Robin Hanson's post History of Blackmail only mentions cases where blackmail was illicit or illegal. Have there ever been any societies, large or small, where blackmail was widely accepted?

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That was worth asking. If there really are advantages to blackmail, a lot of 20$ bills have been left lying on the ground.

Hanson's argument was that blackmail illegality is good for elites but not good for society as a whole. It's not surprising if the laws are structured in a way that's good for elites.


Theyre not structured that much for elites. We don't have Lese Majeste laws, and we do have free speech and press.

I think if you ask most US billionaires about Lese Majeste laws they could honestly say, that they don't want them.

As far as free speech goes, there's a lot of ownership concentration of media in a few elite hands and in general society is structured in a way that it's much harder to use speech to change power relationship then it's true in other countries. Private property rights are strongly protected and it's hard to change them via public opinion.

If a Russian oligarch loses in the court of public opinion they end up in prison. Western equivalents have to worry less and that makes free speech a lot less threatening.

So many (including Robin) are mixing up arguments about blackmail (threat of revealing true information) with arguments about non-blackmail-motivated investigating, revealing, or concealing information (gossip) in the absence of threat and payment.

I suspect there are few or no examples of societies with the mix of personal freedoms, nonviolent dispute resolution, and economic sophistication (need some form of liquidity for trade) where blackmail is as significant as today.

In any case, hypocrisy has been around longer than history - today's situation, where it (edit: blackmail) is prohibited but that is rarely enforced, is likely the common case.

I have not really followed the debates. So: How do you know it is "rarely enforced", in particular compared to other crimes?

The general impression you get from reading media articles about the National Enquirer is that they quite frequently blackmail people and that blackmailing Bezos wasn't an exception. Yet, at the same time there doesn't seem much enforcement.

So now it seems that there is a debate about the pros and cons of blackmail, and it is based on anecdotal evidence and vague impressions.

Correct. I suspect it's too broad a category, and imprecisely defined (or at least different from things commonly measured) to have much basis OTHER than analogies and anecdotes. Fortunately, it's also irrelevant to most of us - no action is proposed or expected as part of this discussion/debate.

[ edit: I'm embarassed to say that until now I hadn't even looked up the legality of it. In the US, blackmail is specifically about demanding payment for not informing of a violation of US law, not for any other topics of gossip. It's also a relatively minor offence. Many jurisdictions just treat it as a special case of extortion, which is severe, but unclear whether that's because it's often violent or because it's bad on it's own.]

no action is proposed

It's very unlikely that if someone would contemplate an action, that the action would be within the Overton window of the public debate and be expressed here.

Fair enough. I think my "no action proposed/expected" was mostly an expression of frustration that we don't seem to have found any crux for the "debate", and I don't think anyone has changed their opinion based on it.

In retrospect for the debate, this makes it seem like a useless topic. In prospect, it was interesting and potentially useful (in that it could illuminate some aspect of morality of behavior). I'm trying to explore how I might know the difference next time such a topic becomes popular in these circles. Action probably isn't it, but I'm not sure what is.

there doesn't seem much enforcement.

Well, there wouldn't be, would there? When the victim accedes and the blackmailer keeps their end of the bargain, it will never come to the attention of law enforcement.

There are going to be cases where another person reveals the information or the blackmailer asks for more money then the victim is open to pay and the deal doesn't go over effectively.

Of course there will be such cases, but they aren't the rule, or blackmail would hardly exist.

In most other crimes, the victim has an incentive to take action against the perpetrator. The entire point of blackmail is to put the victim in a position where he cannot do that.

I think there's a crossed wire here. I read Dagon as claiming that hypocrisy is prohibited but rarely enforced, rather than blackmail is prohibited but rarely enforced. I take it from "crime" that you understand the latter.

In my interpretation the statement would be that hypocrisy is frowned upon by society but the norm of non-hypocrisy is not enforced via blackmail.

Clarified - the hypocrisy is that blackmail is prohibited but not enforced against. We claim that it's bad, but allow it most of the time. I could argue that hypocrisy itself falls into this category (we complain about it, but don't actually punish it) as well, but I didn't intend to.


Because there's so much of it?

So much of what?

How do you know that?

I feel like this would be extremely hard to establish, because in a functional blackmail transaction both the transaction and the information remain secret.

It seems like the only kind of evidence available would be the presence of people diligently trying to ruin someone else's reputation, seemingly without motivation.

That assumes that all people who engage in blackmail have perfect OpSec in the face of making enemies. In the real world people screw up from time to time.

People screwing up is a necessary condition of blackmail; if there was perfect OpSec no one would ever be vulnerable to it.

The thing I am pointing at is more basic, though. For example, how would you distinguish between the case where blackmail is accepted but a few people blow the execution and the case like ours, where a few people will do powerfully stupid and illegal things and then just say they did on Facebook? How would this enter the historical record, with enough examples that we can be confident approved blackmail is taking place?

Hmm. Perhaps if there was a written record of the rules of conduct, like the Victorian-era books for instruction in manners. Or diaries where people keep secret record of their blackmail dealings, and refer to it as a good deed.

Plenty of people write detailed dairies about important events in their lives and those diaries often do enter the historical record.

Many people who deal with money have personal accounting about their own financial flows.

A blackmailed person might ask others for help to deal with the blackmail with results in letters being written.