Ilya Somin on Israeli signaling (markets in everything)

Ilya writes:

Various commenters on this and my previous post on the same subject claim that the Israeli government had to do this in order to send its citizens a “message” about how much it valued their lives and was willing to pay a high price to save them. But if these deals lead to the deaths of far more innocent Israelis than they save, the real message sent will be exactly the opposite: that the government is willing to make a large net sacrifice of innocent life in order to gain short term public relations benefits or a short-term boost in national morale. It’s possible, of course, that Israeli public opinion is myopic enough that they will think that the government is saving life despite the fact that it is actually sacrificing a much larger enough of innocent lives. If so, there could be a more permanent and substantial boost in national morale. Even then, it will probably fade as public attention shifts to other issues. In any event, it’s not worth the sacrifice of numerous innocents and the creation of perverse incentives for terrorist groups.

Link here.  I don’t know whether this exchange is a good idea, but Ilya is possibly underrating the power of signaling models.  It is precisely the fact that that Israeli government will trade for this single life, even apart from whether it is instrumentally rational, that sends the relevant signal.  The less “rational” the act, the more potent the signal of concern, and in this case the possible irrationality is stochastic, not certain.  Perhaps one must take a stand for the single, identifiable life in question; Hollywood rescue movies accept this meme and they face market tests all the time.  Doesn’t the starship captain go back down to save the one life, even though it may place the entire ship in jeopardy?  “That’s what makes us human, Bones,” while Spock raises the eyebrow, etc.

One can also read the Israeli government as signaling (correctly or not) that it has the power to prevent or at least limit future kidnappings.  It is an expression of strength, or at least a belief in strength, and citizens seem to like that signal from their leaders.  It also may allow governments to perform other (efficient) acts which involve offsetting signals of weakness.

That said, Ilya’s comments indirectly raise an issue in signaling theory: where does salience come from?  Why is “one person” the relevant unit of concern for the Israeli citizenry here?  There are plenty of simple answers, but most of them beg the question and of course one person is often considered quite disposable in other contexts, especially military.  It also would not suffice to get just a month of freedom for him.  Yet neither is the deal insisting that more than this one soldier be delivered.

If you haven’t already, I recommend that you all read David Grossman’s splendid To The End of the Land.


Yes that is how a westerner would read it. The Palestinian leadership seems to be reading it as an act of weakness and seems to have decided to redouble their kidnapping efforts.

Does this redoubling of efforts imply a shift of resources away from other things such as suicide bombings? I am not sure that these trades change the incentives for kidnapping Israeli soldiers all that much. Either way, the kidnapping itself is seen as majorly beneficial by those who are actively engaged in the enterprise.

Hamas is not firing anyone because it took more than five years to convert the kidnapping of Shalit into a prisoner exchange. Had the prisoner exchange never happened, Hamas and its allies still would have considered the kidnapping a rousing success. Such is the depth of their depravity.

"Hamas is not firing anyone because it took more than five years to convert the kidnapping of Shalit into a prisoner exchange. Had the prisoner exchange never happened, Hamas and its allies still would have considered the kidnapping a rousing success."


Why is it depravity? Hamas is devoted to the destruction of Israel. Everything is fair game to them.

The signal here is more for the Israeli military than citizens in general, right? American criminals know that killing a police officer will get you in more serious trouble than killing an ordinary citizen.

The signal can work as intended whatever the eventual consequences as long as they are diffuse. I have been thinking that the real point of reseeding the Palestinian population with these individuals is to drive up the number of incidents over the next few years. This will give the government additional reasons to not engage in the peace process and continue the settlements.

They'll also need to arrest a lot more people to pay ransoms.

Israeli government wants more attacks on their own people, just so they can avoid the peace process? That is an extreme assumption of bad faith. Or are you just signaling your disapproval of Israeli policy by making an outrageous statement?

It's an interesting question, but strikes me as a little myopic considering what is at stake in the broader conflict. A more interesting question might be: what signal does the Israeli government send to its citizens, to the Palestinians, and to the rest of the world through decades of continued illegal expansion into occupied lands? That activity has led to less security and has escalated the conflict, as the Palestinians see their would-be state and its resources gobbled up by the people they must work with to create that state.

