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.


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