Epistemic Status: Surprisingly controversial
Response to: Why Blackmail Should Be Illegal (Marginal Revolution), Should Blackmail Be Legal? (David Henderson), Checkmate on Blackmail (Robin Hanson)
I notice I am confused.
Smart people are failing to provide strong arguments for why blackmail should be illegal. Robin Hanson is explicitly arguing it should be legal. He is correct that Tyler Cowen’s recent justifications of making blackmail illegal are relative weak sauce, but then states that he has reached ‘checkmate’ – that there are no reasonable consequentialist arguments against blackmail.
In his post Charity Blackmail, he lists what he says are the justifications actually made for blackmail, and it’s quite a weak list as well.
In those twenty papers, roughly a quarter of the authors think blackmail should be legal. Others offered a wide range of arguments for illegality. Robin summarized the arguments made by the papers as making only the following mix of good and bad points:
1. Your right to keep quiet is weaker than your right to speak.
2. It is stupid to pay a blackmailer; stupidity should be illegal.
3. A blackmailer’s motives, in wanting money, are immoral.
4. Saying embarrassing things about someone hurts them.
5. It is especially wrong to gain money by hurting someone.
6. The blackmailer uses third parties, without their permission, to extract gains.
7. Blackmail discourages embarrassing activities, but some things just can’t be changed.
8. Blackmailers may commit crimes to get the info, as may victims to get money.
9. Rules forbidding or requiring the telling of certain info might be good, but are less “practical” than blackmail laws.
10. If blackmail is impossible, people will instead gossip, and gossip will result in more folks knowing, and discourage embarrassing activities more.
11. Government law can optimally discourage an activity via optimal punishment and rates of detection and error. Blackmail is an out of control private law, and will get these things wrong by detecting and punishing too often.
So you see why I am confused.
Asking why blackmail should be illegal is a good idea. We need to understand what makes blackmail different from other things we might make illegal – not everything that we dislike should be illegal. Net harmful shouldn’t imply illegal. Blackmail is a place for a thought experiment, to understand why it is on that side of the line.
Note the framing. Not “should blackmail be legal?” but rather “why should blackmail be illegal?” Thinking for five seconds (or minutes) about a hypothetical legal-blackmail society should point to obviously dystopian results. This is not a subtle. One could write the young adult novel, but what would even be the point.
Of course, that is not an argument. Not evidence.
If we’re all really being this dense, it’s time for better analysis of why blackmail is bad.
Fine. Here we go.
What is Blackmail?
Blackmail is a special case of extortion.
Extortion is obtaining something through threats or force. I want something from you. Actions, money, information, it does not matter. What matters is that I have the ability to harm you. I state that I will harm you unless you give me what I want.
Blackmail is the case where the ability to harm you comes from revealing information.
Let us restrict blackmail to the spreading of true information. I assume we can all see why extortion via threat of false information needs to be illegal.
Even Good One-Time Blackmail Negotiations are Bad
Start with the simplest case. Alice already has possession of information that would be harmful to Bob. Alice blackmails Bob, demanding a one-time payment in exchange for destroying the information. How much should Alice demand?
It is important that Alice be credible. If Bob does not believe Alice, he will not pay. Alice must credibly signal that she will release the information if she is not paid. This in turn means that if not paid, Alice will often release the information. There is no known way to systematically have people in Bob’s position believe those in Alice’s position, except for those in Alice’s position to actually follow through. If necessary, Alice will invest in a commitment device that prevents her from not releasing the information unless paid, or makes it costly to her to not release it.
Alice now must pick a demand to make of Bob. The default in practice (as I understand it) is for Alice to pick a number, and not negotiate. Bob can respond with things like ‘I don’t have that kind of money’ but usually Alice is having none of it. If Bob can’t or won’t pay, she doesn’t care which. Blackmailers have reached consensus that this yields the best returns.
Another classic strategy is to reveal some blackmail information, doing real harm. This proves you are willing to do so, and raises estimates of what unknown things you might possess, know or be willing to do.
It does not matter in kind if these patterns are held to. The important thing is that there is negotiation under incomplete information. Alice does not know, among other things, Bob’s liquidity or value for money, how much Bob values keeping the information secret, how secret Bob expects the information to remain if Alice does not reveal it, how much Bob trusts Alice to deliver on her side of the bargain if paid, how often Bob thinks Alice will reveal the information if not paid (or even if paid, which also happens), and how much Bob wants to avoid giving in to blackmail.
There are good reasons not to give in to blackmail! Giving in makes you vulnerable to further blackmail, either with the same information or other information, or even the information that you paid the first time. A classic blackmail strategy is to first demand things which create more effective blackmail, until the target is in deep.
It gets even better not to give in when you improve your decision theory, and consider that others will model you, and blackmail you if and only if they think you will pay. Giving in to blackmail is defection against your other selves.
Reducing the base rate of payment reduces returns to blackmail, rewarding blackmailers less and creating less blackmail. If you consider blackmail bad in general, giving in to blackmail is defection against society. You might be interested in not doing that.
Alice will want to invest into making the right demand. Since correct demands often vary by an order of magnitude or more, a lot of the expected profits to Alice could be a pure loss to otherwise wasted research.
Alice will also want to invest quite a bit in making the release of the information maximally unpleasant for Bob – to make sure it does the most harm possible. She will structure the information and its potential release carefully. She will prepare to cut Bob off of resources Bob could use to defend himself or limit the damage.
If he pays, Bob must pay Alice in a way that taxes his ability to pay but doesn’t reveal he is being blackmailed. The default is for this to be expensive and involve deadweight loss as money is moved around, hidden and extracted. Friends and loved ones are lied to.
This negotiation is not only unpleasant. It is not only expensive, in the sense that it is emotionally charged and stressful, involves lots of costly research and deception, and is often time consuming, and will often involve commitment devices or proof of evidence or secure communication.
This negotiation will often fail. The information will often be revealed.
