Torture, terrorism, and incentives

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.

The torture victim faces incredible pain and perhaps death at the hands of his torturer.  If these costs are to be born by the victim then we had better make damn sure that the benefits are also high and the only way we can do that is to make the torturer also bear some of the costs.  Torture must not be cheap.


Comments for this post are closed