Why Government Bureaucrats Rarely Get in Trouble for Doing Nothing

Making life slightly better for travelers may not be enough to overcome the bureaucratic imperative: When in doubt, do nothing.


Once in a while, a government agency adopts a policy that is logical, hardheaded, based on experience and unswayed by cheap sentiment. This may be surprising enough to make you reconsider your view of bureaucrats. But not to worry: It usually doesn't last.

In March the federal Transportation Security Administration surprised the country by relaxing its ban on knives and other items. Starting April 25, it said, it would allow knives with blades shorter than 2.36 inches, as well as golf clubs, pool cues and hockey sticks.

That was before flight attendants and members of Congress vigorously denounced the idea as a dire threat to life and limb. It was also before two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon.

So it came as no great surprise when last week TSA announced it would retain the existing ban indefinitely so it could hear more from "the aviation community, passenger advocates, law enforcement experts and other stakeholders."

Billypalooza Flickr

A more plausible explanation is that TSA officials grasped the old Washington wisdom: Bureaucrats rarely get in trouble for being too careful. But if there were a single incident featuring a passenger and a blade, the agency would be tarred and feathered.

One of the stakeholders with a vested interest in the status quo is the store near the airport in Austin, Texas, that sells items confiscated by screeners. You can buy rolling pins, exercise weights and miniature baseball bats. Snow globes, reports The Wall Street Journal, go for $2. Scissors are $3. Swiss Army knives are so preposterously numerous they sell by the pound.

Preventing this needless accumulation of innocuous contraband is only one of the reasons the change made sense. Someone wielding a 2-inch blade can no longer hope to take over a plane and fly it into a large building, since cockpit doors are now reinforced and locked—and since passengers, with the experience of 9/11 in mind, will no longer sit by quietly while a hijacking takes place.

Many flights also have armed air marshals. As TSA administrator John Pistole explained, "A small pocketknife is simply not going to result in the catastrophic failure of an aircraft."

Seizing snow globes and penknives wastes time and diverts attention from more dangerous items that might be smuggled on board, like bombs. Besides, anyone with malice in mind already has many alternative weapons available.

TSA allows pointed scissors with blades up to four inches long. It permits knitting needles. It blesses screwdrivers as long as seven inches. Glass bottles are not forbidden—though they can easily be broken and turned into lethal weapons.

But none of these facts was enough to prevent vehement objections to the proposal. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., advised that "in the confined environment of an airplane, even a small blade in the hands of a terrorist can lead to disaster." Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, warned of "mayhem in the cabin caused by an out-of-control passenger with a knife."

But terrorists have little to gain from airborne slashing sprees. If they had, they could be wreaking havoc with scissors and screwdrivers. In fact, they have been more intent on trying to bring down jets with explosives. If terrorists were content with cutting a few throats, there are plenty of places where they could do it on the ground.

The flight attendants' union gives the impression that relaxing the knife ban would be a radical step into the unknown, with consequences that can only be imagined. In reality, it would merely be a return to something resembling the pre-9/11 status quo. Back then, small knives were not banned—but there was no epidemic of passengers erupting in homicidal rage upon being asked to return their seats to the upright position.

Nor has there been a spate of horror stories from the other side of the Atlantic, where the policy doesn't apply. As TSA noted, "Small knives have been permitted in Europe for some time now, with no incidents that we are aware of."

Small knives are also useful tools that many people find indispensable in the course of daily life, including the part that takes place on airplanes. But making life slightly better for travelers may not be enough to overcome the bureaucratic imperative: When in doubt, do nothing.

NEXT: Brickbat: I Can't Hear You

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  1. Stewardesses should just include chainmail with the uniforms. They’re not allowed to be busty anymore anyway.

    1. The added weight would have a cost in fuel which would add to the ticket price. Since there’s no actual danger, we can let them opt to buy knife resistance clothing with their own money. This weighs less than chainmail and wouldn’t increase the ticket price. If they want to buy false assurance out of pocket, let them.

