Friday, November 12, 2010


The department seminar today is about torture.  It might seem odd that this is an issue for economists, rather than legal scholars or criminal justice people, but we have a lot of models of bureaucratic incentives and decision-making and that can be used to analyze the issue.  The paper shows that torture, even if it works, is counterproductive, because it reduces the incentives to fight terrorism using means other than torture.

I've known for some time that torture simply does not work.  Centuries of experience have shown that it has basically zero information or deterrence value.  Good interrogators get far more information with other methods, and the institutional use of torture tends to reduce the use of more reliable methods of police work and information gathering.

Even beyond that, I absolutely hate the idea of our government torturing anybody.  I see torture as a fundamental insult to the values of our nation and culture.  I believe that it would cause serious damage to America if we adopted a long-term policy of torturing people or being complicit with torture.  I think that people who defend or advocate for torture are very harmful.

One of our professors just asked:

"Why is torture uniquely bad?  I'm sure that many more people have died [in the USA] in no-knock drug raids than from torture."

This is a good question.  Why do I hate torture so much?  If you look at actual pain and damage, there are many other current policies that are far worse.  I oppose those policies as well, but I do not oppose them with quite as much emotional intensity.  

To complicate things further, a few months ago I basically advocated for a form of torture as an alternative to jail time.  I understand intellectually that jail is worse for people than torture.  Why then should I care so deeply about torture?

I think it is mainly about symbolism.  Torture is the tool of thugs, savages, and fascists.  If we torture people the same way they do or did, we become like them.  This threat to our identity, I suppose, motivates me more than utilitarian concerns about pain in this case.

Partly by analyzing my thoughts and emotions like this, I have learned to become more understanding of the 'sacred values' and identity threats embedded in other people's thinking.  For example, many people feel the same way about putting a dollar value on human life that I do about torture.  It is, to them, Not Something We Should Do.  So I reframe the issue as 'finding the way to save the most lives with our limited resources' and then I can do the cost-benefit analysis without threatening anyone's values.

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