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As Steve Bierfeldt and anyone else who has flown a plane over the last decade can testify, the federal government impedes travel by monopolizing the protection of airports. Like monopolies everywhere, the TSA is overly expensive, customer-unfriendly, and famously inefficient, hassling grandmothers and toddlers while missing the open transport of weapons and other dangerous contraband. Law-abiding U.S. citizens can be put on watchlists and barred entry on planes without even having the right to know how and when they got on the list in the first place. And unfortunately, government intrusion on the freedom of movement long predates 9/11.
On September 12, 1986, New Jersey law enforcement officials established a roadblock during the height of rush hour on the George Washington Bridge connecting New York City to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The stated purpose was to detect persons transporting drugs or driving under the influence. As would have been predictable to even the most casual observer, the roadblock caused massive delays and traffic stalls. Capt. Robert Herb of the Bergen County Police Department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer supervising the roadblock, later testified that more than one million motor vehicles came to a complete stop; in other words, more than one in 300 of all Americans were blocked by law enforcement—in some cases for in excess of four hours.
There were plenty of adverse consequences. Infuriatingly, a woman was forced to give birth that night on the shoulder of the West Side Highway in New York City. People were prevented from returning home, from getting to work, and from seeking proper medical treatment, all so that police could identify individuals carrying drugs. If we as Americans possess an unconditional right to travel freely, how are such government actions tolerable? Shouldn’t mothers in labor have a constitutionally protected freedom to drive to a hospital?
Sadly, the freedom to travel has been among the most degraded rights throughout American history. Chattel slavery was obviously the most egregious restriction. The Constitution itself (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3) enshrined this circumscription of travel by requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their “owners”: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
Nor did the freedom to travel become absolute with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery. During the height of World War II, the Supreme Court upheld the forcible internment of Japanese American citizens in the notorious decision of Korematsu v. United States (1944).
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt had issued an executive order which granted military officers the power to “prescribe military areas [from] which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions [the] Commander may impose in his discretion.” In other words, the natural right of individuals to move freely was subject to the discretion of a military officer. Subsequently, the military imposed a curfew on Japanese Americans, and shortly thereafter, the wholesale relocation of scores of thousands of U.S. citizens to detention centers.
Fred Korematsu, an ardent American patriot, was convicted of violating this military order after he rightfully refused to leave his home. The Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s criminal conviction upon a finding of military necessity, namely, “the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt were loyal to this country.” In other words, so long as there was some subjective, nebulous threat that our enemies had infiltrated our shores, the government was justified in detaining every member of the ethnic group to which those enemies belong.
To add insult to injury, the Court justified internment in the language of patriotic duty: “Citizenship has its responsibilities as well as its privileges, and in time of war the burden is always heavier.” It was simply assumed that such measures were just, expedient, and proper, and that the executive branch was free to incarcerate innocent civilians so long as it could muster up the most tenuous showing of military necessity. Liberty cannot exist, much less thrive, in such an atmosphere.
In 1983, Fred Korematsu, the primary litigant in the case, had his conviction formally vacated. His response? “If anyone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people.” Korematsu was right.
Financial and Other Restrictions
Like freedom of speech, if the right to travel is fully protected, it must be freed from the “chilling” effects of government burdens. Financial restrictions can serve as such a burden, deterring us from freely exercising those rights.
As in federalized airport security, financial restrictions often come in the form of government monopolization and the subsequent inefficiencies that inevitably result when an entity is shielded from competition. Take, for example, the government-subsidized railroad system.
This behemoth transportation matrix has survived solely on subsidies, grants, and loans totaling more than $25 billion throughout its existence (with that amount growing after the immense bailout payments bequeathed in the wake of the 2008 recession). Despite these handouts, train ticket prices have continued to grow over the years. In October, a last-minute search for a train ticket from New York Penn Station to Washington, D.C., Union Station turned up a price of $160. A quick online search for a round-trip airline ticket between the two cities produced a $136 flight on JetBlue. So it is cheaper to travel on a privately owned airline than on a land-based railroad owned and operated by the government.
Monopolized government transportation is subject to sudden massive increases whenever the state needs more cash. On Sept. 18, 2011, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey jacked up the toll for the George Washington Bridge from $8 to $12. The Port Authority, one of the most powerful and least accountable public agencies in the country, justified the 50 percent price hike in part because of cost overruns in rebuilding the World Trade Center. The new toll, currently the subject of multiple lawsuits, can be the difference between a poor person visiting his ailing grandparents or staying at home.
Until the government has legitimate competition, or abdicates control over transportation altogether, these escalating prices—for services that were originally paid for by our tax dollars—will continue to inflict and restrict Americans’ natural right to move and travel.