The Iron Rule Of Bureaucracy

Megan McArdle writes today about her recent run-in with the TSA  and demonstrates exceedingly clearly just how blind bureaucrats are to the idoicy of the rules they make:

I’ve been in California this weekend, and during that time, I bought a few little sample bottles of shampoo and conditioner that I did not use. So why not take them back with me?

Alas, I had not reckoned with the awesome investigative powers of our Transportation Safety Authority, which pulled my bag off the security conveyor belt faster than you can say “ridiculous application of silly rules”. The offense? The shampoo and conditioner were under the 3.5 ounce limit, but they were not in a plastic ziploc bag.

I offered to put them in a non ziploc bag. No dice. Apparently, only clear plastic bags with a zipper are good enough for Our Girls in Blue. You can always reason with the people at security. You can always reason with your wall, too, and you’ll get about as far as I did. In vain did I explain that the direction to put your belongings in a clear plastic ziploc bag was to make them easy to pull out of your bag and inspect, not because the items represent some independent security threat unless they are enclosed in a baggy.

“They have to be in a ziploc bag,” said the nice security lady.

“What do you think the bag adds?” I asked. “Do you think that the air pressure differential will keep me from opening a ziploc baggy in flight?”

“They have to be in a ziploc bag,” she repeated.

And why ? Because that’s what the rules that have been drilled into her say. Does it matter that the rules make no sense ? Does it matter that there isn’t any functional difference between having the shampoo bottles in a ziploc bag and having them in a non-ziploc plastic bag ? No, because the rules say ziploc.

James Joyner makes this point:

As asinine as TSA regulations are, however — and they are incredibly asinine, by the way — I’m with the commenters who argue against requiring TSA agents to make a lot of decisions. This necessarily requires inflexible and mindless application of seemingly arbitrary rules. Standardization is the essence of bureaucracy.

Which, I would argue, is precsiely what is wrong with bureaucracy.

  • James Joyner

    The alternative is having government functionaries make arbitrary decisions and treat citizens differently.

    In this specific case, it would slow everybody in line down while people made their case to the TSA agents. And it would mean that some people got through with 4 oz bottles of lotion in the wrong size bag while others didn’t. This way is faster and more fair.

    The solution to the asininity is to complain to politicians, airline execs, and others about the rules, not give more discretion to the security guards.

  • Doug Mataconis


    You are probably right, but stuff like this just reinforces for me both how asinine most of what the TSA does actually is and how most of it doesn’t really address real security issues to begin with.

  • Chris

    The flipside of not having rigid rules, is the arbitrary and capricious application of rules.

    On cannot have people applying whatever standards they choose for whatever reason they choose; presuming we allow for any standard to be applied at all.

    However, I believe that any arbitrary and capricious application of a rule (the mere possibility of such an application in fact) should be prima facie evidence that the rule is either unnecessary, or so improperly written as to necessitate it’s elimination.

  • David Z

    When I came back from Lake Tahoe in January, i had checked all of my shampoo and shaving cream. I emptied the 70 oz camelbak reservoir which I used to be able to use to enjoy a drink of water during a long flight filled with dry, re-circulated cabin air. My backpack went through all the screening, with no alarms raised.

    When I got home, I found I had mistakenly left my flask in the bottom of the bag. It was made of metal, about the size of one’s palm, and it was about half full of whisky. How this slipped, is beyond me.

    In December of 2001, a few months after 9/11, I flew to Houston and back. On the return flight, I was selected for additional screening, and they hand-searched my carry-on bags before I boarded the plane.

    When I got home, I found a carpet-knife in my bag – a remnant from my summer job – that made it through 3 TSA screenings on that trip.

    We’re not any safer.