by Roger Koppl
Dick Cheney has intimated that water boarding yielded important, actionable intelligence. The evidence points the other way, however. Some evidence suggests that there may have been an ulterior motive for at least some “harsh interrogations,” namely, to link Iraq and al Qaeda. We need more analysis of Bush-era torture from an economic point of view, including public choice.
Rent control and torture are similar. In both case you have a government policy that cannot achieve the end it is said to pursue. And in both cases you might wonder what the policy’s true purpose really is.
Torture can produce a confession to more or less anything the torturer chooses. Torture does not yield reliable information, however. Torture is useless for intelligence gathering because governments cannot get around a basic problem. They cannot make a believable promise to stop torture once the victim tells the truth. Victims know this perfectly well and therefore say anything and everything except what the torturers want to know. Two problems prevent governments from making a credible commitment to stop torture once victims tell the truth. First, they use torture because they don’t know the truth already. But that means that they can’t recognize the truth when the victim speaks it. Second, even if they know they’ve got the truth, the victim is afraid they will keep torturing him anyway. I have examined the logic of torture in “Epistemic Systems” (Episteme: Journal of Social Epistemology, 2005, 2(2): 91-106). A draft version is here.
In bullet points:
Torture is not an effective means to gather information.
Torturers do not know the truth when they hear it. Torture victims understand this fact and therefore hide the truth.
Torturers cannot make a believable promise to stop torture when they hear the truth. Torture victims understand this fact and therefore hide the truth.
What Mises said (on p. 2 of Human Action) about the study of human action in general applies to torture as well: “One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature. Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be—this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action.” If torture “worked,” we would have to consider seriously the arguments of its defenders, who tend to employ a kind of lifeboat ethics. If torture does not “work,” however, there can be no ethical defense of it. Let us hope all legal defenses fail as well.