In Praise Of Blackmail

Society – civilized society at least – is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating. The Picture of Dorian Grey

On Wednesday I puzzled over areas of life where:

People seem to insist quite firmly that they do not want to hear lies, where the consequences of believing lies are substantial, where the costs to reliably determine if a lie happened could be low, and yet where lies are legal.

Today the Post reminded us that the puzzle is much bigger.  Not only don’t we use public law to punish many big lies, we actively prevent private parties from punishing them:

David Letterman … announced that he’d had sex with female “Late Show” staffers and that someone had tried to extort $2 million from him to keep quiet about the relationships. … The man who attempted to extort the money was … arrested Thursday on charges of attempted grand larceny in the first degree. … [He] had threatened to go public with the details if the late-night host did not pay …

Instead, Letterman said that he took the matter to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and that he was told by authorities to issue the person a phony check. That ruse reportedly led to the arrest … Letterman said on camera. “Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would.”  He added, however: “I feel like I need to protect these people. I need to certainly protect my family.”  Letterman and longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko married in March.

Yes, good thing the public-spirited Letterman risked himself to save us all from such horrid criminals, those who would seek financial gain by exposing celebrity sex lies.  Good thing we also have whistle blower laws giving large financial rewards to heroic citizens who expose drug companies who tell docs truths about drugs.  So many good things to be thankful for.  Sigh.

I would favor overturning anti-blackmail laws.  If we did this, these would be the main consequences:  Rich celebrities would lose money, do fewer illicit things, lie about them less, and trust their associates less.  They’d be more often exposed for lying about doing illicit things.  People would try a little less hard to become such rich celebrities.  The associates of rich celebrities would be a little richer, and people would try a little harder to become such folks.  Fans would not be able to idolize their celebrities quite as much, and would be less often offered roles as illicit activity partners.   Which of these consequences do we fear so much that we forbid blackmail?

Added 11:30a: These concerns expressed so far all apply to whistleblowers as well: privacy, info could be false, threatened folks could resort to murder, non-rich people may be effected, we don’t trust our rules to be reasonable, no wealth is created by the financial transfer, and most parties have done something that looks illicit.   So why promote whistleblowers but ban blackmail?

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  • Jess Riedel

    Extortion and blackmail are forbidden because they are considered immoral, not because of a cost-benefit analysis. Certainly, if laws forbidding blackmail led to large negative effects then the laws might be repealed regardless of morality. But the effects you identify seem minor (to me).

    (Wikipedia says the difference between extortion and blackmail is that extortion involves other criminal activity in addition to blackmail. If that’s right, then we can just talk about blackmail.)

    Unlike the case of whistleblowers, who are presumably yielding a large social benefit by exposing waste, corruption, etc, people who are blackmailed typically have done nothing illegal. In addition, blackmailers are seeking reward for not revealing information, while whistleblowers are (can be) rewarded for revealing information.

    • OK, I’ve changed the post title to refer to blackmail instead.

  • Eric Johnson

    I think this will sling our famous people into a fairly inhumane Stasi police state. Our famous artists and culture leaders are messed up enough by fame already.

  • Extortion and blackmail are forbidden because they are considered immoral, not because of a cost-benefit analysis.

    Damn. I wish I was a deontologist, so I could just make “X is immoral!!” assertions point blank and not feel the need to provide any justification.

    • Eric Johnson

      How bout a justification like “people dislike blackmail by nature, and they always will, for the forseeable future.”

      Such a statement makes an implicit critique not of consequentialism, but a Lebensphilosophie of excessive rationality in general. Human nature exists and not every part of it is made of reason or even very amenable to it.

      By Lebensphilosphy I mean a less than 100% privileging of truth over the good life, along with the belief that they sometimes conflict.

    • Dan Armak

      Leaving morality aside, Jess said they are considered immoral by most people, and I agree.

      I can also provide an argument as to why: blackmail (where there would be no public benefit from revealing the secret) is a threat to hurt someone unless they pay up. The way of hurting (e.g. revealing information) is not as important.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        Yes, but why isn’t it illegal to “hurt someone” for free?

