It is no longer surprising to see just how bold economists can be in research topics. This time, it is Baliga and Ely’s game-theoretic model of torture, as a principle-agent game, with the expressed hope of determining policy implications. The abstract provides a good summary of the paper, which finds that detaining suspects indefinitely is of no advantage over detaining them for a limited period of time. The model is based on the “ticking time-bomb” scenario, with a suspect who may or may not know the location of the bomb. How effective is torture to extract information?
Any model necessarily assumes philosophical, methodological, and ethical perspectives (consciously or not). Catholic Social Thought argues that torture is a violation of human dignity. Dr. Sam Wells expresses a similar perspective when he writes that “Torture is not simply about eliciting information, but degrading the body to dominate mind and spirit as well.” A response to torture based on these moral grounds objects to the degradation of human dignity endured by the victim. Freedom from torture is at the core of our nation’s values. Yet economics is only concerned with cost/benefit calculation; the discourses of economics and ethics are incommensurable.
The agents in a game theoretic model are cold, calculating, rational individuals. It’s hard look back at the many instances of torture in all of history, including the infamous incidents on behalf of the US during the past decade, and see rational, calculating individuals trying to elicit information or similar rational agents trying to keep information secret. Torture is about breaking down a person at the core. There seems to be very little cost-benefit analysis, and loads of emotion, passion, rage, humiliation, degradation, despair. It is hard to fit these in the principle-agent model.
The model of course also cannot include larger spillover effects, about how illegal torture methods used on suspected terrorists will foster stronger resentment towards the United States, counterproductive to goals towards international peace. In the end, the model seems so abstracted from reality and pretending to be value-free that one must question its usefulness. It seems that in many cases, game theorists are similar to chess players: given a set of rules, we have to figure out the optimal “strategy,” given that the opponent wants to defeat you. Within the framework of game theory, it is hard to dispute the results that they find. My question is, why are they all playing chess?