Should Blackmail be Legalized?

Robin Hanson says yes. My arguments against:

1. While the elites will be targeted disproportionately, they won’t be the sole targets by any means. There’s a large class of Americans with no money, a lot of time on their hands, and a love of drama, for whom someone making 100K a year is “rich.” This would incentivize people to simply avoid at all costs those poorer than them, which isn’t usually considered a good thing.

2. Who said the information being used to blackmail is actually true and a norm violation actually occurred? Of course, spreading provably false information would still be illegal under libel laws, and presumably the threat of doing so would be illegal as well. But what if the info is false but not provably false? What if it’s a he said, she said situation? This wouldn’t be much of a problem if you had a rational populace and a media which didn’t publish a major fake news story every week. Ha ha.

3. This would cause violence and general unpleasant behavior, as the victims lash out against their blackmailers and anyone seen as being connected to them. Robin pointed out that this is true of gossip itself, so why not ban that? But there are many instances where spreading gossip is clearly morally just, such as if a friend is about to marry someone you know has cheated on their spouse. Making it illegal only when it’s financially motivated keeps the clearly “noble” instances of gossip protected.

4. If we consider a norm violation so bad that we need to incentivize people to go after it, why not just make it illegal and have the police and prosecutors do that work? Robin points out that there are many norms that are hard to enforce via law. Why are they hard to enforce? Because they are hard to prove, which makes them especially vulnerable to false claims. If you don’t want it to be illegal, allowing it to be blackmail-able certainly won’t make its’ banning less likely. Maybe in rationalist-world, but in the real world with real human nature, mob action against something will just strengthen people’s perception that it’s immoral (since beliefs about what is morally acceptable are more than anything based on what other people are perceived to think is morally acceptable) and deserving of formal legal sanction.

5. What if the demand of the blackmailer is for sex? If you decide that, in that case, it should be illegal, you’d have to explain why it’s “like rape” to demand sex or else X but “not like rape” to demand 100,000$ or else X. Our society would have no problem saying “that’s different, m’kay,” but it would certainly damage the “rationalist” case for the policy if you conceded this exception.

I am certainly sympathetic to the goal of exposing the hypocrisy of the elites. But the way to do that is to simply do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re getting paid for it. Revolutions aren’t made by mercenaries.


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