At one of our weekly LessWrong events, we had a lively debate on legalizing blackmail (video, transcript). Robin Hanson took the pro side, Zvi Mowshowitz took the con, and I moderated. 70 people showed up to watch for ~2 hours.

Here's my overview of their positions.

  • Zvi thinks that blackmail would incentivize a whole host of terrible actions, such as trying to trick people into norm violation, and people becoming intensely secretive even around their closest friends and family.
  • Robin thinks that blackmail is a weird rule, where you cannot ask for money to keep a secret, but the other person is allowed to offer it (e.g. people can offer you money if you sign an NDAs). This makes no sense and Robin is looking for any clear reason why making one side of this deal should be illegal.

Below are some quotes from their conversation. And of course, there's the full edited transcript and video for those who want all the details.


What's good about blackmail

Robin Hanson: I think in the case of say David Letterman, who famously was blackmailed for having affairs, if he could have actually been successfully blackmailed, then people like Letterman would be doing much less of what he was doing. And these weren't just affairs with random people who liked him, these were employees of him and so they are much more morally questionable. And so I think there would just be a lot less sexual harassment if blackmail was legal.

Robin Hanson: There are a lot of powerful people who break a lot of rules, actually legal rules in many ways. And then the people around them shut up about it, let them get away with it because they don't feel they actually have a credible threat to report it. And so they don't. And so blackmail would mean a lot more actual reporting or a discouragement of the things powerful people do, that break rules and norms.

Spreading dirt is often prosocial

Zvi Mowshowitz: Essentially your argument is that in today's world, if people online were to find out something about you and decide to cause a lot of trouble in your life based on this thing, that it must've been a bad thing that the public absolutely needed to know.

Robin Hanson: On average, letting people know about other people's dirt is a good thing. The incentives to not have dirt, the incentive to expose dirt, are on average a good thing. Yes, they go wrong in many particular ways. But on average, they're good. That's my fundamental claim about why gossip is generally good, even when people are trying to find dirt in order to make someone look bad, and blackmail is just upping the incentives on that somewhat.

Banning isn't the only option

Zvi Mowshowitz: So what I'm saying, blackmail specifically selects for the scenarios in which there is great harm.

Robin Hanson: So does trying to make somebody look bad. That's the thing we're talking about. There are situations now where people are trying to make other people look bad. Either you want to ban those, or you have to accept that on average those are good, even though they contain the problems reporting.

Zvi Mowshowitz: No. Okay, so I think there's an important fallacy there, that I can not want to ban something but still think it's in general pretty bad.

Bad effects of blackmail

Zvi Mowshowitz: I think, in a sense, blackmail makes these things much more negative. In particular, the incentive to entrap, the incentive to create negative material, to induce norm violations, is much much stronger under blackmail. And the fear of such things happening, in general, and the cost of navigating blackmail situations, and the fear of having to deal with these things is very bad. I would feel very stressed living under a blackmail legal regime.

Zvi Mowshowitz: The idea is that if we had less of them the world would be a better place, but there is no law that I can pass that banning it would not have other effects. But I can try to tax it, right? I can make it more costly. I can make it more inconvenient in ways that discourage the behavior, and maybe that's even better than banning it, because now, when it was really worth doing, it happens anyway. And by tax, I don't mean literally, "You must pay 5%." I want to make this more annoying for you.

Blackmail leads to doxing?

Robin Hanson: Remember one of out other options is just to ban some kinds of gossip. So I said, we do properly ban telling people's passwords or sharing their naked pictures. If you think there's a kind of gossip that's just harmful, you just ban that kind of gossip. We're talking about allowing that gossip, except when one side makes an offer to pay the other, but not vice versa. That's the puzzle we're talking about, not just the generic, that some things you might not want to let people gossip about.

Zvi Mowshowitz: One recent example of potential blackmail is what if someone were to blackmail Scott Alexander and threatened to reveal his true name?

