Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Economics of Torture Policy

A big news item of late is the debate over whether to make torture illegal that has involved Dick Cheney and Congress. Alex Tabarrok posted a very interesting point on how the debate over whether to make it illegal is not a debate over whether to never use torture, but rather on how high to make the price of torture:

President Bush, Dick Cheney and others who support the use of torture by the United States and its agents usually rely on the ticking time bomb argument. Sometimes torture is necessary to prevent a greater evil. I accept this argument. If my kid were kidnapped and the suspect was refusing to talk, I'd want Vic Mackey to do the questioning.

But it does not follow from the "ticking time bomb" argument that torture should be legal. The problem with making torture legal is that the government will abuse its powers. I do not trust the government, any government, to use this power responsibly. Leviathan must be heavily restrained, especially when it comes to torture.

Here is where economics can make a contribution. By making torture illegal we are raising the price of torture but we are not raising the price to infinity. If the President or the head of the CIA thinks that torture is required to stop the ticking time bomb then they ought to approve it knowing full well that they face possible prosecution. Only if the price of torture is very high can we expect that it will be used only in the most absolutely urgent of circumstances.

Again, no need to get political; stick to an economic discusion of incentives and what you expect to happen in various circumstances.


Anonymous said...

There are varying degrees of torture, and the most extreme methods are not always used to get information from the interrogated individuals. If an international hacker was being interrogated by the CIA for other hackers, the value of not recieving the torture has to be equal to or greater than the value of recieving the torture and saving the other international hackers. Much in the case of an Islamic extremist terrorist, the interrogators are prodding the suspect for how much he values the information that he has and how much
he values his cause versus how much he values how much pain or discomfort he can take. For most interrogated individuals, they value their life to the point that they would give up the information if the interrogator pointed a gun at him, unless the interrogator valued his information and cause more than his life. Anyone will respond to incentives, and torture is just another incentive for people that are being interrogated to respond to. Torture should not be an illegal
practice of the government. It should only be limited and properly taught so that the victim gives away the information without unnecessary pain or discomfort.

Anonymous said...

above comment posted by David Wyant

Anonymous said...

I think that torture should not be made legal. I think that there are cases extreme cases where torture may be needed but if torturing is made legal with no fear of reprurcsussion for the torturer it would get out of control. If there were no restrictions of the torture of suspects it would become a common place thing with no limitations where people were getting tortured for minor things. I think if the possible price to torture someone is high it will not be used except in extreme situations. Only if what could happen without the info needed is worse than the punishment of torturing would it be used. The govt should not condone the use of torture.
There is also the chance that the individual being torutured will still not give info. If the indivivdual strongly believes in what he is doing he less likely to give in to torture. So the dedication of the person being held must also be taken into account before they are tortured. I can see how in certain cases torture may need to be used but the govt should not encourage it.
erin clay

Anonymous said...

I believe in certain situations it should be made illegal, those situations being when torture is only used as mockery and as a form of punishment. However, if the lives of our troops or the people of the world are in danger, no restraint should be used. It all depends on the situation. I believe it should be legal but have economic restrictions on it. John garrison