Conceding Nothing

Megan McArdle writes:

I’ve long said that we shouldn’t waste time arguing that torture doesn’t work. For one thing, the evidence for those arguments seems empirically shaky, especially since many people employing them insist on arguing that torture basically never works, rather than that it doesn’t work very often and therefore has a bad cost-benefit ratio. For another, arguing that something doesn’t work isn’t necessarily an argument for not doing it—it could just as easily be an argument for improving our technique. And if advances in brain scanning research let us develop a reliable lie detector, as seems possible in the relatively near future, then torture will work very, very well.

If that happens, we’re in a nasty spot. Most people who make this argument do not, in fact, care whether torture works. They would still be every bit as much against it if waterboarding worked perfectly. Yet when they argue about whether torture works, they’re conceding that torture’s effectiveness is relevant to the question of whether or not we should engage in it.

That’s incorrect. All one concedes by arguing about the effectiveness of torture is that people worth persuading believe — mistakenly or not — that utility is a relevant factor. I happen to think that every American who exerts influence on his or her government is a person worth persuading. A mistaken policy like torture is least likely to happen if as large a plurality of citizens as possible think that it’s a bad idea, for whatever reason.