    • Jess Riedel

      As Dan Armak pointed out, I wasn’t making a normative claim.

  • very interesting piece.
    Isn’t a degree of privacy for people a desirable thing?

  • kevin

    I never thought of this before, but blackmail really shouldn’t be illegal. There is no threat of violence/fraud/etc. It seems like a law created by the powerful to protect the powerful from blackmail.

    • Well, that seems a perfectly good reason to outlaw it. What else are laws for, but to benefit and reinforce the positions of the people who fund them?

      It’s perfectly acceptable for the already rich to simply denounce people. The problem only arises if low folks somehow get leverage.

      • Laws also protect poor voters from being excessively exploited by the rich.

    • r.s

      I think there are more layers here. The blackmailer in general is considered morally questionable. But there is a difference in whether they are blackmailing an illegal act or something that is simply private and better kept that way.

  • Andy

    If you think the paparazi are bad now, imagine what it would be like if blackmail were legal.
    “CelebrityX- I’ve got pics of you (in some embarassing &/or marriage wrecking situation). Send me $MM or else I’ll sell them to NN magazine.”

    That said, it might decrease the frequency of such events happening as Robin points out.

  • Dagon

    I suspect the illegality is a strong barrier to blackmailing average citizens all the time. Because it’s illegal, it’s only worth doing for fairly large amounts, which limits the potential targets to those who have fairly large sums at their disposal.

    If it were legal, it would not affect only rich people. It would affect everybody.

  • Psychohistorian

    It’s worth mentioning that you are referring to an extremely specific form of blackmail, which is based on the revelation of true information. There are many other forms. Most notably, at least in this discussion, there’s blackmail based on the revelation of false information. It would be extremely difficult in practice to legalize one without the other. Thus, one need not only think of the effects of people with true information, one need also think of the effects of people with false information who are now explicitly legally allowed to blackmail people with it, provided their information is not 100% demonstrably false.

    Furthermore, you have an extremely narrow view of what constitutes blackmail. Plenty of people have incentives to commit blackmail against coworkers or social equals. making it explicitly legal to do so could lead to some tremendously inefficient outcomes – the idea that blackmail is beneficial assumes that the individuals involved are assimilating information in a perfectly rational and self-centered way, which is an assumption so absurd as to be laughable when you look at actual human disagreement.

    I’d expect there are other problems that haven’t been addressed in the interest of making a controversial claim, but having just read this post, none have yet occurred to me.

    • David Strauss

      We already do legalize one but not the other. That’s what libel and slander laws do.

  • Imagine the case of a wealthy child molester who is discovered and then threatened with blackmail–if blackmail were legal, would the molester think something along the lines of, “Well, it’s a million now, and then who knows how much later. Meanwhile I have to worry about the info leaking out anyway accidentally. I’m living under an intolerable tension and I just want the matter resolved now!”? So the wealthy molester kills the blackmailer, because it’s preferable to losing a million now and who knows how much later, and still being in danger of being discovered anyway. Does this seem plausible or a stretch? I’m not sure. Also if the molester can buy off his victims and others who discover his crime or suggestive info about it, doesn’t this make his life easier? If you can’t make any money off of telling on the child molester, then you might as well ‘cash in’ on praise and positive attention by notifying the authorities, while also avoiding the cost of being seen as someone who didn’t tell on a hated person.

  • You assume that all blackmail impacts rich people. That’s not at all the case. Lots of blackmail is against “normal” people who do stuff that they’re not proud of.

    We fear the general consequence of not being able to make mistakes, and/or not being able to control our lives.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Robin, what evidence do you have for your claim that only celebrities would be affected by the removal of blackmail laws?

  • Maybe we don’t entirely trust our rules to reasonable, so we don’t want them completely enforced.

    • That should have been “Maybe we don’t trust our rules to be reasonable”

  • Phil

    Isn’t blackmail economically inefficient? Blackmailers spend time and money digging up dirt on rich people, but no new wealth is created.