Robin Hanson: But again, you can have privacy rules about that. If you just want to say, you're not allowed to reveal people's anonymous names, just make that the rule. You're talking about, it would be okay if it was gossip but not if it wasn't, but that's not true in this case. You think it would be bad even if it was revealed without monetary incentive.

Blackmail is a weird rule

Zvi Mowshowitz: My claim is not that there are no things we want to outright ban you from sharing. I'm saying there'll be a lot of things that we cannot enumerate and ban you from sharing that we nevertheless want to tax the sharing of.

Robin Hanson: The key thing isn't whether certain information should be revealed or not, it's whether you should add this extra complexity. So again, we always have the option to ban gossip or to require it, but what we have is this weird rule where you're allowed to do it in trade for other things, but not for money, but you are allowed to do it for money if one side makes the offer, but not the other side makes the offer. This is the thing I find very hard to justify. 

Robin Hanson: I can understand why something should be private and something should be published, and something should be allowed to be said and some things not. But why this weird combination of not the money unless one side makes the offer but not the other. You haven't addressed this one side versus the other thing at all in your entire conversation here. You haven't addressed the possibility of an NDA, doing all of these examples you don't like.

Hanson's strongest claim

Robin Hanson: My claim was not so much that blackmail is good but that no one had offered concrete, clear, consequentialist arguments for why blackmail should be banned, especially relative to allowing NDAs in terms of who makes the offer. That's my strongest claim. And my claim, especially, is about coming up with explicit reasons and arguments. So it's about the fact that in society, we just have a lot of policies that, if you look at them, you're not sure what their justification is. If you ask people, they give you various justifications that are contradictory. I think it's a sad situation that we don't have clear justification for most of our policies. 


How much does blackmail punish you?

Robin Hanson: Law and blackmail are two different channels. I'm endorsing both channels. We have a formal legal system where we have things formally crimes, and they're formally punished by legislatures deciding the sentence, resources of the police, and fines. But also, we have a system of blackmail, wherein people are paid financially and other ways for their doing things that the audience will disapprove of. Those are two different ways that the larger world disapproves and discourages things.

Ben Pace: The level at which society wants to hurt you, or get your private information, is not really often in proportion to how much they think it is just to hurt you, or I think it is just to hurt you. Whereas a lot of tabloid press that will just hurt you because it gets them attention, and they can join in gossip in a big conversation in a way certainly I don't endorse, and I think most people don't endorse.

Robin Hanson: Well, then, why not make that illegal then, Ben?

Ben Pace: I think illegal is strong and kind of silencing thing. 

Robin Hanson: Well, that's true for blackmail as well.

Zvi Mowshowitz: No, I don't think it is. Why does blackmail have a chilling effect?

Robin Hanson: The mud-raking journalists have a chilling effect. Of course. They all have a chilling effect. The question is whether it's too much or not enough.

Ben Pace: But Robin, is your take that the tabloids shouldn't do that to people, and it should be illegal, or is your take that, no, we should have this and encourage it more with more money.

Robin Hanson: I'd say that, on average, the tabloids exposing things about people is, on average, a good thing. It goes wrong in many particular ways, but I do not want to ban the tabloids from writing exposes.

Ben Pace: I don't want to ban them from writing exposes, but I currently think the situation is kind of like blackmailing in which they will extract way more resources than is proportional, and on that do massive amounts of damage.

Robin Hanson: I don't see that.

What would legalized blackmail actually look like?

Zvi Mowshowitz: I don't even think that allowing blackmail would increase the number of such things that were in fact revealed. I think it would decrease it. 

Zvi Mowshowitz: People would be more secretive, and in fact, sometimes when they were blackmailed, they would in fact pay. Other times they would find credible threats of retaliation and that would prevent the information from coming out. And I think that in particular, right now, when normally determining whether or not to share a gossip, they tend to share net useful gossip more than they tend to share net harmful gossip, and that blackmail reverses this incentive and also causes people to look for net harmful gossip, rather than look for net helpful gossip. Most of the time when people are looking for information, they're looking for information the public needs to know.