If Bob is determined not to pay blackmailers, as many are, then the negotiation will always fail.
And not only revealed! It will be revealed in a way designed to do the maximum amount of harm to the target.
Because that’s the point.
That’s a key fact about negotiation. Anything that could happen as a result of a negotiation, might happen, no matter how horrible.
On the Table
I mean that literally.
Any physically possible outcome of a negotiation, no matter how horrible, will sometimes happen. Even if it means everyone loses, and loses big. Even if it destroys everything.
It also means that everyone must plan for every possible outcome. No matter how awful and avoidable for everyone. To minimize how bad it is for them, and maximize how bad it is for others who could prevent it. Two reasons. One, it might happen. Two, you want the threat of it happening to work for you and not against you.
If you put a government shutdown or default on the table, at least one side will threaten to allow it to happen. They will show how all right they are with it happening, how crazy they are, how much they think is at stake. To win the negotiation. As it becomes a possibility that things break down by accident, that time runs out, and as real damage starts to be done, they won’t fold. At some point, as the risk goes up, hopefully agreement is reached, but always with an eye to who was willing to let disaster strike.
Same with the band breaking up. Same with a divorce. Same with a war, even a nuclear war. See The Doomsday Machine for how easily that can happen with the highest possible stakes. Or to anything else.
If it could happen. If it is on the table. Then sometimes it will happen.
Take horribly-negative-sum outcomes off of the table. At a minimum, don’t put more of them on, or encourage others to do so. Make a strong norm that introducing the possibility of disaster, of negative sum outcomes, is not acceptable. That they have no place in negotiations. That seeking to discover such outcomes is even less acceptable than that.
The Right to Know
All that we know about the information is it harms Bob. Might it be in the public interest that the information be released? Might people in his life need to know? Is revealing the information so bad? As Robin frequently notes, there is lots of gossip people dislike. That is not a high enough bar.
The key difference here (in addition to the other differences we’ll see later on) is the motive behind the reveal is to harm the target.
Most gossip is designed to help the person gossiping. One earns points for good gossip. One builds allies, shows value, has fun, shares important information. It might harm or help third parties. In some cases, the motivation will be to hurt someone else, but that is one of many possible reasons. Most information people tell to other people is motivated by a desire to be helpful, even if that desire is for selfish ends.
Here, the motivation is a desire to be harmful. The information is in play because it is harmful. One would expect the information that is released to be net harmful.
Think about the types of blackmail one commonly sees. Releasing such information tends to on net harm people.
Information being released in a way designed to maximize harm does not improve those odds.
What if the information is indeed valuable? What if the public does have a right to know?
If blackmail is permitted, chances are even larger than now that they will never know. The dogged journalist who uncovered the truth is greatly tempted by the millions of dollars they’d get for silence. The whistleblower can now merely threaten to blow the whistle, and get paid off handsomely.
Which brings us to what happens when blackmail is central to life. When it is an industry.
The Blackmail Industry
Think about how Alice gets the information. If Alice is motivated by blackmail – and in a world where blackmail is legal, many people and corporations would be so motivated – then the information is the result of Alice seeking out the most damaging information possible. It’s hard to think of that as likely to be beneficial to reveal.
Then consider that Alice has motivation to create the events in question. If a spy wants to recruit someone, they’ll often get them to do something shady, then blackmail them with it. Get that person to cheat on their spouse, take drugs, or do something else foolish. The more our society is willing to condemn people for one mistake, the more this compounds the chance information is harmful.
It also means that everyone who has the ability to document things – and given cell phones, that’s everyone – has the incentive to get everyone around them to do things that would damage them if revealed, all the time. And to set everyone up to be maximally damaged by the revealing of that information. To try and own everyone around them.
What can you extract from a person, if you have something damaging enough to destroy that which is dear to them?
You can make their life miserable, as long as day to day it feels slightly less miserable than their life being blown up. They then continue, in the hope that the situation will somehow resolve and go away.
That’s true of damaging information, or damaging anything. People’s lives depend on a lot of things going right, or at least not going wrong. They have high fixed costs. A lot of production functions that depend on their weakest link. If those able to take out a link can efficiently extract payment for that, there’s no way this person can make ‘economic profits’ from their life – they can’t do better than they would walking away and starting over. But starting over has the same problem.
If someone has a million dollars worth of surplus in their life – they’d rather be in debt a million dollars than be forced to start over – and you can get the power to destroy that, you can ask them for up to the full million, and often get it (and sometimes you’ll instead destroy their life). Given the fixed and sunk costs in life, people under such threat have lost more than everything. They are enslaved, tortured souls.
Everyone would be constantly under this threat, along with all the other threats they are already under. Everyone would be paranoid about everyone, and everything.
There would be a huge industry whose entire job is to find ways to hurt people, then threaten to hurt them unless they were paid. It would range from giant faceless corporations to every individual with nothing to lose.
That nothing to lose part? That’s important, too.
When you play the game of blackmail, the game of blackmail plays you. Others will seek to strike back at you. You’ll need to defend yourself.
There are two ways to do that.
One is to be powerful, with a reputation for being unpredictable and willing to burn down everything if anyone steps in your way. To have a known, fierce determination and ability to win zero-sum games by any means necessary. To be shameless, known to be terrible.
We have a good example these days that I need not name.
The other way is to have nothing to lose. If you have no assets, no reputation, no presence in polite society, threats ring hollow. Why bother?
The best targets have built up a worthwhile but fragile existence. They are trying desperately to keep as many balls in the air and get through each day, trying to walk the straight and narrow. They have no resources left to defend themselves or strike back. We make it impossible to get by actually walking the straight and narrow, giving everyone compromises and something to hide. Then we leverage information to take everything they’ve got, and everything they don’t have, but could lose anyway.
Imagine the kid from the wrong side of town. That kid makes it into college. Now everyone they ever knew comes calling, reminding them of how their past could bring down their future, and how awful it is that they’re abandoning their own people. Why even try to get ahead and make a better life?
