Ilana Mercer, June 5, 2002

Violation of property rights by government hardly raises objections. If it did, the appropriate reaction to the banning by John Magaw of firearms in the cockpit would be: “Whose property is it anyway?” American airlines are, ostensibly, privately owned. Why, then, is the transportation secretary’s minion not allowing rightful owners to defend their property?

The dangers for commercial aviation of such a prohibition, arguably, have a lot to do with turning ownership—in this case airline ownership—into conditional tenure.

If things were as they ought to be, we wouldn’t chafe about whether pilots should carry guns or not. Any tension would revolve around passengers choosing the airline that optimizes their peace of mind. Passenger X’s reasons for taking airline A to his destination might be because the carrier’s pilots are armed. Mrs. Y’s overriding priority is to ensure her young daughters are not subjected to the mandatory pat downs—she chooses airline B, because its security personnel profile passengers.

In a word, true market competition would arise, and the consumer would be in a position to shape the delivery of security through his buying or his abstention from buying. This would be possible if airlines were not merely nominally private, as they are now, but were instead in a position to freely fine-tune their responses to consumer demand without interference from Congress and the regulators. It stands to reason that the stronger the proprietor’s rights in his property, the better he is able to respond to the consumer.

Since regulation replaces consumer preferences with bureaucratic decision-making, it invariably instates the wrong standards or simply settles on lower standards than those of the consumer. While business will pay a steep price in the free market for misreading the consumer, a government-granted reprieve is always on hand in a regulated industry, especially one that is considered an essential part of the national infrastructure, as civil aviation is. On the heels of September 11, government handed the airline industry a multi-billion-dollar bailout, as well as immunity from lawsuits. Thus were the airlines released from responsibility for the security of their passengers.

Government-run airports were—and still are—responsible for further vitiating passenger safety. As explained by economist Robert Murphy in an article entitled “The Source of Air-Travel Insecurity”:

The federal government had established minimum-security guidelines and then forced the airlines to chip in their share to pay for them. Whatever their airline, passengers were funneled through a common security checkpoint, staffed by a third-party company. In such an environment, it would have been silly for an individual airline to spend millions of dollars to exceed the government’s minimum standards by providing expert security personnel. Because of the setup of [government-run] airports, every other airline would have benefited too from this arrangement, so it is doubtful that such expenditure would have been rewarded by increased consumer patronage. Further, because the public naively believes the government when it “guarantees” air safety, even if an individual airline could have realistically offered better security measures than its competitors, consumers would still have felt that rival carriers were safe.

Only when an airline can undertake “curb-to-curb” handling of its passengers will it stand both to reap the benefits that arise from providing superior service, as well as incur full liability for forsaking passenger safety. This is possible only in a privatized airport, where freedom of association and freedom of contract aren’t overridden or blurred by government, and where responsibility isn’t collectivized.

Alas, the recent federalizing of airport security has removed even the limited involvement the airlines had in the protection of their passengers, leaving no doubts about the political commitment of this administration to full socialization of airline security. With civil servants-cum-political appointees now overseeing the industry, airlines have to get in line and wait to be assigned a federal marshal, if they want to defend their passengers and property.

Granting the airlines the right to arm employees—and the freedom to privately contract with on-board security providers—will obviate somewhat the inevitable security pitfalls of a nationalized airport.

Closer to home—and equally ominous—is the manner in which the Fair Housing Act erodes property rights, and, with them, the right to safeguard our homes.

According to the Act, a property owner cannot “discriminate against any person … in the sale or rental of a dwelling … because of race, color, religion … or national origin.”

An essential attribute of ownership is the right to exclude, a right that could come in very handy considering that apartment building owners have been warned by the FBI (for what it’s worth) about the possibility that al-Qaida operatives may rent suites and plant explosives in them.



June 5, 2002

CATEGORIES: Government, Homeland Security, Property Rights, Regulation, Terrorism, The State & Statism