Zvi Mowshowitz: I believe that most of the time, most people are not, when they seek information, primarily looking to harm someone. They're primarily looking to benefit themselves, or benefit their friends or their allies in some way. Hurting someone else is mostly a side effect.

Robin Hanson: That's also true with blackmail. The main effect is the money, not the hurt. Their main motivation is to get the compensation.

Zvi Mowshowitz: The main benefit is to gain the power over the person that you extract something of value, whether it's money or something else.

Robin Hanson: But that's not the same as hurting.

Zvi Mowshowitz: But the way that you do that is you gain the ability to hurt someone.

Robin Hanson: I disagree with that whole framing. Verizon, which is my person who supplies my internet and my phone and my TV, they want me to really want their product. So the more that they can make me really desperate for their product, then the more I'm willing to pay for it. Of course they do it, hopefully, by making their product attractive. But that is a way of gaining power over me. In general, all through society, when people are making deals with the other, in anticipation of those deals, they want to be in demand. They want to want the other party to want them. That's basically the same thing. It's all about, before a deal, wanting to have the other party want to make the deal. So that happens in marriages, it happens in jobs, it happens to me with Verizon. Is that harm? Is the effort that Verizon goes through to make sure that I don't want to be without their service, is that harming me because now it makes me more willing to pay for their service?

Zvi Mowshowitz: But doesn't Verizon do that by offering a benefit? Verizon creates a service that makes your life better so that you will be willing to buy it. So if Verizon were to, say, cut the wires of their competition so that their competition couldn't come to your house, and then threatened to cut off your service unless you paid them 10 times as much, that seems-

Robin Hanson: That's what I said in my initial remarks about the reference point. You have in mind, the reference point is, I say nothing. And so I'm harming you by threatening to say something. But what if the reference was, I was going to say it anyway and you pay me not to say it, well now with respect to that reference point, I'm helping you by letting you pay me not to say it. So it all comes down to what's the reference behavior you thought would have happened instead.

The cost of having norms

Ben Pace: There's a question of scale. I am okay with you telling a bunch of people that I did something bad. I'm not okay if you managed to get it on the front page of the New York Times.

Robin Hanson: It depends on who you are. If you're an ordinary person, it won't get on the front page of the Times.

Ben Pace:  If I'm a rich person who is not very important in a lot of other ways, if I just have a lot of resources to be taken, even though it is not important about how I use those, then I think the blackmail, now, makes it much more likely that that information about me will get to a level of prominence and life-destroying damage that it would not previously, just because I have a lot of resources you can steal.

Robin Hanson: Well, why is it bad if New York Times readers find out about it, but not if other people find out about it? Why is that something that makes it bad?

Ben Pace: Because I think there's a level of punishment that information, gossiping, should do to you, and in general, people sharing it when it seems useful feels like it will hit the balance where it will get shared as much as it's useful. But people sharing it for as much resources they can take, I think, will encourage much over-punishment.

Ben Pace: Almost no norm violation of mine should be on the front page of New York Times, and if I have enough resources, then it will get there, if you allow blackmail.

Robin Hanson: I think you want your public stance to be that you do follow the norms.

Ben Pace: No, my public stance is that I do sometimes break norms, and I still should not have my life destroyed by that.

Zvi Mowshowitz: Regarding the New York Times, it's interesting that when I worked for a certain corporation which I will not name, we had a principle that we could not put in any written form any statement that we would not want on the front page of the New York Times. And so, the very fact that someone might threaten to cause harm to us, or decide to cause harm to us by sharing this, meant that we had to be much more implicit, keep less records, destroy evidence, be much less rational–

Robin Hanson: That's the general cost of norms. I mean, the norm system has cost, okay. It's unique to humans. Other animals didn't have it, and it's part of the power of humanity that we've had and enforced norms, but norm systems definitely have costs. One of them is we sometimes have wrong norms. Sometimes we mis-enforce norms, in that we draw the wrong conclusions about who violated which norms, and we may well punish too much or too little in other situations. But still, on average, norms are good.

