David R. Henderson  

Torture: Find the Missing Cost

Why I am Not a Republican, Con... Kennedy and Airline Deregulati...

On his blog yesterday, Jeffrey Miron does a rough cost-benefit analysis of torture; I basically agree with his quick analysis.

He ends as follows:

In that case, the cost-benefit evaluation of torture is trivial: it has certain costs, such as inflaming antipathy to the U.S., and no benefits.

Maybe he was in a hurry, or maybe, once he had made a credible argument that torture has no benefits, he didn't need to list other costs. Still, to my mind, he should have mentioned one major cost of torture that, in his analysis, goes unmentioned. What is it?

HINT: My co-blogger, Bryan Caplan, who is one of least nationalistic people I know, would never have left out this cost.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Cost-benefit Analysis

COMMENTS (26 to date)
eyu writes:

Do costs incurred by someone/some organization other than the U.S. government count?

John Thacker writes:

The costs suffered by those tortured, of course.

However, his post seems wrong. The very New York Times article he links to notes:

In what appeared to be a response to the Justice Department’s release, the C.I.A. later on Monday released previously secret agency reports from 2004 and 2005 that detailed intelligence scoops produced by the interrogation program.

And then goes on to detail specific claimed successes. Is that not what he wanted?

Prakhar Goel writes:

I agree with John Thacker. The information released by the CIA indicates that the interrogation program yielded large amounts of useful information. Compared to this benefit, the costs of "inflaming antipathy" are negligible -- those people will always find something to be angry at.

mdb writes:

A timeline would be necessary to determine if torture was a success. And that is missing from the CIA reports. If people divulged information about already executed plans, the information is irrelevant.

Les writes:

I certainly agree that the cost-benefit evaluation of torture is trivial.

The benefits are first that tortured captured terrorists are likely to disclose information than can help us to foil future terror attacks and to save the lives of potential victims. Another benefit is the likely capture of more terrorists, before they kill and injure more Americans. A third benefit is the discouragement of potential future terrorists by the knowledge that if captured they will be tortured and endure great agony.

The costs? Minimal. Who cares what happens to vicious terrorists who ruthlessly attack and kill innocent civilians?

Nathan writes:

Les--sure is easy to do cost benefit analysis when you can just pull stuff out of your ass, isn't it? Did you read the initial blog? The whole point is that torture supporters such as yourself can't provide one iota of evidence that torture has prevented a single attack or saved a single life. They just assert it, like you're doing now.

Of course, there is ample evidence that many people tortured aren't vicious terrorists but rather innocent people turned in for money, or to settle old tribal feuds, but feel free to ignore that too.

Finally, all of your arguments also apply to non-terrorists. We should have no issue torturing captured criminals (or suspected criminals) of any sort, both for information and as a general deterrent. I assume you wouldn't support such a program, but maybe I give you too much credit.

CC writes:

Re: Les

Well said, and I agree with you (with the caveat that I believe what was done was not torture).

But the answer always given to your first point is that they are not likely to disclose information, thus not likely to help us foil future attacks. An alternative view holds that they'd give it up painlessly if we were just better at trust-building (or whatever). There is no way to prevail in this argument, because nothing can satisfy the evidentiary demand except a ticking-bomb, a few spark plugs, and a foiled plot minutes later.

Much of the furor in this debate stems from the fact that certain people seem to approach intelligence in the way they approach science. There's either proof, or there isn't. There's either hard data, or there's nothing. There's either a bomb about to explode, or the plot is a joke. Intelligence can hardly ever meet the demands of science. If the CIA worked on those assumptions, anyhow, we would quite simply have no intelligence agency. We would then be less inclined to indulge in these pleasant speculations about foreign policy "free lunches."

Your second point is harder to question, since there is solid evidence that high level terrorists were captured as a result of the harsh interrogations. The response I guess is that we would have eventually caught them without torturing anyone, and in any case they weren't doing anything serious. Which, of course, does not go without saying.

Your third point is one that tempts me, but it could be argued that none of these guys seriously believe they'll be tortured by us. Rendition was meant to address that problem more convincingly, I think. And perhaps being vague about what we'll do and what we won't do leaves enough for them to be afraid of.

Peter A writes:

The cost of living under a regime that tortures people.
"I come from the United States" kind of doesn't have quite the same ring to it anymore, when it's the same as saying "I come from the Spanish Inquisition."
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Ignacio Concha writes:

I respond at the bottom, but please allow me to digress a little bit first.

I am from Chile, a country that jumped from being poor even for Latin America to being the best place to live south of Rio Grande. This happened mainly as a consequence of the policies implemented during the Pinochet years. But during this time, a few thousand people were tortured and made “disappear” during a period of high terrorist activity.

