I’ve watched the TSA Body Scanner/Pat Down fiasco with the usual mix of outrage and dark humor. In our collective apoplexy we have made the TSA into caricatured goons to be contrasted with grandmothers and toddlers undeserving of security scrutiny. While my own politics agrees with these sentiments, I think a couple angles on this story have been missed, one of which relates to transit and the other to ethics.
First, in this new paradigm cars win. If you care about privacy and freedom of movement, it’s a good time to drive a car. While air, rail, and ferries will likely face ever-tightening security in the coming years, private vehicles will remain largely free of restriction or inspection, despite the massive precedent of car bombings. Traveling on any major public conveyance will submit you to inconvenience, forced data collection, and surveillance. Not so for cars.
Second, we are partly to blame. Our expectations of government reveal a fundamental contradiction. We tend to judge as utilitarians and argue as deontologists. Put differently, we tend to argue the merits of a policy via principles (ethics, rights, justice) until something bad happens, at which point our moral calculus swiftly switches to results-based judgment. If there is a successful terrorist attack by whatever means, we fallaciously blame the government post hoc for failing to foresee and prevent the means of attack. This tendency also works well in reverse; when there is an extended period without an attack we reward politicians without any evidence that their actions provided any meaningful deterrence. How many times have you heard, “Bush may have been a bad President, but his actions kept us safe”? As a result – despite our protestations – as a society we reward governmental hyperactivity and will not tolerate inaction. This establishes overwhelming incentives for our government to enact ridiculously cautious and intrusive security policies.
If we want to win a social argument against the “surveillance society” on the basis of rights and justice, we must relax the utilitarian standards to which we hold our governments. As difficult as it is for our litigious society, we must accept risk, period. We must recognize that beyond a certain point risk-avoidance diminishes the quality of that which it seeks to protect, namely a free and mobile life. Attacks will happen, and I may die, but I would rather face that infinitesimal particular risk than assent to a general loss of liberty. The best formulation I have seen comes from Swedish philosopher Sven Ove Hansson in his article Ethical Criteria of Risk Acceptance,
“Exposure of a person to risk is acceptable if and only if this exposure is part of an equitable social system of risk-taking that works to her advantage.”
If only President Obama had meant what he said on Inauguration Day,
“We reject as false the choice between our liberty and our ideals…those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”