Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Thinking About Torture

If you are a brilliant economics professor and write a great blog about economics and want people to think about torture and get them uncomfortable about those thoughts, how do you write about it? Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has a novel approach: turn a torture scenario into a game theory question. He asks:

Let us say that you have been captured and threatened with torture. You are, for whatever reason, entirely willing to betray the information you hold. Your primary goal is to avoid pain, and perhaps you positively want to squeal. How should you present what you know? I see a few options:

1. Break down immediately, beg for mercy, humiliate yourself, and spill the beans. (If you talk right away, will they torture you anyway? And since no further good information can be offered why should they stop?)

2. Go in acting tough, really tough. At the first sign of serious pain, start crying and switch to strategy #1.

3. Wait until they apply their "best shot" torture, and then talk. They will feel they have done their job and stop.

4. First offer (or make up) compromising information to show your disloyalty to the cause your torturers are fighting. Your confession will then be more credible.

5. Say you don't know anything, try to fight the torture, but break down when you can't stand it any more. You can't fool them, so the best you can do is to actually "go through the wringer." You are stuck in the pooling equilibrium, and trying to deviate only makes you worse off.

He makes the reader think like a torture victim for a while to see if that might make some people uncomfortable. He explains his logic:

I am discernibly outraged over torture (read here), but at this point I figure getting people to think about how terrible torture must be will be more effective than simply attacking it.

But left unsaid is what would be your strategy if you had no information to give and you wanted to avoid torture. That’s the problem with torture. Torture creates a market for information, but it extracts its heaviest price on the completely innocent because they have nothing to trade.

To me, torture is the worst abuse of liberty imaginable (well, torture followed by death). In politics, we cannot ever get a candidate that always agrees with our own preferences on issues, so we have to compromise on some positions to get more of something else we care about. So what is worth compromising on torture? Americans don’t like torture but somehow we have chosen leaders who don’t mind it because most people fear a greater evil. What could that be? And why do we need to send prisoners to countries that torture today to fight al Queda when we didn’t have to do that we fought the Nazis?


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