People demand that others lie, others hide, others present themselves as that which they could not possibly be.
Or at least, not openly share all the maximally damaging information. Being a clean living radically honest person will not get you out of this. Not if you want a respectable job or family.
The best targets are also those who don’t like playing zero-sum games. People who are going to be ‘reasonable’ or ‘rational’ (we in the Rationalist sphere remember those important air quotes, there’s nothing rational about poor decision theory) and pay up meekly when the bullies we’ve unleashed go around choosing their targets, handing over more and more blackmail material, hoping against hope that they won’t come again too soon. As society teaches them to do.
Enough people enter the blackmail business that it doesn’t generate economic profits. Spending time looking for dirt pays about as well as the same person could earn being productive. The prize for finding good dirt being a substantial fraction of another person’s wealth, and even future potential wealth. That’s going to ’employ’ a lot of people. A lot of others are going to take an unofficial second job.
Loans at reasonable rates mostly require collateral. I want money, so I put up my house, or my car. If I don’t pay, you take the house or my car, and sell it.
Credit cards charge unreasonable rates because there is no collateral. If you don’t pay, they can harass you, and damage your reputation via credit reports, but mostly, as long as you don’t mind losing access to credit, you can run the no-pay strategy and it will work.
In a legal blackmail world, that credit card company would then seek out damaging information about you, to try and get you to pay. Since you would often be unable to pay, that information would often get released. Other times, you would end up lying or stealing to get the money.
No, that’s not quite right. In a legal blackmail world, you’d give better rates to those who are more vulnerable to blackmail. You’d ask those people to turn over blackmail material to you as part of the loan application process, and promise to only use it if they fail to pay.
Now imagine a job application that works like that. Even if it’s not said outright, it is clear that if you want the job, you’ll have to confess enough vulnerability that your new bosses could come after you. That way, you won’t badmouth them or steal their secrets. And you’d better not let them down. Do all that, or get turned down for the job, and it probably won’t come out or be used against you.
Probably. One hopes. Norms change a lot when things become outright legal.
That would quickly become how one gets much of one’s services. Especially online. Consider Facebook.
On the plus side, we might get fewer ads. Might.
I couldn’t even blame them. If every employee can get a file on you, you need a file on them. Every employee in this world is constantly searching for dirt on you and the company. On their way out, if not sooner, they’ll all use it. At minimum this gets expensive. Then at some point, someone will miscalculate, and it will come out.
Compare this to secret societies. It is said that the Skull and Bones initiation, typically of such societies and of cults, requires initiates to confess every detail of their lives, which is then recorded as blackmail material to keep them in line. Then, this initial blackmail is used to keep this going. Scientology is said to use the same method.
(‘For legal reasons’ I remind everyone that I have only seen this claim about Scientology on documentaries and news shows, and have no direct evidence or further knowledge that they do this. No reason to come after me, via lawsuits, blackmail or otherwise. Consider what happens to this kind of worry under legal blackmail.)
This keeps the in-group and/or working class and/or customer base loyal, and allows those with power to get away with whatever they want by making crossing the group expensive. With life for the lower classes on the edge already, the cost of avoiding being owned would be very high. You’d have to pursue the nothing-to-lose strategy, as discussed above.
Butcher of Truth, and Other Things
In a world where blackmail is illegal, I have to hide any information I don’t want to come out. But I have to hide it a lot less, because the downside is much lower.
In a world with legal blackmail, I have to hide second and third level information too. I have to project an unwillingness to pay. I have to project an inability to pay. I have to project that information would not harm me. That I have little to lose. I have to disguise where one would look to find such information.
Thus, I am lying to almost everyone, about many things, all the time. I have to disguise not only the nice physical things I have, but also the other nice things in my life. Things like friends or family that I care about.
Everyone becomes Peter Parker, wearing a mask so their friends don’t pay the price. Also the part where they’re broke and don’t have nice things – because those nice things are constantly taxed.
This also creates the possibility of meta-blackmail. Nice things you have there. Would be a shame if someone… found out you have them. And considered you a juicy target. I suggest you pay me to keep that quiet.
There also becomes the increasing probability that, when someone says a thing, they are being blackmailed into saying it, or is saying it so as to maximally hurt someone.
How could we trust each other to be honest under such conditions?
To Summarize: Blackmail is Bad
Why would you want all that? To make most people mostly do destructive work? To render everyone unable to trust everyone else, every interaction a war of all against all? For everyone to keep a file on everyone? To give the resources to those most willing to play destructive zero-sum games, with the mindset that they win if others lose? Because that’s kind of true?
Want it all to be legal?
That sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?
I’ve been describing our world.
It’s not fully legal. Thank heavens for that. Things could be so, so much worse.
Robin is right to point out that low-level blackmail happens all the time.
People threaten to reveal information, or to bring information to light where it would do harm. I’ll tell your boss. I’ll tell your spouse. I’ll tell your parents or teacher or the government. All. The. Time.
It happens so often that it usually need not be said.
People gather files, mental or physical, of harmful information on everyone. The more they get, the riskier it is to piss them off. The greater the underlying threat when they ask for something. The more power they accrue. The better they can defend themselves. The better they play the game, the more they build a persona as someone who is zero-sum and eager to bring others down unless paid off, the more they get ahead.
The availability and centrality of information is key to how people are judged and evaluated. Almost everyone has had a regrettable night. But if evidence of that regrettable night is all over the internet, that is much worse. You then likely have a lot of other regrettable nights. College acceptances are rescinded, jobs lost.
Low-level extortion also happens all the time as well. That’s how society runs. We all have threats hanging over our heads all the time. Only some involve hidden information. Often the line between blackmail and extortion is blurry, with everything implicit to boot. Often you make a huge effort to avoid giving others blackmail material, but know that if they want to get you badly enough, they can just make something up.
Which is a better strategy, anyway. You can optimize to be maximally damaging. If you accuse someone of something false, and they deny it, they’re engaging. Giving you attention. Checkmate.