    To paraphrase someone (I forget whom): If you spend an afternoon blackmailing me for a bicycle, we have one bicycle between us. If you spend an afternoon building a bicycle, we have two bicycles between us.

  • trl776

    Here’s a couple links to an interesting book on the topic:

    Ill-Gotten Gains: Evasion, Blackmail, Fraud, and Kindred Puzzles of the Law by Leo Katz

    In Ill-Gotten Gains, Leo Katz describes the underlying principles that not only guide the law but also moral decisions. Mixing wit with insight, anecdotes with analysis, Katz uncovers what is really at stake in crimes such as insider trading, blackmail, and plagiarism. With its startling conclusions and myriad twists, this book will fascinate all those intrigued by the perplexing relationship between morality and law.

    “An ambitious and well-written book of legal and moral theory to overthrow both utilitarianism and its cousin, the economic approach to law.”—Richard A. Posner, New Republic

    “[An] elegant defense of circumvention and subterfuge . . . a heroically counterintuitive book.”—Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker

    Criminal law performs two useful functions: it defines certain conduct as so harmful to the individual or the community as to justify society’s forbidding that conduct, and it provides a method of punishment for those whose conduct violates society’s norms. Katz (law, Univ. of Pennsylvania) examines three forms of conduct-tax evasion, blackmail, and fraud-that he terms related mysteries and that all involve legality and morally puzzling forms of theft. All three involve some form of ill-gotten economic gain. Wanting us to consider why this conduct should be deemed criminal at all, Katz argues that these three forms of theft are the most prominent examples of the nonutilitarian character of much of our legal and moral thinking. He even shows that this conduct might be justified on purely economic grounds, particularly where there is no harm to other individuals or the community at large. While this is a good, well-written book full of interesting examples, it will probably appeal to a limited group of better-educated readers.
    Jerry E. Stephens, U.S. Court of Appeals Lib., Oklahoma City

    • Phil

      That is an excellent book. I mostly (but not completely) understand the argument. I could try to summarize it, but I might have it wrong.

      In any case, I bought the book twelve years ago, and still think about it often. It’s especially interesting because the blackmail situation is so counterintuitive. It’s obvious that it’s OK to reveal Letterman’s adultery. It’s obvious that it’s usually OK to contract for money to refrain from doing something (as in a non-compete agreement). So why does it suddenly feel not OK to combine the two? Katz’s arguments are … what’s the word for when you can’t stop thinking about how to solve a particular problem? Katz leaves you parsing his argument and figuring out if it’s a valid “proof.”

      His examples are interesting too. He’s got one that goes like this: you and your rival scheduled to audition for a part at 10am. You are sure your rival will win. You know your rival is committing adultery. If you tell her, “stay away from the audition or I’ll tell your husband about your adultery,” that’s blackmail. But what if you send a letter to the husband telling him about the adultery, and tell your rival you sent it? The only way she can stop the husband from finding out is by being home at 10am when the letter arrives (and thereby missing the audition).

      The straight blackmail is illegal, but sending the letter is not. Why? I don’t remember Katz’s answer.

      OK, let me try to summarize the main part of Katz’s argument anyway. It goes something like this: suppose you’re a petty burglar, and you’re about to steal an old lady’s lamp from her bedroom, which is a medium-size crime. She wakes up and sees you. She says, “no, don’t steal that! It’s a family heirloom, and I will regret losing it much more than you will gain from stealing it. Just beat me instead. You will enjoy it more, and, as much as I will dislike being assaulted, I’d rather be severely beaten than lose that lamp.”

      The burglar agrees, beats the crap out of the old lady, and he’s caught. When convicted, he tries the defense, “I should just be punished as if I stole the lamp, not as if I beat the victim (which I did). Because, after all, the victim agrees what I did was less painful to her than if I actually *did* steal the lamp.”

      We intuitively agree that the burglar’s defense shouldn’t work; he should be punished (more severely) for the beating rather than (less severely) for the lamp. Why? Because he “leveraged” (Katz’s word) the victim’s unusual preference to make it easier to commit the more severe crime.

      Same with blackmail. Revealing Letterman’s adultery is not a crime (just as stealing the lamp is only a minor crime). But exploiting Letterman’s preference to not have it revealed to gain $2 million leverages Letterman’s unusual preferences into a large gain.

      Apologies to Dr. Katz if I oversimplified (which I probably did) or got this wrong. I should really read his book again. Please consider this as giving a flavor of the argument, rather than properly representing it.

      BTW, the blackmail section is the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the book, as I recall. The rest has to do with other crimes. Still well worth reading.

      • Doug S.

        I just read much of the relevant section using the “Search Inside” feature.”

        Part of the argument seems to go something like this: Blackmail is basically a kind of robbery, in which one threatens someone with a significant harm unless they give you money. It doesn’t matter that the harm itself is legal to inflict, and it also doesn’t matter that the threatened harm might very well benefit third parties. It’s still not much different than an armed bandit demanding “your money or your life”. It’s illegal because blackmail is threatening to hurt someone unless they giving you money, and that’s wrong.

      • Doug S.

        *unless they give you money

        aaugh, stupid typos 🙁

      • “Threatening to hurt someone unless they giving you money” is wrong because hurting someone is wrong. Telling a truth is not wrong in anything like the same way — if at all.

  • Blackmailers seek financial gain for HIDING celebrity sex lies.

    • Joe

      Exactly. It’s not obvious (to me anyway) that in the absence of blackmail laws *less* truth would be exposed. In fact the opposite seems more plausible. The remaining mystery then is why we want to punish the “blackmailer” rather than the “blackmailee” who is paying hush money.

      If there is a good reason for this, it should have to do with the usual legal pragmatism of putting responsibility where it will be most effective. I can see reasons why restraining the blackmailer might be more effective than restraining the blackmailee, but not why it’d be more effective than restraining both.

      • Joe

        whoops, read *less* as *more* in the above comment.

  • Sorry Robin, but this is a really stupid idea.

    The reality is, a substantial number of people have done something to be ashamed of in their lives. People are hardly less likely to make these mistakes in life, just because there is more blackmail around (your rationality assumption is faulty here). So blackmail would have hardly any positive effects, as you claim.

    Blackmail undermines representative democracy, by allowing blackmailers to exercise control over political representatives. It undermines the free market by allowing blackmailers to exercise control over business leaders. It undermines freedom of expression by allowing blackmailers to exercise control over newspaper editors and influential journalists. Blackmail is economically inefficient as the blackmailer is not raising productivity through their labours. Blackmail is socially pernicious as the effect of the blackmailing is often worse than the hidden acts themselves.

    Note that blackmail, is not just threatening to reveal true information, to extract money. It also covers, forcing people to exercise the levers of power accessible to them.

    Also note that the potential for blackmail (or indeed miscarriages of justice) is getting ever greater with the vast databases of information being collected by business and goverment. What we really need, are stronger blackmail and privacy laws!

    • Strong laws would probably be equally ineffective. Blackmail would remain relatively easy – and criminalizing it pushes it underground – where it is harder to tax and regulate.

  • Φ

    They’d be more often exposed for lying about doing illicit things.

    It seems to me that the exact opposite is the case. Take Letterman. Without the satisfaction of seeing his blackmailer behind bars, the chances go up of his having paid out — in which event, the public would never have found out.

    I can understand, in theory, the public’s appetite for salacious stories about famous people. The revelation of such stories therefore constitute a “good” that ameliorates the misery of the lower orders. But blackmail, successfully executed, prevents such stories from coming to market. Isn’t that a bad thing?

  • I just added to the post.

  • Phil

    >So why promote whistleblowers but ban blackmail?

    1. Whistleblowers provide information that provides more benefit being out in the open, such as government corruption. If blackmail were legal, most instances of blackmail would threaten to provide information that would be of limited usefulness (except perhaps to the adulterer’s spouse).

    2. Whistleblowers don’t ask for money to keep quiet. If they did, then whistleblowing would not benefit anyone except the whistleblower. That would turn it into blackmail.

    Nobody is suggesting that “whistleblowing” revealing someone’s adultery to his/her spouse be illegal: just demanding money in order to keep quiet.

    3. In connection with (1), whistleblowing/blackmail on “personal” issues such as adultery has limited benefit to society. Moreover, we all have issues on which we could be blackmailed. Therefore, laws against blackmail are the enforcement of cooperation in a prisoner’s dilemma.

    We are all better off if we blackmail our associates than if we don’t, but we are better off all agreeing to not blackmail than if we all blackmailed. Laws against blackmail free us from having to agree to “no-blackmail” clauses with anyone we choose to trust with our personal weaknesses.

    This does not apply to “whistleblowing,” which usually is restricted to (a) a small number of evildoers, and (b) a “doing” that is more “evil” than normal human failings. So no prisoner’s dilemma applies.

  • Robin:

    I think you have it backwards. If blackmail is illegal, the blackmailer must charge more to conceal a particular fact than if it is legal, because the criminal blackmailer has to get additional compensation for the risk that he might be denounced and punished.

    So legalized blackmail makes it less expensive for people that do shameful or illegal things to conceal those actions.

    • That is if it is a seller’s market – probably a rather dubious assumption.

  • jonathan

    There is value to blackmail in litigation. As it works now, you threaten a suit and the other person / company runs a cost/value calculation and dares you to sue, because the minimum cost would be at least $25k. You can’t threaten actual blackmail but are required to use the legal form of blackmail – threatening suit. That used to be a low cost option but it is no longer such and thus people and companies understand they can get away with a lot if they are willing to use the potential cost of litigation as a hammer to protect bad behavior. Using litigation costs, we can ascribe a certain set of values to bad behavior our rules now protect. So blackmail might then be socially useful.

    Blackmail could also have a social use in a more general sense. The laws date from eras when social position and class division was extremely important. An allegation – even if untrue, even if based on the shadiest of facts – could cause significant harm in that kind of society. The role of blackmail was not to restrain conduct but to enforce class divisions by threatening one’s place. In a more socially elastic & open society, blackmail might then have the effect of restraining conduct that crosses the broader lines of what is allowable.

    Let’s imagine one is blackmailed over an allegation of the worst modern sort, something like child molestation. In the current system, untrue allegations of that kind retain their ancient character of jeopardizing one’s place in the social construct. If we allow blackmail, then we’d have to accept the persistence of untrue allegations and have some mechanism by which an accused could pursue the accuser. (That is, unless we assign no value to the accusations, in which case blackmail is no longer meaningful.)

  • Andrew

    [i]Which of these consequences do we fear so much that we forbid blackmail?[/I]

    Leaving aside the merits of your argument, this is an extremely arrogant position to take. You list a series of (purely hypothetical) positive consequences, then blithely sweep aside the possibility that there are other possible negative consequences that you have not foreseen (“Which of [i]these[/i] consequences…”)

    • You complain I leave something out but won’t tell us what?

  • Dave

    The biggest problem with blackmail is that the blackmailer has a tremendous conflict of interest. A whistle blower immediately brings in other parties who look for corroboration. He is not as likely to make false allegations. If it is alright to blackmail an adulterer then why isn’t alright to take law into one’s hands and lynch a known murderer? Who needs due process?

  • Mike

    I think most people approach the formulation of law according to which party they sympathize with more.

    In the present case, most people likely identify more readily with the “commercial” victims of illegal activity by institutions, or with the troubled employees of such institutions, than with the institutional leadership. So they are in favor of whistle-blower protection. Meanwhile, they identify more with the person who wants to keep his private life private, than with the person who wants to profit from exposing other people’s private lives, so they are against blackmail.

    For most people, I don’t think logic really matters (or at least they don’t think about it).

  • Walter Block advocated legalizing blackmail in Defending the Undefendable, which is great material for libertarian purity tests (though oddly enough he thinks fractional reserve banking is beyond the pale).

    Steve Sailer has a post wondering why blackmail is illegal that includes some discussion by legal theorists.

    • Steve’s post has some nice examples of legal blackmail that we allow while banning other forms. Makes the whole area all the more strange. But there isn’t much there about explaining this strangeness.

  • RobQ

    I don’t feel smarter after reading this. I’m not sure why I did. What happened to the old OvercomingBias?

    • Doug S.

      Half of it moved to

    • Understanding the world better need not make you feel smarter. After all, you might not actually be as smart as you think.

  • Hi Robin,

    Thanks for spending your time, you most precious and valuable personal possession, to write this article.

    Of course, it doesn’t really go far enough with respect to the extortion aspect of what truly ails various societies including the American Empire.

    How many spouses extort their significant other via various means and threats?

    How many estranged spouses and ex-spouses are destroyed by false accusations designed solely and wholly to sway public and judicial sentiment in their favor?

    Wendy McElroy(ifeminists dot com and dot net) and Glenn Sacks(glennsacks dot com) amongst many other wonderful individuals have been tirelessly promoting Basic Human Rights and fighting the worldwide insanity for decades.

    As students and advocates of the Philosophically Mature Non-Aggression Principle we keep asking when the insanity will end?

    On a related issue, many are asking the most intimate and rational question and that is…”just who do you think is going to pay for all these rob-peter-to-buy-paul’s-vote loot-and-booty gravy-train programs when everyone is looted penniless?”

    Interestingly enough, Tom Baugh’s new book “Starving The Monkeys” asks that very question and it won’t be long before his family is hunted down and his book is banned.

    John and Dagny Galt
    Atlas Shrugged, Owners Manual For The Universe!(tm)


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  • Tom Breton

    I read Leo Katz’s blackmail book a year or so ago – there’s a review by me floating around. I found it to be frustrating because I don’t buy his fundamental position, which he called something like “path dependence”. Basically, his position is that the order or manner in which these semi-legal things are committed is of great importance. Eg, if Suzy mails the letter first, then calls, she’s legal; if she does the same in the opposite order, she’s a criminal. To him, there is no “black box” thinking in law. He’s not just saying that our analyses sometimes have to peer inside the black box in extreme or impractical situations; he rejects it entirely.

    I found this to be fundamentally wrong-headed. I also consider this principle a case of (what I call) “sterilizing assumption” – it makes it effectively impossible to compare two situations, so legal reasoning about them becomes non-falsifiable.

    So Katz would raise these absolutely fascinating conundrums and then give answers or positions that I felt were just dumb. It was frustrating. I gave up when it became clear the entire book was based on this assumption of his.

  • Tom Breton

    (Different theme, so different post)

    I think Steve Sailer gave the right answer – the “problem” is that it cuts the lawyers out.

    That said, there is one consequence that AFAIK nobody has mentioned. If you legalize blackmail, but (of course) you keep extortion by threat of libel illegal, then someone has to judge whether questionable allegations are true or false (That’s not the new part). Now the person who is primarily judging that fact is the blackmailer (That’s the new part). That’s bad news.

    It would be hard to prove that the blackmailer maliciously misjudged an allegation as true (That’s not new about libel law). The blackmailer could easily claim it was an innocent mistake. The blackmailer also might threaten in such a way that the victim perceives a threat of libel, but can only prove a threat of blackmail.

    So legalizing blackmail makes it easy to pass off extortion as (the now legal) blackmail.

  • This is pretty flawed, because you believe blackmail only applies to famous celebrities and not the general public. Blackmail is still prevalent amongst non-celebrities.

    Another flaw is that legalising blackmail encourages entrapment, and a society fearful of entrapment is not a very open society.

  • Greg Lee

    “If we did this, these would be the main consequences: Rich celebrities would lose money, do fewer illicit things, lie about them less, and trust their associates less. They’d be more often exposed for lying about doing illicit things…”

    The strategic-bargaining counter-argument: illegality makes the blackmailer’s promise to remain silent credible and therefore worth paying for.

  • jgfellow

    I apologize if someone else already posted these two points, but (1) there is an economic benefit to society of anti-blackmailing laws: it raises the cost of extra-judicial claims relative to judicial claims. Because someone can be charged with blackmailing, they are better off taking (legitimate) claims to court.

    Incidentally, (2) it is the “relative rich” who get blackmailed, not the rich. Since the latter is a larger class, a great many more are impacted than you might think.


  • Dave

    I spent some time trying to understand Walter Block’s ideas on blackmail. Quite frankly if blackmail is covered under the non aggression principle, it doesn’t feel right.

    “In blackmail, however, what is being “threatened” is something
    that the blackmailer does have a right to do!—whether it be exercising
    the right of free speech, or refusing to patronize certain
    stores, or persuading others to do likewise. What is being threatened
    is not in itself illegitimate; it is, therefore, not possible to
    call the “threat” an illegitimate threat.”

    As others have pointed out, the trouble is that combining free speech with the right to voluntary exchange, two seeming inalienable rights don’t combine so well. It makes no sense to call blackmail voluntary exchange, even though the two have similar mechanics. All Block has done is poked a hole in the NAP. Now someone needs to repair the hole. Remember this the next time someone “Makes you an offer you can’t refuse.”

  • Seff

    The difference is: Whistle blowing is a finite event. Blackmail can be a series of events. Blackmailer, “I want a mil or I’ll talk” Mark, “Ok”. Six months later, Blackmailer, “I want a mil or I’ll talk”

  • Robin,

    I think your ascertain that legalizing blackmail would be a net-positive my be incorrect, for the following reasons:

    1) It would actually encourage less overall information to come out. Victims of blackmail would not be able to go to the police for help with the situation, therefore they would have an option of recourse removed — raising the likelihood of them choosing other options: including payment of the ask.

    2) It creates fear in members of the general society — this is not a concern if we’re talking about drug dealing or cheating, but there are many things not illegal/immoral that a productive participant in our society should be able to engage in with some expectation of privacy. A productive person spending more energy to hide the relatively mundance things they do not want made public for cultural/familial/etc. reasons (sexual fetishes, cigarette smoking, etc.) means less energy spent on creating value.

    3) While none of the likely outcomes of legal blackmail you laid out are particularly concerning, there’s also nothing on that list I find positive. Furthermore, I think it is an incomplete list.

  • No wealth created? Celebs don’t come out ahead by hiding damaging information? Or adoring fans benefit by not adoring celebs quite as much.

    “Why promote whistleblowers but ban blackmail?” To tilt favor towards us interested third parties. It gives us a better chance to bid on the blackmailer’s information.

  • If Mr. Hanson does not pay me $1 million, I will reveal to the world that his advocacy of legalizing blackmail is the stupidest idea I’ve read in a long time.

    Blackmail is just one kind of extortion. Would he like to legalize the other kinds as well? If he does not agree, I plan to burn down his house.

    Oh, by the way, back in the first paragraph? Make that $2 million. This whole liberalized blackmail thing is growing on me.

    Just kidding! I would never threaten a person in such a way, even though sometimes I feel the urge to do evil of various kinds. Actions like that are too socially destructive. When we tear down the conventions of behaving decently toward each other, we tear down the whole basis of our ability to live safely side by side. I happen to like living safely.

    If you won’t agree that I’m completely right about this, I will dump 2 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

    See how you like that!

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  • It seems no one has yet identified what I feel is the true answer.

    Extortion (“secret-keeping”) is a service which the government cannot provide (unlike a typical protection racket / police services). The government wants to extract as much tax revenue as possible from citizens, and is simply jealous that someone else is milking their cows. By banning extortion, and using a revenue-maximizing income tax scheme, the govt recaptures this money.