Airport Security System: Citizenship or Capitalism?

I listened to a discussion the other day that got right to the heart of the capitalism v. citizenship debate. The conversation (on local public radio) was about two competing trends in airport security.

In the United States, the federal government (though the Transportation Security Administration) controls airport security checkpoints. But they don’t control the rest of the airport, including the lines leading to the checkpoint (where you reach the first TSA agent before passing through the scanners). The pre-security lines are controlled by some combination of local airport authorities and airlines. So some airlines have begun to create separate (quicker) lines for valued customers (frequent fliers, first class, business class, etc.). In classic capitalist fashion they are providing a premium service for those paying more.

But some people are upset by this. They view the lines leading up to security as part of the overall security process and feel that everyone should have an equal experience receiving a government service (TSA screening). This is classic citizenship logic. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) has proposed a piece of legislation that would prevent the airlines or airport authorities from creating special lines for those paying a premium. Through additional regulation, the federal government would impose the citizenship model on the pre-screening lines.*


In the other direction, TSA is in the process of implementing TSA Pre™ Screening. Here’s how TSA explains the system on their website:

If TSA determines a passenger is eligible for expedited screening through TSA Pre™, that information is embedded in the barcode of the passenger’s boarding pass. TSA will read the barcode at the designated TSA Pre™ checkpoint and the passenger may be referred to a lane where they will undergo expedited screening, which could include being able to leave their shoes, light outerwear and belt on, allowing them to keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant liquids/gels bag in a carry-on.

Here’s the rub: the best way to get on this list is to fly frequently. Doing so, of course, costs money. So TSA is taking a big step in the capitalist direction — those who can afford to pay more to the airlines will get to go through TSA screening faster than their fellow passengers. So at the same time that Sen. Nelson is trying to expand the citizenship model out from the security checkpoint, the TSA is making their procedures more capitalist.


Personally, I don’t think either is a huge deal. I wouldn’t support Sen. Nelson’s law because I don’t think the issue rises to the level of requiring government regulation. I’m not thrilled by the TSA Pre✓™ system, because I think the citizenship model should apply to government services. But our airport security is a huge farce right now and if this paves the way for doing away with the carnival aspects (3-1-1, shoes, etc.) and towards more intelligent screening procedures, perhaps this is a useful step. Mostly, I just find it to be an striking example of the debate over which system should control various aspects of our lives.


* I should note that apparently Sen. Nelson’s bill has little likelihood of even making through committee.

2 Responses to Airport Security System: Citizenship or Capitalism?
  1. Jacob Morgan
    April 7, 2012 | 12:51 pm

    I think the better illustration of capitalism vs. ‘citizenship’ is looking at the airports that have been allowed to use private companies ilo TSA for security screenings.

    Given the fact that more and more airports are attempting to switch to private will provide the evidence of which is better..

    The problem was highlighted in your writing. If they can’t expedite the process for ‘safe’ passengers, then they will forever have to treat us all like terrorists. Which means shoes, jackets, 3-1-1 forever and ever with zero progress.

    • Jason
      April 7, 2012 | 2:57 pm


      The contrast you’re referring to, between government work and private enterprise, is separate from what I mean by the “capitalism model” and “citizenship model.” If the private companies operating in lieu of TSA are required to operate under the same rules and rely on TSA data about “safe” and “unsafe” passengers, then the only difference will be cost to the airport. That’s not insignificant, but it has little to do with how we’ll all be treated at security checkpoints.

      What I mean by the contrast between the “capitalist model” and the “citizenship model” is a distinction in how we measure “fair” treatment. In the capitalist model, it is “fair” to treat people differently on the basis of how much they pay. In the citizenship model, people are expected to have equal access regardless of how much they pay. Which model is chosen (by either government workers or private industry) will have a big impact on what our experience is with security checkpoints.

      Personally, though I’m not a big fan of money as the basis for differentiating passengers, I agree that we need some flexibility in the system if we’re ever going to break out of the current absurdity. So if adopting the capitalist model a bit helps us get there, I’m willing to accept that.