I heard for years that the lifting of millions out of poverty and the pacification of the country was not enough benefit to justify torture, even in the case of a terrorist. And those commenters were right. You have no right to punish anyone unless they have been proven guilty after proper due process (and even then we should question if torture is proper). Anything less, implies that there are some who are “more equal than others.” The minute you forget about this, you end up like Pinochet: hated, no matter how many lives were saved (either by stopping terrorism or by improving their living standards).

Considering that “equality for everyone” is part of the soul of the USA and what makes this country great, the biggest cost of torture could be loosing that part of the soul of this country.

eric mcfadden writes:

I am sure you have students that were prior enlisted and have been to SERE training. You might want to ask them about their experiences in that school. Obviously some of the stuff is classified, however, you will learn a lot more from graduate of that course than educated guesses.
Any 18 year old soldier and his 22 year old squad leader would rough up a guy they were pretty sure could tell them about people planting bombs on their patrol route. Secret prisons are for a few high level guys. The violence our guys use day to day in the field makes more of an impact on the populations we occupy.

E. Barandiaran writes:

Miron writes "Those who defend torture have claimed it helps foil terrorist plots, but they have not provided hard data."
David, I'm surprised that you accept his criterion. Next time that I heard something that I don't like, I'll say "where is your HARD data?
I assume the answer to your question is the harm caused to the tortured person, regardless if he is or not a terrorist. The fact that the person is not American should be irrelevant. But I think you're wrong about this too. In courts many people are tried and suffered severe harm, either because they are innocent or because the punishment is just revenge (there are some cases in which there is no deterrence benefit). There is no perfect system to get to the "truth".
I expect either Miron or you explain which the police and intelligence services should do in case they capture a person that may have relevant information about a serious crime.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

No benefits? Torture has been used for thousands of years and in virtually every place on earth...to no benefit!

Get in touch with your inner Hayek.

Les writes:


You correctly challenged my posting for lack of evidence. Khalid Sheik Mohammed sang like a canary after being waterboarded. That very same Khalid Sheik Mohammed beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, and masterminded the 9/11 attacks on important U.S. landmarks. As a brutal killer he deserves no mercy.

Since turnabout is fair play, kindly present the evidence for:
a) Torture has costs > benefits, and
b) The many unsupported claims in your posting.

Dr. T writes:

Unless you can completely automate torture (as is done in some cases of judicial killing), the most significant costs of torture are psychological: the torturers are damaged almost as much as the torture recipients.

We have never gotten a full and unbiased report of the utility of information obtained under torture. I suspect that, for the tortured Afghanis, the value of the information was low. Part of this is signal-to-noise ratio (tortured persons give false information to stop the torture), and it costs too much to strip away the noise. The other part is that most prisoners knew nothing useful.

kebko writes:

Patrick, it's fascinating to know that in the year 2009, you will literally defend witch trials in order to protect your political loyalties - using Hayek, no less. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

I guess you think the power-players in Salem were dunking people in water & burning them at the stake because they had a principled reason to find out the truth about witchcraft.

Nathan writes:

Les--I'm happy you have provided at least some evidence for your claims. What information, specifically, did we obtain from torturing Kalidh Skeikh Mohammed? Mohammed himself claims that he gave false information just to stop the torture: http://gawker.com/5291971/khalid-shaikh-mohammed-says-he-gave-false-information-to-end-torture

Of course, as a known terrorist, we can hardly trust a thing he says. Guess we need to torture him to find out if he was lying.

You also imply in your posts that you don't mind torturing terrorists even if it doesn't produce information or save lives. Is this only terrorists, or do regular killers/ bank robbers/ rapists etc. also deserve torture?

As to the allegations in my post, I will gladly support them. Here are some innocent people wrongly imprisoned and tortured in the U.S. War on Terror:


Many more can be found just by googling "torture innocent" or "innocent guantanamo" or any other fruitful combination of terms. Your lack of knowledge of these incidents is shocking.

IvanZyl writes:

First of all, I agree with Nathan. One can not account for benefits in a cost/benefit analysis, if such benefits aren’t quantified or no concrete evidence yet exists pointing to such benefits realising in the future.

Although some torture victims have ‘sung like canaries’ after water boarding, how reliable is the data obtained from victims who pride themselves as martyrs through suicide bombings? Losing your life in my opinion is a rather weak incentive for these ‘type’ of constituents. Torture techniques might have worked well in previous conflict epochs, but the type of criminals the authorities are dealing with here has evolved. Shouldn’t interrogation techniques have evolved in line?

