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Should Blackmail be Legal?

John Rowland

Posted on February 23, 2019 14:01

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With the National Enquirer and Jeff Bezos being in the news lately, the issue of blackmail has been a topic of discussion.

At first glance, it sounds like a preposterous question: should blackmail be legal. How morally repugnant, right?

Robert Murphy of the Mises Institute takes an interesting look at this issue, largely from a libertarian perspective.

Murphy makes a critical distinction between blackmail and extortion, the latter involving an explicit threat to commit violence against a victim's person or property (e.g. physical assault, arson).

Blackmail, on the other hand, simply deals with a person threatening to do (as libertarians claim) what every blackmailer has the right to do: "namely, [to spread] gossip or embarrassing photos, etc." So if this is generally permissible and legal (libel and slander issues aside), why not ask a target for a "financial contribution" to help this enterprising person decide which of these perfectly legal actions to pursue?

Far from necessarily hailing this behavior as socially admirable, libertarian thought nevertheless maintains that nobody's rights are violated.

Sensationalist tabloids already effectively engage in blackmail: they use their gossip and embarrassing photos to increase the sale of their papers. So Murphy asks, why not give the target the opportunity to bid as well -- to essentially contract legally, negotiate,  with the tabloid -- further arguing that this would "probably bolster people's privacy and reputations." Moreover, a fully legal blackmail system/market would largely end -- through punitive legal consequences -- the current risk of someone actually paying a blackmailer off, only to have their negative information released anyway.

The economic idea of unintended consequences may also be involved here.

It's Economics 101 that when something is made illegal, black markets usually appear -- be it illegal drugs, the sale of human organs, illicit weapons sales, or blackmail. Meaning, there's already a pay-off blackmail market in existence: the same way there's a current market for heroin.

Much as the legalization of drugs would all but eliminate the rampant violence now associated with them, the legalization of blackmail could serve as an "informal means of 'fining' people for violating social taboos" -- engaging in behaviors that are "socially destructive." This could serve as an early effective deterrent against serial abusers (e.g. Harvey Weinstein) -- preventing them from perpetuating their misdeeds over longer periods of time, accruing many more victims in the process.

So it is an intriguing idea and question.

John Rowland

Posted on February 23, 2019 14:01

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