Who Cares About Shoes?

Will Wilkinson bemoans the United States slipping in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, with Canada moving ahead of us. He asks

Is it now possible to even half-credibly make the case that the United States, in the age of warrantless wiretaps and the shoeless airport security line, is a freer country than Canadia?

What is it with shoes at the airport that makes people so angry? I admit to hating wearing shoes and so maybe I just like the chance to take them off. But people (not just Will) act like it's the road to totalitarianism to be barefoot for two minutes. Is he really going to say that's a greater imposition on freedom than, say, Canada's Human Rights Commission? Personally, I'll take having to remove my shoes over being dragged in front of tribunals for "hate speech" any day of the week.

And, as for his first point, I don't want to defend warrentless wiretapping. I should point out, though, that the United States is hardly unique in this regard.

But I am reminded of this classic post from Stuart Buck:

Amidst all the civil libertarian furor over the Patriot Act I and II, no one has yet commented on the "citizen reporting" provision. By this provision, every adult in America will be required to file a yearly report on themselves, and send it to a new government office that is charged with tracking every person's whereabouts, living circumstances, etc. The yearly report required from each adult must contain:

* Name
* current address
* name of spouse (if any)
* names of children (if any)
* Social Security numbers for all the above
* title of job
* address of employer
* amount of income
* any significant expenditures during the year
* information about bank accounts or any investments
* information about loans, mortgages, and other obligations
* information about what charities the adult supports with his or her money
* information about medical bills
* Potentially much more.

It's pretty clear to me that having to file this information with the IRS every year is a vastly greater imposition on privacy than the theoretical concern that someday there is a minuscule chance that some government official may listen to my father complaining about the weather during our phone chats. And yet it gets almost zero attention. Why?

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I care. I hate having to

I care. I hate having to quit my shoes and putting them back on, I really do. It's a cumbersome and slow process. I'd be wearing scratch or loafers but I only feel good when my shoe is tightly held within lace-up shoes. And I can never tight them properly, it's either too tight and I can't remove them or too loose and they keep untying. This is one of the part I hate the most. That, and praying on the way back that the DHS will let me in (yes, I have been denied entry in the past).

I'll vouch for you

I have been denied entry in the past

No problem. I can vouch for you. They can reach me at constant@opentheborder.dissolvethestate.org.

Take your pick

I can see how some people take most offense at being physically herded through a line, then made to remove clothing so a government official can examine them. It's a particularly physical and personal violation of your person.

Other people might be most disturbed by thinking that buildings were filled with agents listening in on what they had (maybe carelessly) assumed were their intimate and private conversations, perhaps scribbling notes to go in secret files they will never see, to be pulled out and used against them without their knowledge.

Some might live in terror at the thought that a team of black armored paramilitary forces with hidden faces will break down their door in the middle of the night.

Like you, I also resent spending about two weeks of the year digging through every transaction and reporting all my business activity so I can please keep a little more of my money.

Some might hate the unbelievable enormity of wealth that gets squandered most.

Some might hate the destruction of global wars most.

Do we really have to argue about which aspect of government is the very worst?

Press Freedom

This reminds me of the Press Freedom Index. The United States ranks behind a bunch of other countries and here's the explanation given:

There were slightly fewer press freedom violations in the United States (48th) and blogger Josh Wolf was freed after 224 days in prison. But the detention of Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman, Sami Al-Haj, since 13 June 2002 at the military base of Guantanamo and the murder of Chauncey Bailey in Oakland in August mean the United States is still unable to join the lead group.

These reasons seem to constitute a pretty questionable basis for ranking a country's press freedom. These are all incidents. No effort is made, in this explanation, to explain how these incidents either have systematically chilled American reporting, or else reflect a wider systematic suppression of journalism, which is surely the real issue. I would have imagined that things like laws affecting reporting would have weighed much more heavily in the rankings than a handful of incidents. Surely there are such laws.

I think it likely that the "press freedom" index is not genuinely measuring what the name suggests it is measuring.


It isn't the shoe removal per se that I object to. It is the mindless "security theater" that the act represents.

it makes perfect sense to me.

Taking off your shoes in public because uniformed personnel tell you to makes you feel like a child. It's a borderline degrading, humiliating act. Remember the Zimbardo experiments? They stripped people down at the beginning for a reason. This isn't that extreme, but I bet if you were to just observe people's body language when they have their shoes and when they don't you will see many of them become more child-like when they have them off going through security.
The willingness to disclose information to the IRS is easier to explain and less speculative. It's something people have been doing for a longer time, so it is just the way things are. People can't remember better times. Also, they actually get to keep money the more medical ailments they reveal to the government and other things like that.

That's the best explanation

That's the best explanation of the (to me) strange symbolic importance of shoe removal that I've heard.