhat sickened by this whole display, which had nothing to do with security and everything to do with vengeance. After all, he only offered the money; it was the guy who let him cut in the line who caused all the problems. But when government is involved, the injustice rarely stops with one act.

The events in this TSA line were a microcosmic illustration of the partnership between despotism and mob rule.

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