Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Against Hostage Negotiation

The case against negotiation is simple: it provides an incentive for people to take hostages. If we instead making a public and binding commitment to ignore such threats, there'd be no reason for anyone to threaten us in future. Perhaps a few hostages will needlessly die in the meantime, while criminals test our resolve; but more will be saved in the long run. We would favour this policy from behind a veil of ignorance, so we ought to implement it in reality.

Any counterarguments?


  1. There is one decisive counter-argument here: real life is more complicated than game-theory. People who take hostages typically aren't all that rational. Even when a government has no intention of granting the main demands, minor concessions can help draw out the situation and increase the chances of getting the hostages home safely.

  2. What we want is potential hostage takers to believe that there is no incentive for them to take hostages. But this can be done whether we in fact negotiate with hostaage takers or not. Right? We could loudly boradcast our no hostage negotiation policy, for instance, and then covertly save the lives of the hostages.

    Though I admit, if there is a significant chance that the covert negotiations will be revealed, then we probably should not engage in them.

  3. Richard, this sounds like a classic social dilemma, which you elide by pretending that you are considering policies for an inclusive "we." There are many different parties that could have someone dear to them taken hostage and be asked to make concessions, and from the point of view of one of those parties the benefits of having the hostage(s) who they care about returned safely are likely to outweigh the marginal deterioration to the rule against negotiation. It's not clear to me how to make a commitment against negotiation "binding" for all of these parties, so implementation of the ideal "veil of ignorance" policy seems impossible in reality.

    In practice, the relevant policy debate is one of degrees: should you and I try to get the relevant parties (especially the ones that we have a direct stake/say in, our countries) to hold more strictly to the non-negotiation policy (recognizing that the probability of negotiation will forever be nonzero)? And there isn't a simple, elegant way to answer that question. Doing everything possible to punish hostage-takers after the hostages have been returned also creates a strong incentive against hostage-taking, and the added deterrence brought about by holding more strictly to the non-negotiation rule may not be worth the cost of the additional dead (tortured, etc.) hostages.

  4. Hallq - granted, negotiating is certainly best for the present hostages. The argument is that letting them die now will prevent future hostage-taking.

    Jack - true, I'm assuming a degree of transparency, such that our declared policy will only be believed if we actually adhere to it.

    Blar - you're right, the policy would only work if we could make it binding. I'm sufficiently utopian (stubborn?) to feel that this ought to be do-able. Would it help to make negotiation a capital offense?

  5. Hostage taking can be designed to achieve a range of things not all of which require negpotiation. for example lets say I take hostages for publicity and negotiation. in the absence of negotiation I might still do it but its nature will change when negotiation is also present.
    I might also take a hostage to provoke a response.
    Or I might do it out of revenge.
    or I might do it for a complex political reason.


  6. I tend to agree with Richard's position, and I'd point out that we're likely to be biased in favor of (salient, named) current hostages and against (faceless, abstract) future hostages.

    I think this insight may apply to foreign politics in more ways than people think.

  7. It makes sense, if hostage-taking is something that random people just do for, oh, I don't know-- money.

    If there's an entire mass population and society that's in favor of the hostage taker because this taking of hostages is the only practical way that anyone can escalate their frustration with another mass population / society ...

    That's something entirely different. Refuse to deal with the hostage takers, okay -- but you must deal with the society, and agree to address the societies concerns, whether they are capable of presenting a person, a representative, to speak for them, or not.

    May seem weird, but I'm assuming a particular (current, relative) larger context to what appears to be an abstract argument...


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