How did the audience's minds change?

Well done to Robin for halving Zvi's support! Better luck next time Zvi.

I myself moved from "blackmail should be illegal" to "I am confused", and would be interested if people could write things to help resolve this debate further.

For the past few months we've had weekly LessWrong events on Sundays, and will continue to do so. We announce them on the frontpage by Thursday each week, check there for announcements of more talks, debates, and double cruxes.

Here is the full 2-hour video (with Q&A), and here is the full edited transcript.

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38 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:52 PM

I think the general pattern of 'what about cases X, Y, and Z' with a response of 'make a rule for that' is unsatisfying to most people because the intent of the edge cases is often to gesture at expected generators that will generate more problems, not that the objector should have the burden of proof to ensure that their generator is exhaustive.

I brought something like that up during the conversation. Here's a quote from the transcript. I think the last paragraph has Robin's primary response, which I think is his core point in this conversation.

Ben Pace: So it sounds like Robin's getting a lot of work out of this. There are a couple of bad cases, but you can just outlaw those. Whereas my model of Zvi feels like those bad cases are innumerable and massive.

Zvi Mowshowitz: Both they are innumerable and large, and also, I think that banning the action itself is impractical. You would have way too much splash damage. There are often things which we would like not to happen, but which we know if we banned them, it would have negative effects and therefore we shouldn't do that. I think the best argument against blackmail is the libertarian argument, which is that there will be bad side effects . And I think that holds true. If you ban the NDAs, there are types of business you simply could not do, for example.

Ben Pace: So instead of proposing a bunch of small events, you're proposing a much larger event.

Robin Hanson: I don't think it's about size. I think it's about whether you can identify the kinds of gossip. The simplest policy is either requiring or banning gossip. We're talking about a more complicated thing, which is whether you can say it but not get paid to say it. Or you're only allowed to be paid to say it if they make the offer, not you. That's the more complicated version. The simplest one is just to let people to say or not say. We already have slander and libel laws. Those are laws about what you're allowed to say. We have other sorts of privacy laws. We have and do enforce lots of laws on what you're allowed to say and what you're not allowed to say. If your problem can be solved with those, just solve it with those. Why invoke this more complicated thing?

Ben Pace: Does that seem like it solves the situation for you, Zvi? We can just ban the specific bad outcomes?

Zvi Mowshowitz: No. I do not think we could possibly enumerate a rule that we would want. First of all, sometimes it will be correct to want to share those things because there is enough of a positive need to share them, and you'll want to share them.

Robin Hanson: So regarding passwords, you don't want to make a law against sharing passwords? You want to let me share passwords if I can find it out, you just don't want me to ask for money for it? That's your solution?

Ben Pace: That's the current situation, isn't it? 

Zvi Mowshowitz: I don't think so. My claim is not that there are no things we want to outright ban you from sharing. I'm saying there'll be a lot of things that we cannot enumerate and ban you from sharing that we nevertheless want to tax the sharing of.


Robin Hanson: You're just making claims. Tell us why that's good or bad. Again, the key thing isn't whether certain information should be revealed or not, it's whether you should add this extra complexity. So again, we always have the option to ban gossip or to require it, but what we have is this weird rule where you're allowed to do it in trade for other things, but not for money, though you are allowed to do it for money if one side makes the offer. This is what I find very hard to justify. I can understand why some things should be private and others published, and why some things should be allowed to be said and others not. But why this weird combination of not allowing money unless one side makes the offer but not the other.

Indeed, it seems to me that Robin Hanson isn't for making blackmail legal, but for making blackmail legal plus a bunch of extra rules without explicitly describing what those extra rules should be.

Blackmail plus a bunch of rules is not blackmail as most people understand it I think.

