Rent Control and Torture

May 8, 2009

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.

3 Responses to “Rent Control and Torture”

  1. Glen Says:

    “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.”

    Is this always true? It seems like some kinds of information can be verified once confessed. For instance, “Tell us where the bomb is.” Once the prisoner coughs up a location, check to see if there is indeed a bomb there. If not, go back and torture some more.

    I’m not advocating torture, of course. I’m just trying to parse your specific argument. It seems like it’s true for some circumstances but not others.

  2. Roger Koppl Says:

    Hi Glen,

    Just as you say, not always. I think your logic is good. Here’s what I say in the paper.

    Epistemic analysis shows that torture is not a useful and reliable method of gaining information except in empirically implausible cases. I will call persons subject to torture “subjects” and persons subjecting others to torture “investigators.” Torture is effective only when two conditions hold. First, the investigators must be able to recognize the truth when they hear it. Second, they must be able to credibly commit to stop torture once the truth is spoken. The combination of these two conditions seems to be empirically rare. Thus, torture is not generally an effective means of gathering information. Some models illustrate the point.

    I talk some in the paper about why I think such cases will be rare. In the sort of circumstances we’re talking about in the public debate, I think it’s clear that torture doesn’t “work.” and did not yield actionable intelligence for the US. We have evidence that the torturer cannot make a credible promise to stop. Some of these people were waterboarded scores of time in short periods.

  3. gcallah Says:

    “Once the prisoner coughs up a location, check to see if there is indeed a bomb there. If not, go back and torture some more.”

    In addition to Roger’s points, there is also the fact that the scenario most used to justify torture is one where, “The bomb is going to go off in ten minutes! What else can be done?”

    In which case, there’s no time to go back and get it right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: