Blackmail Is Gossip+

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Old saying, that few believe.

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, … (Romans 1:29,30)

Law, first and foremost, keeps the peace. Sometimes people have big complaints about others, complaints so big that they are tempted to do something big about them. In such cases it can be very nice to have a law step in and declare who is right. If many accept the law’s resolution, peace may be preserved.

Gossip is dangerous. This has long been known, as the bible quotes above indicate. People can be greatly harmed by others talking about them, so sometimes gossip leads to very big complaints. Through most of the history of formal law, dangerous gossip was dealt with simply: law banned saying bad things about others. Of course this rule wasn’t always or even usually enforced – it was expensive to make a legal complaint. And there were various conditions and exceptions. But the basic idea was simple: keep people from hurting each other.

Our modern Western world thinks differently. We idealize conversation, and letting people say what they think. So we no longer have law punish people for saying bad things about each other, especially true things. We instead tell folks to tough it, that true mean words don’t excuse violent retaliation. Sometimes we see people hurt others greatly, out of malice, and we refuse to stop them. We sacrifice such victims on the altar of our respect for conversation.

Of course there are good things to say about gossip. By freely sharing info, we might aggregate it, and all learn the sum of what we all know. For example, we might learn to identify people who are mean or uncooperative, helping us to avoid them, and giving them stronger incentives to cooperate. While such social pressure to please aren’t always good, they seem good on average.

Blackmail is basically a threat of gossip; “if you don’t pay, I’ll gossip.” So almost all the things people don’t like about blackmail are things they don’t like about gossip. Someone could, out of selfish motives, say something that hurts someone else. If you don’t like this scenario, it is mainly something you don’t like about a freedom to gossip.

Yes, in addition to harmful gossip, blackmail can also involve money, and a threat. But money-inspired threats happen anytime parties haggle over a price, and few folks get worked up over that. If people are free to buy or not buy, and to sell or not sell, why not let them make threats about the price they’ll accept? Similarly, if people are free to gossip or not gossip as they prefer, why not let them haggle over the price of their gossip?

Yes, some prices are seen by many as unfair or immoral. Many don’t think the price of water or gas should rise in a crisis, and think the cash price of sex, babies, and organs should always be zero. But the arguments folks give for those cases don’t apply well to gossip — why exactly should the cash price of gossip always be zero?

Now a world that allows blackmail about gossip, i.e., haggling over the price of gossip, isn’t exactly the same as a world with only gossip. Legal blackmail should increase the incentives to discover embarrassing info, and thus the expected penalties from embarrassing actions. But these are mostly just stronger versions of the effects of gossip without blackmail, and they are effects we think we mostly like about gossip.

If we don’t want to discourage certain embarrassing actions, then why allow gossip about them? We could extend our privacy laws, and declare some topics off limits to casual conversation. But for topics where we do want conversation, because it is on average good to discourage people from doing embarrassing things, why not also allow blackmail?

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  • Robert Koslover

    Sometimes, blackmail isn’t for money. And the ultimate target may not actually be the person who is being subjected to the blackmail. For example, a common type of national security threat is that of a foreign enemy blackmailer demanding classified information under threat of revealing embarrassing information about someone who has access to that information. (People who work in jobs related to national security often need sign statements stating that they don’t know of anything in their pasts that could cause them to be subject to blackmail.) The anti-blackmail law gives the Government one more tool with which to attack blackmail threats to national security. And likewise for industrial security.

  • donK

    Blackmail is mostly extortion whether the threat is to someone’s reputation, status, or life.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Robin Dunbar notes that two-thirds of language is for gossip, highlighting its importance in our lives.

  • T L Holaday

    Successful blackmailers become allies of wrong-doers to keep the wrong-doing from being made known by others. Thus investigative reporters (for example) must guard against retaliation from both the perpetrator and any of the perpetrator’s blackmailer.

  • rapscallion

    “If we don’t want to discourage certain embarrassing actions, then why allow gossip about them?”

    But blackmail may actually increase the number of embarrassing actions due to the incentives it creates for entrapment and stings.

  • Lord

    But gossip is not just saying bad things about people. Anything said about anyone else can be gossip. So you would have to distinguish between true or false, belief or known, good, neutral, or bad and that would be subjective and leave intent ambiguous. And if it were known to be true, even if believed to be bad, it would be news. But if someone is willing to blackmail, and someone considers complying, both have agreed it is bad for otherwise it would have no value. And blackmail subverts the news. It encourages the hiding of bad information, not its disclosure. Gossip may be false but be rapidly found out. Blackmail may be true but suppressed. It may encourage discovery but it discourages disclosure.

  • I enjoy Walter Block’s analysis of blackmail.
    How can the combination of two legal actions be illegal: speaking out about facts (or keeping quiet), and exchanging money?

    From a property rights perspective, things are even clearer.
    First, the “victim” does not own his reputation (since he doesn’t own other people’s minds).
    Second, the victim cannot possibly be made worse by the blackmailer offering to contract with him (at worse, the victim refuses, the blackmailer tells the truth, and the victim’s reputation suffers). By virtue of owning his own body, the blackmailer has a right to speak out the truth (and the victim cannot enslave the blackmailer to coercively prevent that).

    • I think that analysis is a bit simplistic – there are many legal actions that are not legal when coupled together in a causative way (sex causally connected to money is prostitution; organ donation causally connected to money is illegal). The law in these cases is trying to create an incentive to affect behavior, which is kinda the (quixotic) point of having laws.

      I am also not convinced that a person does not have a recognizable interest in his reputation. We are informational creatures much more than we are bodies. Our reputations – how we exist in others’ minds – are intimately related to how well we do materially, and in addition are ends in themselves (we care more about social belonging than about perhaps anything else).

      the victim cannot possibly be made worse by the blackmailer offering to contract with him

      The victim is made worse off by the blackmailer’s having the option to “offer” him the “contract” for money. (Which brings to mind Nozick’s careful distinction between an offer and a threat.)

  • Patri friedman

    An interesting piece to add is professional gossip services, also known as PR and brand management. They are paid to generate good gossip and counteract bad gossip about individuals (celebrities) as well as firms. Yet people don’t seem to think it is a weird or wrong thing to pay for. Although, people do sometimes seem to act strangely when the professional gossips collide with the amateur ones – like it is a sin against the tribe to be selfishly manipulating apparent group consensus.

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  • Anto

    To me it is not a matter of limiting liberty, rather it is fault of a context where we are slave to money rather than live in cooperation, and this promotes unfair competition. But afterall you can too say they tried to extort you money and if the information they own is just personal gossip the we must defend this liberty and point out that it is just gossip and who are the others to judge? Haven’t them their own embarrassing little things? Being this true they have no reason to pick on you.

  • steve

    But, you can charge for gossip. You can’t charge the victim of it to stay quiet, but you sure can charge a tabloid or news magazine to speak up.

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  • > “If you don’t like this scenario [blackmail], it is mainly something you don’t like about a freedom to gossip.”.

    This sounds like a special case of the argument “If you can give something away, you should be able to sell it” used by anti-paternalists, especially proponents of organ sales. (I think someone notable published a recent popular book with this thesis.) Is your argument just a special case of that, or is there something special about gossip here? Yes, you have pointed out that certain special-case arguments *against* legalizing, e.g., organ sales, don’t apply to blackmail, but is your argument *for* legalizing blackmail actually blackmail-specific?

    • I’m mentally focused on the way in which blackmail produces the same kind of effects as gossip, but stronger. I agree that this situation can also apply to other situations where the law only allows zero prices, but I don’t claim it applies to all such situations.