Since the failed terror attack on Christmas day, the debate over full-body scanners has exploded, so to say. Without such scanners, say advocates, Americans will never be safe in the skies. It is tempting for politicians to mandate a full-body scanner in every airport, and surely the manufacturers of such devices are doling out campaign contributions this very moment. However, the effectiveness of such scanners is in doubt. The Independent in London reported that the Christmas bomb “would not have been detected by body-scanners.” Privacy rights groups are also fulminating at the thought of scanners that can peer through passengers’ clothing. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has come out strongly against the mass use of full-body scanners. Michael German of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office said, “We should be focusing on evidence-based, targeted and narrowly tailored investigations based on individualized suspicion, which would be both more consistent with our values and more effective than diverting resources to a system of mass suspicion.”
As a civil libertarian I sympathize with Mr. German, but as a sane person, I understand the need for better security in airports. As a free marketeer I say, “Why not have both?” Why not allow airlines to offer “secure” flights, on which people forgo civil liberties to ensure their own safety? Travelers flying on these flights would go through hellish security measures, but would undoubtedly make it to their destinations. At the same time, allow flights protecting the civil liberties of more bashful travelers with traditional security. “But who will board these risky flights when there is a safer alternative?” you might ask. I’ll tell you who: no one. I doubt anyone out there is so scared of having his physique briefly X-rayed, or getting to second base with a TSA officer, to choose the risky flight over the safer flight. Given a choice, people will choose safety over privacy every time. In economics, we use game theory to determine choices people will make given the values of a set of possible outcomes. Rational travelers will always choose more security, because privacy is worthless when you’re dead.