There are two things we know about enhanced X-ray screening and full-body pat-downs at TSA check points. The first is that if we abolish them and a terrorist blows up a plane as a result of concealed explosives, Congressional hearings will castigate the TSA for failing to protect the public. The second is that if we keep them, Congressional hearings will castigate the TSA for excessive invasion of privacy in protecting the public.
We learned this “damned if you do-damned if you don’t” lesson about government years ago, when media reports of tax cheaters led Congress to demand that the IRS beef up its enforcement through hiring more agents to go after those not paying their fair share. Within a year or so, Congress began getting reports about how the IRS was going after the homes of people who were old or ill or old and ill, and hearings demanded that the IRS improve its customer service.
The same schizophrenic frenzy has turned up in just about every area the government is asked to manage for the protection of the public: food safety (ensure safe food but keep food cheap), oil drilling (protect the environment but keep oil flowing), energy conservation (improve gas mileage but don’t put auto companies out of business), mine safety (keep coal cheap but don’t let miners die), and public health (stop that pandemic but don’t quarantine anyone) – to cite a few examples.
Government is inherently a matter of trade-offs, in values and policies. Safety vs. security, protection vs. cost, justice vs. mercy, short-term gains vs. long-term losses (or short-term losses vs. long-term gains), guns vs. butter, taxes vs. debt. Where to draw the line is, in fact, one of the chief functions of government and one of the chief sources of contention in a free society.
Politicians on both sides will use these trade-offs – and the extremes of government action that usually result until we get the balance right – for their own benefit, as will the media, interest groups on the right and the left, bloggers, and those who seek their fifteen minutes of fame by recording their encounters with government for our viewing pleasure on You-Tube.
This is all as it should be. Were government so constrained as never to push our buttons, and were the public so constrained as to never howl in protest, we would not find the common, sensible ground that is essential for a well-functioning society. What we are watching in the current furor over airport security screenings is democracy at work in the healthy debate of how we manage the trade-offs between two valued ends.
It’s worth remembering this as we watch the passionate, sometimes infuriating, often exaggerated, seldom calm, typically one-sided arguments over the coming weeks. If you love America, love this too. It’s our vibrant, free society at work. It’s a sign of success, not failure. It demonstrates the enduring truth that a society where trade-offs are subject to constant criticism and negotiation is a good society.