Homeland Defense and the Tooth Fairy

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 4.31

by Arnold Kling

October 3, 2001

If so, then you must be comfortable with the ideas being proposed for Homeland Defense.

On the other hand, I have some concerns. As a student of organizational behavior (my book is, at its essence, about how small organizations can thrive in competition with large ones), what I see is a push toward greater bureaucracy and centralization that is exactly the opposite of what is needed to defend against terrorism.

Don't Broaden the Powers,
Narrow the Mission

Our national security agencies are not as effective as they could be at dealing with terrorism. There may be a few legal limitations that are a factor, but my guess is that the agencies are hampered not by an absence of powers but by an abundance of missions.

As long as the FBI's mission includes background checks on would-be teachers and similar mandates, its effectiveness against terrorism will be limited. Giving more powers to a broad law-enforcement bureaucracy just gives it more ways to waste effort on its feel-good missions.

Which would you rather see fighting terrorism?

You can be sure that the 300-person agency would do a better job. Not that I think 300 people will do the trick. It's just that 10,000 will do even worse, in an environment in which other missions compete for attention.

Encourage Initiative, not Co-ordination

There is a consensus that we need better co-ordination among various security agencies. This is an unfortunate bureaucratic reflex.

The complaint is that we failed to act effectively on information that might have tipped us off to the hijackings. However, we will find that bureaucratic co-ordination is the disease, not the cure.

Suppose that you work in a bureaucracy, and you see another unit undertaking an initiative that you do not like. The best way to kill the unwanted project is to persuade one of the higher-ups to write a memo requiring the other unit to co-ordinate with you before proceeding further. Everyone knows that when a higher-up issues such a memo, the initiative is as good as dead.

When somebody in an agency identifies a terrorist threat, do we want their first impulse to be:

  1. Exercise some initiative to try to thwart the attack; or
  2. Co-ordinate with other agencies?

If we encourage (1), then the agency may make a mistake. They may over-react to a perceived threat, or they may botch an attempt to deal with a real threat.

On the other hand, (2) is a no-risk strategy. We can be sure that no mistakes will be committed, because nothing will be done. Of course, if the threat is real, the terrorists will be able to carry it out unimpeded. But because every agency is sharing and co-ordinating, and no agency is accountable for action, we will achieve the bureacratic imperative: avoiding blame.

In setting the culture of an organization, you have to choose between encouraging initiative and requiring co-ordination. Emphasizing one tends to kill the other. In some situations, initiative is more important. In other situations, co-ordination is more important. The mission against terrorism is a situation that requires initiative.

Localize, don't Federalize

Another proposal that has broad support is to Federalize airline security. This idea makes everyone feel better.

Especially would-be terrorists.

Terrorists benefit from uniformity. It has to be comforting to them when they see the same security procedures every day, in every location. Once they figure out a way around those uniform security procedures, they can move ahead with confidence. After the hijackings, there were reports that the terrorists rehearsed numerous times getting past security with knives and boxcutters. They knew that there would be no surprises.

A more decentralized approach to security would create more variety and challenge for terrorists. Some characteristics of a decentralized approach should be:

  1. Encourage diversity and experimentation by different local agencies in charge of security.
  2. Encourage rotation and change, so that the security procedures vary over time.
  3. Encourage frequent testing of security systems, so that the bad systems are identified, weeded out, and replaced by better systems.

There might be a case for Federalizing the third task of testing security systems. This would be analogous to President Bush's idea for education, in which the Federal government sets standards but local school districts have leeway as to how to meet those standards.


Centralized, bureaucratic solutions work well on paper but not in practice. As Americans, we know this. We have abundant entrepreneurial spirit. We ought to be able to come up with an approach to Homeland Defense that's better than the tooth fairy.