Imagine there's a law against tattoos, and I say "Yes some gang members wear them but so do many others. Maybe just outlaw gang tattoos?" You could then respond that I'm messing with edge cases, so we should just leave the rule alone.

A realistic example of this is that many onsen ban tattoos as an implicit ban on yakuza, which also ends up hitting foreign tourists with tattoos.

It feels to me like there's a plausible deniability point that's important here ("oh, it's not that we have anything against yakuza, we just think tattoos are inappropriate for mysterious reasons") and a simplicity point that's important here (rather than a subjective judgment of whether or not a tattoo is a yakuza tattoo, there's the objective judgment of whether or not a tattoo is present).

I can see it going both ways, where sometimes the more complex rule doesn't pay for itself, and sometimes it does, but I think it's important to take into account the costs of rule complexity.

I'm arguing for simpler rules here overall.

Legalizing blackmail gives people with otherwise no motivation to harm someone through the sharing of information the motive to do so. I'm going to take that as the dividing line between blackmail and other forms of trade or coercion. I believe this much is generally agreed on in this debate.

If you're going to legalize forced negative-sum trades, I think you need a much stronger argument that assuming that, on net, the positive externalities will make it worthwhile. It's a bit like legalizing violence from shopkeepers because most of the time they're punching thieves. Maybe that's true now, when shopkeepers punching people is illegal, but one, I think there's a large onus on anyone suggesting this to justify that it's the case, and two, is it really going to stay the case, once you've let the system run with this newfound form of legalized coercion?

Before I read these excerpts, I was pretty much in the ‘blackmail bad, duh’ category. After I read them, I was undecided; maybe it is in fact true that many harms from information sharing comes with sufficient positive externalities, and those that do not are sufficiently clearly delimited to be separately legislated. Having thought about it longer, I now see a lot of counterexamples. Consider some person, who:

  • had a traumatic childhood,
  • has a crush on another person, and is embarrassed about it,
  • has plans for a surprise party or gift for a close friend,
  • or the opposite; someone else is planning a surprise for them,
  • has an injury or disfiguration on a covered part of their body,
  • had a recent break-up, that they want to hold out on sharing with their friends for a while,
  • left an unkind partner, and doesn't want that person to know they failed a recent exam,
  • posts anonymously for professional reasons, or to have a better work-life balance,
  • doesn't like a coworker, but tries not to show it on the job.

I'm sure I could go on for quite a while. Legalizing blackmail means that people are de-facto incentivized to exploit information when it would harm people, because their payout stops being derived from the public interest, through mechanisms like public reception, appreciation from those directly helped by the reveal of information, or payment from a news agency, and becomes proportional almost purely to the damage you can do.

It's true that in some cases these are things which should be generally disincentivized or made illegal, nonconsensual pornography being a prime example. In general I don't think this approach scales, because the public interest is so context dependent. Sometimes it is in the public interest to share someone's traumatic childhood, spoil a surprise or tell their coworker they are disliked. But the reward should be derived from the public interest, not the harm! If we want to monetarily incentivize people to share information they have on sexual abuse, pay them for sharing information that led to a conviction. And if you're not wanting to do that because it causes the bad incentive to lie... surely blackmail gives more incentive to lie, and the accuser being paid requires the case never to have gone to trial, so is worse on all accounts.

I'm sure I could go on for quite a while. Legalizing blackmail means that people are de-facto incentivized to exploit information when it would harm people, because their payout stops being derived from the public interest

What if blackmail was only made legal in cases where there was a significant public benefit? (See here.)

I believe that would still be a departure from laws today (you're not allowed to pay off whistleblowers, are you? or to accept such payment?), but seems like it might not have the downsides that you and others have highlighted of incentivizing finding ways to hurt others by sharing information in general.

It might be possible to convince me on something like that, as it fixes the largest problem, and if Hanson is right that blackmail would significantly reduce issues like sexual harassment then it's at least worth consideration. I'm still disinclined towards the idea for other reasons (incentivizes false allegations, is low oversight, difficult to keep proportionality, can incentivize information hiding, seems complex to legislate), but I'm not sure how strong those reasons are.

