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March 12, 2013 10:55 AM Knives on a Plane

By Jonathan Bernstein

Kevin Drum has a conniption because….well, I better tell this in order. First, the TSA announces they’re going to relax the restrictions on stuff you can take onto an airplane — including a bunch of fairly boring stuff such as a bunch of sports equipment, but also including small knives. Second, like clockwork, a politician decides to demagogue the issue: knives?!? On airplanes?!? In this case, the first-off-the-mark pol appears to be, no surprise, Chuck Schumer. Which is where Drum (and presumably other critics of “security theater”) come in, hitting Schumer and defending the (relatively more) sensible TSA.

Fair enough! I had noticed the knife thing when it was announced last week, and I expected a grandstanding politician to join with the flight attendants in complaining about it.

Here’s what I wonder, however. The hardest thing in the world is to relax safety restrictions. No matter how stupid they are, or how pointless, or even how counterproductive, there’s always a risk that something will go wrong and the person who eased off will be blamed. It doesn’t even have to be directly related; it’s always easy to toss the blame on the person who was removing the restrictions (not concerned enough about safety!). And no, the Kevin Drums and James Fallowses of the world are a tiny minority when it comes to this. For anybody, when it comes to avoiding blame on security, the safe bet is always to ratchet up, and never never never to ratchet down.

So what I’ve wondering is whoever is making this happen over at TSA is actually really smart about that, and added “knives” to a collection of innocuous stuff to draw fire away from everything else. Not that I’m saying small knives should be banned, or even that TSA thinks they should be banned. Just that it’s probably a viable bureaucratic strategy to toss in one item on the list that politicians can go after, thus allowing everything else to go into effect.

Well, probably not. And I’m not expert, but on the substance I’m sure Drum is right. But if the next step for the TSA is to announce that they’re going to stop making people take off their shoes and also allow in very small amounts of explosives…well, whatever it takes, right?

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.