Thus, those who use zero-sum thinking ‘win’ every interaction. Zero-sum thinking gets praised and applauded, and associated with good friendship – they’ll act this way on your behalf. Such people go on collecting the protection money. We sometimes pay lip service to the opposite, but we’re mostly lying.
When people speak, we assume they have cynical motives. They are likely protecting themselves or have some angle, and it’s likely they are being forced into it in some way.
Thus we live in an atomized world. Where we cannot trust each other. Where everything is awesome and no one is happy.
First, Do No Harm
Solving this is a hard problem.
We need the ability to dole out punishment, to get good behavior and cooperation. We need good people to do this sometimes. We need tools for group cohesion.
Destruction is easier than creation. We need to make it more valuable to create than to threaten to destroy. We need the way of getting ahead to be to create, to play positive sum games. Not to play zero-sum games, to destroy in order to threaten to destroy.
Blackmail and extortion are already technically illegal and reviled. But these laws and norms are rarely enforced. Our law system is so expensive, in every sense, to use, that only the powerful and vindictive use it until the stakes get super high.
I will continue to explore these and related problems, and how we can solve them.
Where to begin? Best I can tell, solutions begin locally.
First, do no harm. Refuse to engage in destructive behavior and reject the zero-sum mentality in your own life. Make no threats. Keep all secrets you are asked to keep. Be worthy of trust. Refuse to treat with those that do hold zero-sum mentalities. Do no business with them. Refuse to give in to their threats. Reward those who create, and provide value. Let this all be known.
Be the shining city on a hill. Be the change you want to see in the world. Insert additional inspiring cliches here.
What place has the law? It can’t enforce what we need. Trying to fully enforce anti-blackmail laws, let alone write stronger ones and enforce those, would never work.
What law does is protect us from modes that are far worse. When blackmail goes sufficiently big, and sufficiently bad, there is a place one can turn. When the time comes that we all decide to take those bastards down, we have a way to do that, legally.
The threat of this is important. Those who use blackmail are restrained, must guard themselves and be cautious. A balance of terror is at least possible. Blackmailers must do their best to be implicit rather than explicit. Returns to gaining destructive information, and the consequent ability to do harm, on a large scale, are greatly limited compared to the alternative.
There are many much worse forms of blackmail that would be highly lucrative, but which would also be impossible to hide, as they would target people and employ people on a massive scale, in a more explicit way. These are kept in check. There are few official corporate blackmail departments.
Blackmail fundamentally puts destructive actions onto the table. That is what it is. When you do this, reasonably often those destructive actions will occur. Life gets worse, through threat and action. Those who make life worse are rewarded. Those unwilling to do so are punished.
Letting all of this out into the open, to run free, to take away one of the few weapons we have against it, would be devastatingly bad. All the problems described here become far worse. Norms, including explicit norms, would shift even more towards blackmail as a legitimate weapon. Thinking would shift even more towards zero-sum, a war of all against all. To ultimate paranoia.
At the minimum, let us do no harm. Let us, at least, not do that.
There's a pretty simple economic argument for why blackmail is bad: it involves a negative-sum threat rather than a positive-sum deal. I was surprised to not see this argument in the econbloggers' discussion; good to see it come up here. To lay it out succinctly and separate from other arguments:
Ordinarily, when two people make a deal we can conclude that it's win-win because both of them chose to make the deal rather than just not interacting with each other. By default Alice would just act on her own preferences and completely ignore Bob's preferences, and the mirror image for Bob, but sometimes they find a deal where they each give up something in return for the other person doing something that they value even more. With some simplifying assumptions, the worst case scenario is that they don't reach a deal and they both break even (compared to if they hadn't interacted), and if they do reach a deal then they both wind up better off.
With a threat, Alice has an alternative course of action available which is somewhat worse for Alice than her default action but much worse for Bob, and Alice tells Bob that she will do the alternative action unless Bob does something for Alice. With some simplifying assumptions, if Bob agrees to give in then their interaction is zero-sum (Alice gets a transfer from Bob), if Bob refuses and Alice carries out her threat then it is negative sum (Bob loses a lot and Alice loses something too), and if Bob refuses and Alice backs down then it's zero sum (both take the default action).
Ordinary deals add value to the world and threats subtract value from the world, and blackmail is a type of threat.
If we remove some simplifying assumptions (e.g. no transaction costs, one-shot interaction) then things get more complicated, but mostly in ways that make ordinary deals better and threats worse. In the long run deals bring people together as they seek more interactions which could lead to win-win deals, deals encourage people to invest in abilities that will make them more useful to other people so that they'll have more/better opportunities to make deals, and the benefits of deals must outweigh the transaction costs & risks involved at least in expectation (otherwise people would just opt out of trying to make those deals). Whereas threats push people apart as they seek to avoid negative sum interactions, threats encourage people to invest in abilities that make them more able to harm other people, and transaction costs increase the badness of threats (turning zero sum interactions into negative sum) but don't prevent those interactions unless they drive the threatmaker's returns down far enough.
After discussing this offline, I think the main argument that I laid out does not hold up well in the case of blackmail (though it works better for many other kinds of threats). They key bit is here:
This only looks at the effects on Alice and on Bob, as a simplification. But with blackmail "carrying out the threat" means telling other people information about Bob, and that is often useful for those other people. If Alice tells Casey something bad about Bob, that will often be bad for Bob but good for Casey. So it's not obviously negative sum for the whole world.
When the public interest motivates the release of private info, it's called 'whistleblowing' and is* legally protected and considered far more moral than blackmail. I think that contrast is helpful to understanding why that's not enough to make blackmail moral.
*in some jurisdictions, restrictions may apply, see your local legal code for a full list of terms & conditions.
I think you're right that it's not trivially negative sum because it can have positive outcomes for third parties. Still expect a world of legal blackmail to be worse.