That said the highest cost tied up in torture techniques is probably the high opportunity cost of wasted resources, which could have been utilised in catching other criminals…or who knows maybe in designing more effective techniques

Confuddled writes:

Urgh... one thing that has to be cleared up with some of these comments is whether you adopt a consequentialist system of morality or not.

You cannot claim that torture has a positive cost benefit ratio, therefore it is justified, while simultaneously saying that someones identity (in this case - suspected terrorist) instantly waives their right to any consideration.

To make statements like: The costs? Minimal. Who cares what happens to vicious terrorists who ruthlessly attack and kill innocent civilians?

..renders the cost-benefit debate pointless, as you are clearly operating on other principles. The only way around this is to attribute different rights to different social groups, which is essentially moral nihilism. Your justification is reduced to the pragmatic decision of whether it is in your own self interest or not.

I don't care to debate whether ethical egoism is a defensible position in this forum, but if you wish to take the aforementioned stance don't masquerade as if you are speaking with moral authority. To self-righteously speak of protecting American lives while disregarding the lives/livelihoods of suspected terrorists is logically a Swiss cheese position.

Moving on from that side issue, I agree that a cost-benefit analysis of torture is particularly hard. There is too much uncertainty regarding the likelihood of extracting useful information, the degradation of those who participate, the loss of credibility as a positive influence on the world etc. Not to mention, what could be achieved with other methods? More funding? (How much would you pay so we didn't need to torture others?)

While not fundamentally opposed to torture, practically I think it's use is unreasonable. In the hypothetical ticking bomb scenario, I would be for it. However, more frequent application me seems to me to be a faulty analysis of optimal outcomes from a cost-benefit perspective.

CBecker writes:

I would argue that he ignores opportunity costs. While terrorists are being tortured, resources cannot be applied to other tasks that are (more) certain of yielding a profit, whether it be social or economic.

Zz's writes:

From my vantage point, the issue of torture is really just a rallying cry for the hyper-partisans in their attempt to feel morally superior and hype up the base. The argument a good chunk of the time consists of, "You're evil!" "No, YOU'RE evil!" (Although you don't see that much of it on more sophisticated sites like this one.) :) Torture really is a minor point considering the severity and scale of it. This isn't thumbscrews, electrocution, bamboo shoots, and rape--more like listening to loud music and hitting collapsible walls. You can call it torture and of course it is ethically gray, but I simply don't see it's pivotal importance.

I find the partisan bickering at its worst when I hear people essentially say, "Rendition was fine starting under Clinton, bad under Bush, and good when continued by Obama" or vice versa depending on your party. Nauseating.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

The unmentioned but major cost of torture is when the torturers act on bad data extracted during a coerced confession.

Jesse writes:

Hmm, unmentioned costs... how about EMPIRE?

El Presidente writes:

Prakhar Goel,

"those people"?

Well, I guess I found my something-to-be-angry-about early today. That was easy. Now let's talk about whether this is a good idea or a bad idea. Why don't we consult "those people". Ya know, those people who know what they're talking about. They're probably all lying though. Maybe we should torture them to find out what they _really_ think.


One additional cost that I see is that it is a fundamental breach of our national creed. That is, if one is to place any value at all on the social contract we've adopted and the moral precepts we claim, torture would violate both, and we've repeatedly lied about it. That makes us actors in bad faith, with a bad reputation and dubious credit. The value of reputation is important to Bryan, thus I'm sure he would point out the cost this would impose on future diplomatic excahnges where agreements based on trust are of utmost importance. Just like a consumer with bad credit pays higher interest, if they can secure credit at all, a nation with bad credit can expect to pay more to secure the assistance of other nations.

Les writes:

I'd like to thank all the people who rushed to defend the terrorists who have killed so many innocent civilians.

You have revealed your thought processes and your emotions for what they are.

The only thing I don't understand is why you live here, when your hearts are so plainly elsewhere, in a place very unlike here.

Tim writes:


Many of the people who post here know a lot about economics, but not much about how things work in other areas.


I wasn't impressed with Nathan's links.

El Presidente writes:


I'd like to thank all the people who rushed to defend the terrorists who have killed so many innocent civilians.

Perhaps you're unfamiliar with the concept of integrity.


Many of the people who post here know a lot about economics, but not much about how things work in other areas.

Some of us know quite a bit about both. I'm always willing to learn. Why don't you tell us all about "how things work in other areas"? Is psychology one of those areas?

If you are willing to torture me to get the truth, it's highly likely you don't know what the truth is. How will you know when to stop torturing me? If faced with this sort of a scenario, should I repeat the truth and continue being tortured or should I lie to get some relief? Toturers practice double-blind classical conditioning. They are largely unaware of which behavior they are actually reinforcing. How can that be effective?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top