TSA: Travel is a Privilege

It’s been a few days, but I’m still struck by the utter boldness of Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole’s public and presumably intended to be quoted comment: “I see flying as a privilege; it’s also a public-safety issue.” This is truly a startling attitude, but perhaps I’m more surprised that an agency head can be so blatant about it than the fact an ex-FBI agent actually thinks it.

Up until now, most U.S. citizens likely took personal travel for granted. The idea that the government would give you permission to travel was understandably the province of totalitarian governments, not democracies that had formalized protections for civil liberties (i.e., the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights). Indeed, some of us probably thought the the right to travel from point A to point B was fundamental to the values of individual liberty and personal freedom that were cornerstones of the U.S. form of government.

Not so. According to Pistole, no one has a right to travel (at least air travel in this particular case). In Pistole’s case, travel is the subject of security agencies’ whim based on the principle that anyone and everyone is a potential terrorist. I have had a U.S. passport for more than 30 years, logged well over a 100,000 miles traveling by air in the past year alone, lived in the same house for nearly two decades, and work for an organization that values peace and individaul liberty. I’ve worked in the freedom think tank world for more than two decades. Yet, I do not have a right to travel. I can get on a plane only if the TSA says I can even when it has no evidence to even suspect that I might be a threat.

While the public outrage now revolves around TSA, the threat to freedom to travel more broadly has been rising for years, perhaps decades. Many metropolitan planning agencies are adopting policies intentionally designed to reduce travel, either indirectly by allowing traffic congestion to rise to the point peopel will no longer travel or through more direct policies euphemistically called “demand management.” Many urban and transportation planners openly advocate policies that severely discourage (and in some cases physically limit) the purchase and use of automobiles. Some of these policies include maximum parking regulations (to limit auto ownership), road tolling that specifically limits investments in new road capacity to reduce vehicle miles travelled (and hence travel), and even-odd license plate policies along the lines of Singapore and Beijing that limit access to downtowns to certain days for travelers and commuters.

The danger is that the TSA position will be seen as a further justification for limiting travel more broadly. After all, Tim McVeigh used a truck to destroy the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Using Pistole’s rationale, isn’t any driver a potential terrorist?

And car drivers don’t have to be the only target. Some of the least secure transportation systems in the U.S. are public transit networks, where security and screening is practically is non-existent. As many travelers on the Washington, D.C. metro likely recognize, a suicide bomber could paralyze the city by detonating a bomb at the right place in the network and kill hundreds of people in the process.

If concern for security is a justification for revoking a fundamental right to travel, then everyone stepping out their door is at risk under TSA’s current policies and rationales.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.