      1. That knife resistant clothing only works if the bad guys don’t know that the slow blade penetrates the shield.

        1. … Crap I have to go re-watch Dune now, I drew a blank on the proper reply to that.

        2. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job Ive had. Last Tuesday I bought a gorgeous Lancia Straton from earning $4331 this – 5 weeks past. I began this 7-months ago and right away started to earn at least $69, per-hr. I use this website,,

          1. Apparently the proper responce to a Dune reference is to spout off some nonsense about making money from working at home with Google.

            1. The Kwisatz Haderach makes $6300 a month.

              1. Is there really that much money in Greenland goo? And does anyone know what’s in that stuff? Why would i want to go to a site called goo dot greenland? Are they setting up melange distribution cranchises for CHOAM these days?

              2. Jabba the hut could afford a land yacht doing this.

    2. For a minute there, I thought you were going in a chainmail bikini direction.

    3. If you think Russell`s story is super…, 4 weeks ago my aunt basically also recieved a check for $5537 just sitting there a thirteen hour week from home and their classmate’s step-sister`s neighbour has been doing this for eight months and recieved a check for over $5537 part time from their laptop. use the steps on this link… http://www.wow92.com

  2. Young women look better in scalemail.

    1. I wont argue with that, but I will put this here.


      1. Perfect protection against nipple collectors.

  3. lol, the TSA is such a joke! Biggest waste of an agency there is!


    1. Even Anonbot gets it.

      1. I think anonbot got an algorithm upgrade recently.

        1. Nah, the U.S. markets haven’t opened yet so he has a fey processor cycles to spare.

    2. Well, some people don’t really want to work. It’s easier and more fun to hassle people.

  4. There was never anything stopping anyone from making a jagged edge with a credit card (just like Nina did in a second season episode of “24”), so, once again, it’s less about the tool and more about the intent. There have been very few (and I’m actually not recalling any) attempts by passengers to cut anybody on a flight since 9/11.

    1. What I get for commenting directly after the lead-in before seeing the rest of the entry. I guess the above has already been said.

    2. They should just outlaw passengers.

  5. This should be solely in the hands of the property owner. If American Airlines wants to allow on their planes, and Delta does not, then so be it.

    We need to get away from this national socialist public transportation system.

  6. Don’t you people understand? Knives, like guns, have magical powers that cause people who have not had police training to go crazy and do stupid things. If pen knives are allowed on planes, people will pull them out and stab the passengers next to them in the leg. They won’t be able to help it because the pen knife’s magic will compel them. Some lady on a talk show said so so it must be true.

    1. Even if a good guy has a knife, fighting back with it will only cut dozens of bystanders. Better to submit.

      1. NYPD demonstrated this many times. With guns.

      2. That, or the bad guy will take away your knife and cut you with it. Remember, the same weapon can be irresistibly deadly in the hands of a criminal and utterly ineffective for defending oneself. It’s all part of the dark magic!

  7. Tim Tebow released. Whatever I may think of Tebow, any plan where you keep Mark Sanchez over anyone else is WRONG.

    1. Tim Tebow released.

      So off to the CFL for him?

    2. Te-bow? More like Te-no!, amirite? Anyone? Seriously? Nobody? Too soon?

    3. when the “anyone else” is Tebow, you keep even Sanchez. Tebow’s biggest impediment remains his own obstinance at believing he’s a qb. He is not and his skill set has demonstrated that amply. There are a couple of other spots where he could be helpful to a team but he has to accept that.

    4. I’m a Lions fan. I have nothing to add.

  8. Idiocracy . . .

  9. What, why is Steve Chapman complaining about Bureaucrats doing nothing? That’s probably the best result you are going to get.

    1. Amen Brother, now if we could get congress and the pres on board maybe things may get better. If Obummer had started playing golf right after his first acceptance speech, and never quit, the ression would be a memory.

  10. Once got on a plane where they took away my nail clippers, only to get on the plane and see a women knitting a sweater with needles that looked like they were more than a foot long.
    Considering my flight probably only cost $80, having my $10+ nail clippers stolen by airport toads really pissed me off.

  11. I wish bureaucrats did more nothing in the past.

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