As a means of disclosing information about wrongdoing, blackmail has no advantage over whistle-blowing, and also no advantage over journalism. Journalists have to disclose information, whereas it doesn't get disclosed in successful blackmail, and journalists need a public interest defense,whereas it's perfectly possible to blackmail someone over private behaviour.
I think there's a greater distinction in the public eye: if you offer to not whistleblow in exchange for money, that's not whistleblowing, that's blackmail.
But if the blackmail information is a good thing to publish, then blackmailing is still immoral, because it should be published and people should be incentivized to publish it, not to not publish it. We, as a society, should ensure that if, say, someone routinely engage in kidnapping children to harvest their organs, and someone knows this information, then she should be incentivized to send this information to the relevant authorities and not to keep this information to herself, for reasons that are I hope obvious.
You've assumed here that the default is for Alice not to share, while it might seem positive if the default was for her to share. So in practise, it'll depend on how many new shares it incentivises (including people who only went to the effort to discover the information since blackmail is legal) vs. how many people benefit from being able to trade. In practise, I suspect the first factor will easily outweigh the second.
Upvoted for an important topic well-argued, but I'm not convinced. Picking on a few points:
Anything that can happen, can happen, even if it's not part of a blackmail transaction. The underlying truth is still true, and the blackmailer or someone else might reveal it accidentally or on purpose. Even if there were no blackmail involved. Suffering the results of a failed negotiation is not a cost of the transaction, it's already part of the world.
There's LOTS of legal things (arguably the vast majority of human behavior) which don't generate economic profits. That line of thinking just doesn't belong in a steelman.
I disagree with your estimate that most gossip is designed to build the reputation of the gossiper. Much of it is intended to reduce the status or otherwise harm the target. Those who are skilled at it, do both at the same time, with a good dollop of deniability-of-intent on top. This deniability is removed when blackmail is explicit, but the underlying motivation and effect remains.
I remain of the general opinion that blackmail is just another repugnant transaction, which should be no more illegal than paying for a kidney transplant or selling sexual services.
And, like most repugnant transactions that I think should be legal, I do recognize the possible equilibrium effects may be unpleasant for society, and that it's "easier" to outlaw the transaction than to only outlaw the bad behaviors often related to (but not intrinsic to) the transaction. For these reasons, I don't invest much effort into legalization, even though I believe the basis for outlawing is poor.
And then you changed it up for your closing section. I think I agree, if I read it as "many behaviors should be (and are) enforced as illegal at scale or when truly egregious or when adjacent behaviors are purely illegal (criminal behavior to get blackmail information), but we can't, shouldn't, or don't effectively outlaw blackmail in most retail cases". Is that still checkmate? Or closer to a draw?
Quantitative differences are meaningful (in proportion to their size). There's always the chance that information leaks, but if someone has an economic incentive to make a credible threat to leak information, that greatly increases the chance.
To be more vivid but a bit uncharitable, this is like saying that throwing knives at people is okay because people already occasionally cut themselves with knives.
There are lots of other reasons to publish such information as well - it's hard to say whether a blackmail incident is paying to reduce the baseline chance, or paying to maintain the baseline chance. Does your intuition change if this framing changes? I think we may be at the limit of discussing the topic generally, and specific examples will be necessary to decide which features are most salient.
Gossip (throwing knives at people, in your analogy) is ALREADY LEGAL. The disagreement is whether it's OK to ask someone to pay for you to refrain from doing so. If you're visiting a knife-throwing range, is it OK to be asked to pay a fee for people to stop throwing knives so you can safely walk on their property?
Hm. I agree. Given that my intuitions now oppose each other ("incentives to threaten things make things happen" vs "this provides an alternative to gossip and will absorb information"), I've reached the limit of my vague and general arguments.
I'm not sure what you mean by specific examples, though. I can think of ways to operationalize and test this, but not ways to clarify the discussion without additional external information. If you see a way to move forward, then I'm ears.
The analogy wasn't mean to be stretched that far! It was just a surface analogy, responding to something you might not actually have said. I thought you were saying "since information might get out anyway, information-getting-out isn't an additional cost of blackmail," which ignores the possibility of quantitative changes. But now I think you're making a subtler argument: "You can't take the rate of released blackmail as the direct cost of blackmail being legal; you have to compare to the gossip rate in worlds where blackmail is illegal. It's the delta that matters, and the delta might be insignificant or negative." Is this what you're saying?
I think it'd be instructive to come up with a few scenarios that strongly categorize into "permitted" and "violation" of your intuitive norms, and try to figure out what the points of contention are. For myself, I can't come up with a compelling one where the blackmail is the important part of the crime - there are cases where I'd like to outlaw bad information behaviors (publishing, withholding, misleading, and violations in pursuit of), but I can think of none which are OK without money and not OK with money.
For me, this generalizes - if all sub-actions are permitted, then the sum of them is permitted.
I'm not sure how this fits into this schema, but there was an argument I found fairly compelling about how-to-think-about-copyright-infringement awhile back, which goes:
(This is not an argument for any particular position on how to handle copyright infringement, just that the situation actually warrants thought)
So, part of the deal with adding-money-to-blackmail is that it enables and incentivizes scale in a way that non-money-facilitated-gossip doesn't.
I think the analogy is too distant to be evidence. The feather problem isn't one of scale - it'd be fine if almost everyone had a feather dropped on them, it's one of concentration - it's harmful if too many are on the same person/place. And I'm not sure how that translates to this case.
The thing Zvi pointed at in the essay: if there are blackmail industries, and if the average person has to spend their life carefully not exposing anything vulnerable because being blackmailed is a live option they have to live in fear of, the world gets worse in a way that is more than the sum of the parts of each individual person getting blackmailed,
There's got to be a ton of exceptions to that. For instance, insider trading.
Actually, that's a good point - there are a fair few similarities between blackmail and insider trading. It's not clear to me that insider trading should be prohibited in general - it seems like it's just a mechanism for the price to adjust to the truth. That's what markets are best at, right?