It's a bit like legalizing violence from shopkeepers because most of the time they're punching thieves.

Robin Hanson argued that negative gossip is probably net positive for society.

Robin Hanson: On average, letting people know about other people's dirt is a good thing.

The act of providing negative gossip to the public 'for free' is a public good. In a transaction-cost-free market, the blackmailer might try to sell the secret to the public (e.g. via assurance contract).

surely blackmail gives more incentive to lie

Lying about someone in a damaging way is already covered by libel/slander laws.

Robin Hanson argued that negative gossip is probably net positive for society.

Yes, this is what my post was addressing and the analogy was about. I consider it an interesting hypothesis, but not one that holds up to scrutiny.

Lying about someone in a damaging way is already covered by libel/slander laws.

I know, but this only further emphasizes how much better paying those who helped a conviction is. Blackmail is private, threat-based, and necessarily unpoliced, whereas the courts have oversight and are an at least somewhat impartial test for truth.

I wrote a reply at

I read only the initial overview at the top, did my own analysis, then read the rest to see if it'd change my mind.

Here are summaries of IMO the two most notable ideas from my analysis:

  1. Compare blackmail to this scenario: My neighbor is having a party this weekend. I threaten to play loud music (at whatever the max loudness is that's normally within my rights) to disrupt it unless he pays me $100. Compare to: I often play loud music and my neighbor comes and offers me $100 to be quiet all weekend. In one, I'm threatening to do something for the express purpose of harming someone, not to pursue my own values. In the other, I just enjoy music as part of my life. I think blackmail compares to the first scenario, but not the second.

  2. We (should) prohibit initiation of force as a means to an end. The real underlying thing is enabling people to pursue their values in their life and resolve conflicts. If blackmail doesn't initiate force, that doesn't automatically make it OK, b/c non-initiation of force isn't the primary.

Your point #1 misses the whole norm violation element. The reason it hurts if others are told about an affair is that others disapprove. That isn't why loud music hurts.

Suppose it were easy to split potential blackmail scenarios into whistleblower scenarios (where the value of the information to society is quite positive) and embarrassing-but-useless scenarios (where it is not).

Would you support legalizing blackmail in both classes, or just the first class?

EDIT: I ask because, I think (at least part of) your argument is that if we legalize paying off whistleblowers, then that's okay, because would-be-whistleblowers still have an incentive to find wrongdoing, and the perpetrators still have an incentive to avoid that wrongdoing (or at least hide it, but hiding has costs, so on the margin it should mean doing less). (This reminds me a bit of white hat hackers claiming bug bounties.)

Meanwhile, the anti-blackmail people argue that you don't want people to be incentivized to find ways to harm each other.

So, if you could cleanly separate out the public benefit from the harm, on a case-by-case basis (rather than having to go with simple heuristics like "gossip is usually net beneficially"), it seems like you might be able to get to a synthesis of the two views.

Neither blackmailers not blackmailees have an incentive to disclose information per se. There is a thing where there is an incentive to disclose information that is in the public interest, and that is journalism.

The blackmailers need to end up sometimes disclosing in order for their threats to be credible, no?

They need a credible threat, but they also maximise their income by never disclosing, while the blackmailee pays them off for the rest of their life. Whereas journalists are always motivated to disclose.

I sort of went the other way from most people, in that while I came in thinking blackmail should be illegal (which I think is true of almost everyone who hasn't really considered it in depth), I immediately was sympathetic to Robin's argument.

But actually, by the end, I was more firmly convinced of the desirability of illegality. Zwi's point about incentives is the most important consideration, I think: the prohibition of the most powerful material incentive to obtain and release information will make the average information release much likelier to be morally motivated, which in turns makes it more likely to be the kind of information release we want. Robin's main contention, that it it's a strange, arbitrarily one-sided sort of a rule, seems comparatively unimportant if it produces better outcomes.