Or maybe it's the logical consequence founding on the principle that the lives and rights of Jews are worth more than the lives and rights of gentiles. Unfortunately for the Israelis it cuts both ways. It certainly makes it easier to deny the human rights of millions of Palestinians without guilt, but it also makes it hard to resist trading hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli.

Or maybe, Barry, it's part of the signal that the lives of non-Jews are more valuable than the lives of Jews, given that many of those imprisoned have murdered Jews but the death penalty is never or almost never imposed.

Sorry, Dan. Barry, it should be pretty obvious that if the Israelis settling in the West Bank were treated like normal inhabitants instead of being killed if they venture out of their compounds, the effect on the resources and economic situation of the Palestinians would be an enormous positive.

Incorrect - the West Bank settlers are seen as intruders.

You should also take into account that a significant number of released prisoners have probably been turned by Israeli intelligence.

I saw this argument made on one of the threads over at Volokh. It's possible, but it assumes facts not in evidence. Also, shouldn't we assume that Hamas has their own counterintelligence operation? Hamas will probably be vetting those people who were released, not immediately putting them into positions of high trust.

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There is another signal involved here that has been neglected in the discussion to date. Amongst policemen - and the Israeli Army in this conflict is a de facto police force - one of the greatest demoralizing forces is the perception that one's efforts are worthless because the criminals one apprehends are invariably released by a corrupt or ineffectual legal system. I believe, though it would be hard to prove, that this has a greater negative effect on police morale than the occasional loss of a policeman's life.

The Israeli legal and political system just released a thousand or so people whom the Israeli army, which went through a great deal of trouble to capture those people, presumably believes to be war criminals. If this was done with the expectation that it would increase the morale of IDF soldiers, I am not optimistic about the probability of success.

Finally a little hope. I've been getting sick all day seeing how happy people are over this even though what it really means is a long-term escalation of the violence. But Ilya is right that the signals are bad, even if he isn't looking at the real issue here.

The real issue is what this signals to (the violent extremists amongst) the Palestinians, namely that Netanyahu is weak, that violence and extortion get serious results. Combine this with the signal Netanyahu sends by refusing to freeze the (illegal) settlement construction in the West Bank and what you get is this: 'Israel is trying to steal the land from the Palestinians, but if you do enough violence, they'll back down'. This could be exactly what Netanyahu wants, an escalation in the violence to give his crazy Likud party more backing and to make extremists of more Israelis; or he could simply be stupid, I can't say either way. In any case, although I am happy for Shalit himself, as a (secular) Israeli patriot, I can't say that I like any of the implications of this deal in the slightest.

I think Adam has a good thought.
If I were a Hamas leader, I'd think that some of the released are turned, some are past thinking that war is glamorous, some are prison institutionalized, some have Stockholm syndrome, and some have PTSD. Only a unknown portion are reliable anti-Israeli fighters. I'd vet them very carefully for at least a few months.
Israel may just have avoided housing and feeding a thousand Palestinians at a cost of adding only a few effective fighters to their enemies, and maybe getting some useful intelligence assets, too.

"But Ilya is right that the signals are bad, even if he isn’t looking at the real issue here.

The real issue is what this signals to (the violent extremists amongst) the Palestinians, namely that Netanyahu is weak, that violence and extortion get serious results."

I made those same points at great length in other parts of the post that Tyler did not quote in his own post.

I am not at all persuaded by Tyler's argument. If Israel meant to signal that they can prevent future kidnappings, they have clearly failed. Hamas leaders have repeatedly stated that this exchange encourages them to take more hostages in the future (a point I emphasized in my posts on this subject).

If the goal is to show that Israel is willing to save its citizens even when it's not "rational" to do so, then the message is self-defeating. In this case, it's irrational because israel is actually sacrificing many more innocents than it will save. To the extent that the Israeli public understands that, they will be demoralized rather than encouraged. If they don't understand it, they won't understand that the action isn't "rational" and thus won't get the message that Tyler thinks Israel is trying to convey.

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