There are activities adjacent to insider trading which should be illegal - manipulation, spying, information obfuscation. And it's probably easier to detect and prosecute insider trading than the problematic behaviors themselves.
I wonder how much correlation there is between people who think blackmail per se should be legal (though not some activities commonly associated with it is), and those who think insider trading, prostitution, and other prohibited transactions for allowed behaviors should be legal.
I was mainly making the point that insider trading is an illegal activity compounded of legal activities.
Insider trading isn't just a market adjustment, it is also an unfair advantage.
On a hypothetical ‘blackmail industry’, I don’t know if it’s legal, but there appear to already be Chinese banks that require you to send nudes before getting a loan, so that they’ll release them if you don’t pay out in time. If this was representative of the blackmail world, I think I’m against it.
I'm still in the process of mulling over my thoughts on the concrete claims in this article, but I felt a desire to note, separate from my beliefs about it's epistemic content, that I appreciated this post's "well written poetry."
You do gesture at it with "maximum amount of harm", but the specific framing I don't quite see expressed here is this:
While a blackmailer may be revealing something "true", the net effect (even if not "maximized" by the blackmailer) is often disproportionate to what one might desire. To give an example, a blackmailer may threaten to reveal that their target has a non-standard sexual orientation. In many parts of the world, the harm caused by this is considerably greater than the (utilitarian) "optimal" amount - in this case, zero. This is a function of not only the blackmailer's attempt at optimizing their long-term strategy, but also of how people/society react to certain kinds of information. Unfortunately this is mostly an object-level argument (that society reacts inappropriately in predictable ways to some things), but it seems relevant.
This reminds me of the winner's curse. When the blackmailer is optimizing for outrageousness, the outrage caused by their blackmail is predictably too much.
Winner's Curse doesn't seem like the right effect to me -- it seems more like an orthogonality/Goodhart effect, where optimizing for outrageousness decreases the fitness w/r/t social welfare (on the margin). It's always in the blackmailer's interest to make the outrageousness greater, so they're not (selfishly) sad when they overshoot.
My model: for each issue (example: rape, homosexuality, etc.) there is an ideal amount of outrage, from "none" to "burn them at the stake". ("Ideal" meaning the amount that best achieves human goals, or something similar.) A given culture might approximate these amounts, but with error. Sometimes it will have more outrage than ideal, and sometimes it will have less.
A blackmailer is trying to maximize potential outrage. (They have limited resources and can only blackmail so many people. If Alice's secret would make people avoid her if it got out, and Bob's secret would make people murder him, then the blackmailer will blackmail Bob.) The blackmailer can form a relatively accurate model of what issues their culture is most outraged about, so they will maximize outrage rather well.
By analogy with the winner's curse, if x is argmax(outrage(issue)), the culture has probably overestimated the necessary amount of outrage for x.
Yes. Long post is long and I didn't want to throw out arguments about particular reveals to show this - in particular, we all think the cost of that should be zero in that case, and we all know it often very much isn't. And I didn't want anyone to think I was relying on that.
I'm a little confused about how the burden of proof ended up as it is in this discussion. I think most people intuitively understand that blackmail is a bad thing. That they are not able to articulate a rigorous, general argument for why seems like a much higher bar than we expect for other things.
Consider murder. Murder should be illegal, obviously (I hope?! Not sure there is much to discuss if we disagree on that). But it's not trivial to construct a rigorous, general argument for why. Any demonstrated harm can be countered with another hypothetical in which some convoluted chain of events following the murder creates a net benefit.
"Oh, it's always bad to shoot a stranger in the street? What if you have an uncanny ability to identify serial killers and recognize some stranger as one who's about to kill again and you can prevent even more deaths by shooting them on sight?"
"You think killing your unfaithful spouse should be illegal? What about if the knowledge that they're continuing to see other people causes you such great psychological harm that killing the spouse is actually less bad, huh?"
And you don't really have to go to silly extremes like that to generate counter examples; most claims that "murder should be illegal" implicitly except killing for self defense, during wartime or for national security reasons, euthanasia, late term abortion for medical reasons, and the death penalty itself. I'm not saying everyone has the same list of exceptions, but I've never met anyone who rejects all of those simultaneously and claims that literally all murder, no matter the context or consequences, should be illegal. That's not what people mean when they say murder should be illegal.
How is the blackmail situation any different? It's trivial to come up with endless exceptions in which the blackmail is more like whistleblowing and provides a net benefit. I have two responses to that. First off, even if blackmail were legalized, the government would never allow routine whistleblowing. There are always a million exceptions when it comes to how three letter organizations and their information are treated legally. But more importantly, why does the possibility of black swan whistleblowing scenarios make the law worse to have than not? There are plenty of exceptions to the general rule that murder is bad and yet we still have laws against murder, right?
Have you read the Hanson post that this post is replying to?
Among people generally, the burden of proof is the opposite of what you perceived it to be in this discussion. But this post was responding to a blog post claiming the arguments for legally prohibiting blackmail aren't persuasive.
But in any case, the point of the discussion is to sharpen our intuitions, or even discard then if warranted.
Misleading at best. Unless you're ruling out two-step processes entirely (Gossip causes A, A causes B which helps the gossiper), then the motive behind the reveal IS to help the blackmailer. They reveal information to make credible their initial (and future) blackmail negotiations, instrumentally, so that they can use "gossip" to "help the person gossiping."
I could have worded it to make this more clear but I think the point stands when clarified/understood - the proximate goal of the blackmail release is to be harmful, whereas the proximate goal of the gossip might or might not be.
If others agree it is misleading I will make this more explicit.
What ? From a consequentialist point of view, of course it is. If a policy (and "make blackmail legal" is a policy) probably have bad consequences, then it is a bad policy.
"It's obviously bad. Think about it and you'll notice that. I could write a YA dystopian novel about how the consequences are bad." <-- isn't an argument, at all. It assumes bad consequences rather than demonstrating or explaining how the consequences would be bad. That section is there for other reasons, partially (I think?) to explain Zvi's emotional state and why he wrote the article, and why it has a certain tone.