I do not understand the analogy with NDAs. In my experience, an NDA is negotiated and agreed before the confidential information is shared. Signing it is a precondition for receiving that information. Blackmail begins after the confidential information has been obtained by one party against the other party's wishes. What is paradoxical about the former being legal and the latter illegal? Surely blackmail is more analogous to demanding someone's money in return for not burning their house down? In fact, in the Scottish and English legal systems, demanding money with the threat of exposing information is not in a separate category from demanding money with any other sort of menace.

NDAs are also legal in the case where info was known before the agreement. For example, Trump using NDAs to keep affairs secret.

In that case, a key difference between an NDA and blackmail is that the former fulfils the requirements of a contract, while the latter does not (and not merely by being a currently illegal act).

With an NDA where the information is already shared, the party who would prefer that it go no further proactively offers something in return for the other's continued silence. Each party is offering a consideration to the other.

If the other party had initiated the matter by threatening to reveal the information unless paid off, there is no contract. Threatening harm and offering to refrain is not a valid consideration. On the contrary, it is the very definition of extortion.

Compare cases where it is not information that is at issue. If a housing developer threatens to build an eyesore next to your property unless you pay him off, that is extortion. If you discover that he is planning to build something you would prefer not to be built, you might offer to buy the land from him. That would be a legal agreement.

I don't know if you would favour legalising all forms of extortion, but that would be a different argument.

But the typical use of NDAs is notably different from the typical use of blackmail, isn't it? Even though in principle they could be used in all the same situations, they're aren't used that way in practice. Doesn't that make it reasonable to treat them differently?

Then perhaps we should ban this form of NDAs, rather than legalizing blackmail. They seem to have a pretty negative reputation already, and the NDAs that are necessary for business are the other type (signed before info is known).

NDAs are common in legal settlements and severance agreements. e.g. If we settle out of court, you agree not to tell anyone about it.

For non-crime blackmail, there's a broader question about whether we should give people incentives to share information about norm-violation. I think an important question is: whose norms?

Perhaps most of society believes in ritually torturing themselves for an hour every day with electric shocks, to ward off demonic possession. Perhaps I don't believe in that. If you find out that my ritual-electric-shock chair has been mostly disabled and is running at 1% of standard power, should you have an incentive to blackmail me about that?

Perhaps I think X is a bad religion, and I spend a lot of time warning people away from it and trying to deconvert people who have joined it. Members of X are notoriously aggressive about attacking people who do this, in ways both legal and illegal. If you find out that I'm really active on the X-Is-Bad forum, should you have an incentive to blackmail me about that?

Perhaps I'm gay, or I'm in an open relationship, or I have lots of unusual sex. (The stories of Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan come to mind here.) Perhaps there are lots of socially-conservative people who would want to cancel me if they found that out. Should you have an incentive to blackmail me about that?


I'm only aware of one non-crime activity which I think we should try to discourage, and that's cheating-on-your-spouse. But I can think of lots of examples of non-crime activities which I think we should be free to do without fear of getting blackmailed. To me, that suggests that we should have a special case for the cheating thing, and we should have the general case be that blackmail continues to be illegal.

You are very much in the minority if you want to abolish norms in general.

You are very much in the minority if you want to abolish norms in general.

There's a parallel here with the fifth amendment's protection from self incrimination making it harder to enforce laws and laws being good on average. This isn't paradoxical because the fifth amendment doesn't make it equally difficult to enforce all laws. Actions that harm other people tend to have other ways of leaving evidence that can be used to convict. If you murder someone, the body is proof that someone has been harmed and the DNA in your van points towards you being the culprit. If you steal someone's bike, you don't have to confess in order to be caught with the stolen bike. On the other hand, things that stay in the privacy of your own home with consenting adults are *much* harder to acquire evidence for if you aren't allowed to force people to testify against themselves. They're also much less likely to be things that actually need to be sought out and punished.

