Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Purpose of a System Is What it Does?

Over at POSIWID, Richard comments on airline security, with some economic analysis of bad security and why it stays around. (I think I don’t like his title, preferring ‘systems are maintained for what they do,’ which gives more credit to the emergent qualities of systems, but I digress.) He accurately assesses some positives of the airline “security” system:

  • People spend longer in airports and spend more money in the retail outlets. The airport ecosystem becomes more profitable.
  • Fast-track procedures for business class travellers encourage more business class travel. Self-service procedures reduce airline costs. The airlines become more profitable.
  • People become accustomed to (and therefore more tolerant of) queues and delays. This allows for more flexible utilization of staff, aeroplanes and landing slots by airlines and airports.

The downside of all of this is that none of these things are economic benefits. They are costs imposed by the security regime, from which some folks are profiting. They are costs because people are not spending their money in ways that they would choose, if they could choose freely. They are instead spending money in less efficient ways. Because the costs are dispersed, and the beneficiaries are few, the beneficiaries are able to ossify the system. (See Olson’s
Logic of Collective Action, or Demosclerosis, by Jonathan Rauch for more on this idea.) There are additional costs and risks borne by those who don’t fly.

2 comments on "Purpose of a System Is What it Does?"

  • Adam, Thanks for your comments. I agree that this is a zero-sum or even negative-sum game – the costs to the many outweigh the benefits to the few. But that’s a very common pattern of system dysfunction.
    By the way, I didn’t invent the term POSIWID – it goes back to Stafford Beer. Cheers, Richard.

  • David says:

    OTOH people don’t fly as much, particularly on shorter flights, so it costs the airlines money.

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