Yes. It's doing a few things, and that's a lot of it.
I'm not sure how much of this is projection, but I got the impression that people wanted a more gears-level model of how blackmail is bad.
But don't you need to get a gears-level model of how blackmail is bad to think about how dystopian a hypothetical legal-blackmail sociey is ?
Charitable interpretation of dystopianists: they're using the outside view.
Uncharitable interpretation of dystopianists: they can come up with persuasive young adult novels against any change, regardless of whether the change would be bad or not. "I can make a narrative in which this is a bad thing" != "this is a bad thing".
Can a strategy against blackmail be to reveal the information yourself?
If you don't want to comply (pay), and you believe Alice will follow on her threat, can you minimize harm by being faster and revealing the information yourself?
You can also gain yourself some reputation by seeming honest, and to take away any status Alice might have gotten from exposing you. Alice can't put you in a bad light for "stealing" it from her, cause then she admits to blackmail.
and lastly - who's gonna try to blackmail someone who just makes it past them and publishes it themselves?
Yes. This is a viable strategy people use in the real world. It is often called "get ahead of the story."
This is all so abstract. Does it match how the world works?
Why are we talking about this? Because the National Enquirer knows how to get away with blackmail? What do you think of the hypothesis that blackmail is legal if lawyers get a cut? That sounds to me like the worst of both worlds.
I recently learned that UK politics is openly described in terms of blackmail. There is some equivocation and I'm not sure it's actually true, but it isn't a norm violation.
I’m pretty impressed by this post overall, not necessarily because of the object-level arguments (though those are good as well), but because I think it’s emblematic of a very good epistemic habit that is unfortunately rare. The debate between Hanson and Zvi over this, like habryka noted, is a excellent example of how to do good object-level debate that reveals details of shared models over text. I suspect that this is the best post to canonize to reward that, but I’m not convinced of this. On the meta-level, the one major improvement/further work I’d like to see is a (ideally adversarial) summary, authored by Zvi (though again, ideally at least one pro-blackmailer), about any shared conclusions or model differences that lead to agreed upon results. If such a post existed, I would strongly recommend canonization of that post. As is, I think canonization would meet goal 1 very well, goal 3 acceptably well, and on a meta-level, would be orthogonal to goal 2.
In terms of actual content, it’s probably a fairly good sample of high quality rationalist persuasive writing, which is a good archetype to include in the collection. Beyond offering good arguments in good faith, it also offers concrete examples and models when needed, and portrays good habits such as noticing confusion. Obviously, not all of this genre can be collated, but given the other distinguishing qualities, I think this is as good a sample as any, and doesn’t unacceptably compromise goal 2.
I’d strongly support upvoting this post.
I have a major quibble with this prediction. Namely my model is that the regrettability of nights, and moral character of people, is always graded on a curve, not absolutely.
Colleges still need to admit students. Employers still need employees. In a world where everyone smokes weed in high school but this is known about only 5% of students, it makes sense for jobs and colleges to exclude weed-smokers. But if 80% of people are known to have smoked weed (or had premarital sex, or shoplifted from CVS, or gotten into a fight), then it stops being a big deal.
An example from the other side would be cheating on your spouse: by some accounts half of us do it, but a lot fewer than half are publicly exposed for it. So today this still carries a huge stigma, but in a world where every cheater was being blackmailed, one of the main effects would be that cheating on a spouse would cease to be seen as an irredeemable sin.
Would it be appropriate to view blackmail as a kind of rent, due to being in a position to learn incriminating information?
I see two ways in which legal blackmail can actually reduce regular gossip.
First is the one discussed in the article, where people don't gossip because they can't get money for that instead.
The second is that blackmailers have an incentive to destroy all forms of sharing negative information that aren't blackmail (As well as destroying other blackmailers to become a blackmailing monopoly.). Why? Because they want everything to be maximally embarrassing and harmful. Whenever a bad thing is revealed about someone, that person is harmed, but the thing also often becomes more normal and thus less harmful.
If someone comes out as homosexual, he hurts the blackmailer's profits by normalizing homosexuality, and they will destroy him for that (completely unrelated to their views on homosexuality, professional blackmailers don't have "views").
Same for anyone who reveals embarrassing information about others for nothing. They're straight up destroying their profits, and they'll make sure to get them. Other blackmailers are similar, but in that case it's competition. In the case of gossipers and people who self-reveal, blackmailers have a joint interest to get rid of them.
As i noted in this comment, social privacy becomes more important the more other people have it. So blackmailer's have an incentive to increase social privacy to the extreme, such that everyone will keep everything to themselves - as long as they still have methods of obtaining information on people so they can blackmail them.
The blackmailed have an incentive to destroy all privacy (at least that of other people) so information on them won't be as harmful.
Legal blackmail taken to the extreme creates a tension between a no-privacy dystopia to an atomized dystopia where all information is kept hidden except in the cases someone can't pay for it.
This doesn't seem like the sort of tension between two extremes that creates a good middle ground.
I feel like I'm missing context. Why did this community come to care about blackmail laws in the first place?
Because Robin thought it was a 'checkmate' case that blackmail was good and should be legal.
How exactly Robin comes up with his weird ideas is a mystery that scholars have written many dozens of books theorizing about, but we have learned to rule him in as a thinker who comes up with excellent ideas, and engage with them substantively even if they seem obviously wrong (as was true for Zvi in this instance).
On initially reading it, I found it quite interesting, but over time it's come to shape my thinking much more than I expected.
Robin has correctly pointed out that blackmail is just a special case of free trade between apparently consenting adults, which tends to be pretty good, and you need quite a strong argument for making the law interfere with that. He also points out that it creates good incentives not to do things that you wouldn't want people finding out about.