If it were the case that one coherent agent were picking all the rules with good intent, then it wouldn't make sense to create rules that make enforcement of other rules harder. There isn't one coherent agent picking all the rules and intent isn't always good, so it's important to fight for meta rules that make it selectively hard to enforce any bad rules that get through.

You can try to argue that preventing blackmail isn't selective *enough* (or that it selects in the wrong direction), but you can't just equate blackmail with "norm enforcement [applied evenly across the board]".

I'm not arguing for abolishing norms. You are arguing for dramatically increasing the rate of norm enforcement, and I'm arguing for keeping norm enforcement at the current level.

Above, I've provided several examples of ways that I think that increasing the rate of norm enforcement could have bad effects. Do you have some examples of ways that you think that increasing the rate of norm enforcement could have good effects?

Note that, for this purpose, we are only counting norm enforcements that are so severe that people would be willing to pay a blackmail fee to escape them. You can't say "there's a norm against littering, so increasing the rate of enforcing that norm would decrease littering" unless you have a plausible scenario in which people would get blackmailed for littering.

IANAL, but is it actually illegal for me to say "hey Bob, I have this NDA all written up, wherein I agree not to reveal [embarrassing but not criminal detail], and I have to pay you $100,000 if I ever do. How much will you pay me to sign it?"

Ok. I don't think that's the central example of what people, including Zvi, are picturing when you say "legalize blackmail." In fact, de-criminalizing that specific interaction, but leaving alone laws & norms against uncapped extraction, threats, etc. might find few opponents.

I feel like we should make a distinction between blackmail about crimes and blackmail about non-crimes.

I don't think we should make blackmail-for-crimes legal. I think that, if someone has evidence of a crime, their incentive should be to report the crime to the police so the crime can be punished. Perhaps the police should be offering them money as a reward for reporting the crime (although we'd have to think carefully about how to do that without creating an incentive to make false reports). But I don't think we should let anyone have a monetary incentive to cover up a crime.

Would this then disallow out-of-court settlements? e.g. Uber settling a wrongful death case with cash.

Edit: Upon further reflection, it would only apply to the criminal case, not the civil case.

It seems like you're describing banning trade of knowledge of crimes. This is distinct from blackmail, which has to do with an asymmetry between offer direction (by Hansons definition).

[+][comment deleted]4y1

Seems the entire discussion boils down to what should or should not be allowed to be sold. In a standard market one assumption and prerequisite for selling something is a legitimate ownership right.

Did Hansen establish some ownership right the blackmailer enjoyed? Did anyone establish any ownership rights at all?

In the case of the NDA bit that seems like a completely difference class than the case of blackmail. There seems to be a serious asymmetry between the "pay me to keep my mouth shut about your information" and that of "I will share this information with you but you must not disclose -- and I will even provide some compensation to add the incentive for nondisclosure beyond the pure contractual obligation and stated remedy".

Let's talk about blackmail-for-non-crimes.

I'm worried that a blackmail-for-non-crime contract is weirdly hard to enforce. The blackmailer has an incentive to leak the information to their friends, so that their friends can begin separate blackmail attempts and extract more money from the blackmailee. The blackmailee has no good defense against this, but does have an incentive to murder the blackmailer to prevent the blackmailer from leaking the information (and to save money on their blackmail contract).

I'm sure there are other categories of contract which give one party an incentive to murder the other, but I'm not sure if there are other categories of contract which give such a strong incentive. I think it might be correct to outlaw blackmail contracts just to avoid situations where people have such bad incentives.

The sensible approach is. to demand a stream of payments over time. If you reveal it to others who also demand streams, that will cut how much of a stream they are willing to pay you.

The Verizon comparison is a bit weird. I (should) have a choice of whether I want to use Verizon or one of their competitors. I don't have a choice of whether to agree to the blackmail. Indeed, this asymmetric power is one of the reasons monopolies (and blackmail) are illegal.