Liberty, TSA, and the Technological Society

In a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, November 17, TSA administrator John Pistole was pressed on changing security procedures in light of the continuing citizen revolt against TSA’s increasingly heavy-handed Kabuki theater.


He said, simply, “No.”

In other words, “let them be groped.”

(Or irradiated in a naked body scanner. Or take Amtrak. Whatever.)

So how exactly did it happen that a single political appointee not even approaching cabinet rank could stymie both the American people and one of the most powerful committees of the soi-disant “world’s greatest deliberative body”?

Oddly enough, that question and many others like it are answered in full by the work of a relatively obscure French sociologist and philosopher. In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) discusses at length what he calls “technique,” i.e., the social, political, and economic uses to which science and technological method are put.

“Technique” aims to find “the one best means” of performing whatever the task at hand may be. This is the factory method of Henry Ford applied to politics and society. “If there is one best means of making a car,” the reasoning goes, “there must also be one best means of doing anything (even airport screening).”

This thinking is reflected in the cult of the expert, perhaps best exemplified by Woodrow Wilson’s exaltation of abstract academic theories over common sense and experience. Wilson often bemoaned what he considered the less-than-salutary restrictions placed by popular opinion on the implementation of the ideas of “experts.” Democracy was so inconvenient. Why should the elite have to bother explaining themselves to those hick yokels who are neither intelligent nor enlightened enough to understand the wisdom of their betters?


Ellul sees such “experts” as political “technicians,” and warns about the subversion of the democratic process and democracy itself that accompanies their gradual rise to power.

Politicians are decision makers. They control the levers of power. The trouble, according to Ellul, is that in an increasingly complex environment, they often don’t know how to use them.

This is where the expert, the “technician,” comes in. At the outset, the expert’s role is merely to advise political leaders on how best to accomplish politicians’ stated policy goals. The expert’s role soon progresses to determining the “one best means” of accomplishing those goals. Finally, the expert technician decides on not merely the means of pursuing the “one best means” but also determines the policy goal toward which “the one best means” is directed.

As the power of the technician waxes, that of the politician wanes, until he is little more than a rubber stamp.

This is precisely what has happened at TSA, as the agency implements policies that Congress has not authorized but is also powerless to revoke.

The monstrous Leviathan into which TSA has quickly, albeit all too predictably, morphed is a textbook illustration of Ellul’s thesis. Several elected representatives of the people politely suggested that a political technician, a bureaucrat, might possibly want to think about maybe giving, you know, just a bit of thought to not forcing American citizens to choose between being irradiated or groped, and he simply said:



That’s a quote. He didn’t mince words, he didn’t equivocate, he didn’t evade the question. He simply said, “No.”

And the politicians did nothing, because they had no power to do anything. The technician had the power, and they all knew it.

In this same way, little by little and in virtually every nook and cranny of our daily lives, the role and extent of the bureaucrat — the political technician — extends to the point of near universality, and the seemingly endless, self-replicating rules that constrain and bind us become like white noise, unheard for its ubiquity.

Soon enough the Lilliputian technicians have turned their master into their subject, having tied down and captured their Gulliver — the people — via the countless cords of our mind-numbing, soul-deadening bureaucratic codes. In the end, it’s easier to surrender than to fight, just as it is always easier to be a subject than a citizen.

So it all comes down a simple question: will we be citizens whose elected and appointed servants must obey us, or subjects of a self-aggrandizing behemoth that claims sovereignty over our very bodies?

To their great and lasting credit, the American people understand on a deep, even instinctive level that the TSA groping flap is about far more than either security or inconvenience. It is about fundamental liberty, about personal sovereignty, and about preserving our Constitutional rights as Americans. It is a battle that the American people must, and will, win.




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