However Zvi's point is that this is an incredibly strong incentive for someone to ruin your life and create information that you are not willing to make public (e.g. private photos, manipulate you into a minor illegality that would be very damaging for your reputation, embarrassing information about your relatives, etc) and then take you for all you're worth.
(Especially combined with asymmetric justice, most people are already interacting with things they'd be judged on if it were made very public, and all you'd have to do is look into their lives and threaten to make some part of it immensely public. Just take photos of any not obviously poor person walking past a homeless person, or publish a one-sided story from someone they had a conflict / falling-out with, or whatever.)
Essentially, making blackmail illegal largely removes the financial apparatus for people to do immense harm to you in the interest of taking all of your resources. We have built immensely powerful incentive systems with financial markets, and the law against blackmail says "If you think of a way to extort someone for all of their money by threatening to destroy their life/reputation, you will not be able to be rewarded using our core currency of exchange." And this backpropagates helpfully into not incentivising the destruction attempts in the first place.
This also fed into my understanding of Petrov Day. I previously had conceived of Petrov Day as being about punishing unilateral action, but on reflection I don't really want to stigmatize unilateral action, it's often good and virtuous. What I want to stigmatize is "putting horribly-negative-sum outcomes on the table", which is what lead to the cold war, and I want people to take responsibility for not using extortion in negotiation. You should never create the ability to wipe out another country in order to gain power over them. You shouldn't attempt to use the ability to take down LessWrong in order to get money. Of course, most sacred values can be overcome at some quantity of secular value, but the point is that it is sacred and should be considered a deep schelling point. The important part of the cold war was never really whether the two countries would actually destroy each other, it was that they had raced to create the ability to wipe each other out at the push of a few buttons. Petrov took responsibility for the part he had to play there, and wouldn't engage in that sort of game.
All the bolded parts of the essay are the most important parts for me, and I strongly recommend including this in the book. I expect to vote at it with somewhere between +5 to +9.
I really liked the blackmail debates between Zvi and Hanson, both this post and the longer in-person debate that happened earlier this year.
I think less so because I immediately care about the specific legal policies, but more because it provided a playing field on which both Zvi and Hanson got to elaborate a lot on their world models, and in which I got to practice the virtue of taking ideas seriously. While on the object level Hanson's arguments didn't fully compel me, the arguments involved moved me quite a bit on a variety of related issues, like what kinds of problems can be solved via legal means, as well as the complicated interplay of social norms and regulations.
This post has helped me think about negotiations and the cost of bringing strongly negative outcomes into negotiations as leverage. I think about it often.
I'm having trouble parsing the second half of the second sentence here. I'd expect it to be saying something like, "it's worth it for Alice to invest a lot in researching what demand to make."
But can't tell if it's saying that or not. In particular, I don't know what "pure loss to otherwise wasted research" means.
I was also confused, but then I realized the key to understanding my position is how fine a needle Hanson is threading (emphasis mine):
I despise gossip in general, and I am comfortable with strong norms against it up to and including violence. This clarifies the problem for me; I agree on the above basis.
In terms of analysis, I disagree sharply with ignoring the problem of blackmail via false information through the example of slander and libel laws. I always find these kinds of arguments disingenuous; even a casual inspection of publicly available information shows that slander and libel laws are virtually meaningless.
I have a question about this segment:
Why does profit not count as helping the blackmailer, but gossip counts as helping the gossiper? I would claim harm is the mechanism, not the motive.
That being said, Hanson doesn't seem to disagree that blackmail is negative-sum. If I understand him correctly, he does argue that these negative sums will apply more heavily and consistently to elites rather than regular people, and so it will provide an equalizing force and incentivize elites to adhere to regular norms more closely. I haven't seen this point addressed elsewhere. Naively I am skeptical, because the argument is that they have more ability to pay and so will be targeted more heavily, yet there is no shortage of scams that target regular people with limited ability to pay in other arenas. Arguably Equifax basically was such a thing in the 1970's.
According to Trivers, 2/3 of communication is gossip. A world with strong norms against it would look very different to our own.
Elites may be targeted more, but they have more ability to pay off blackmailers. That's a relative evasion of punishment... the payment has disutility for them, but not as much as a prison sentence...and if what they did was illegal, then it never comes to light. Plus legalised blackmailers would not ignore poorer targets, since they have less ability to retaliate.
Blackmail is poorly optimised for exposing wrongdoing by the rich and powerful compared to investigative journalism.
This is interesting and compelling but I wish it had more examples. Most notably, at "this happens in the real world ALL THE TIME" my reaction was - I don't feel like I encounter blackmail happening all the time in my experience of the world? I'm not sure if this is because blackmail is concentrated in specific parts of the world I'm not in (e.g. among famous people), or because I'm in a bubble of relative niceness, or because there is blackmail happening near me but I'm not noticing it, or because Zvi is wrong about blackmail happening all the time, or because he's classifying some things as blackmail that I wouldn't, or because he's classifying some things as blackmail that I'm not thinking of but I'd agree if they were pointed out to me. Some examples would help distinguish these things.
I am not sure why you pick on blackmail specifically. Most of your points apply to many kinds of human interactions. The original reason for some specific actions being made illegal is based on consequentialism, to convert utilitarian reasons into deontological ones, and, after a time, into virtue-ethical. Not all high negative utility actions get outlawed, and many positive utility actions get outlawed for other reasons, but the general pattern persists. Changes in society eventually result in changes in laws. What used to be illegal becomes legal and vice versa, generally based on the amount of real or perceived harm it causes. When copying became trivial, copyright laws grew teeth. Once same sex is no longer an emotional horror, it is no longer outlawed. If one day human life becomes cheap again (like it is now in some places), murder will eventually become legal and accepted. To productively discuss blackmail's legality one would need to evaluate the actual, not imagined or edge-cases harm it causes in the context of other activities, legal and illegal, and see where it fits on the utility scatter plot. If you find it to be broadly among the cloud of illegal activities, then you have a case for it being made illegal. If it is on the margins between legal and illegal, then you don't have a case. That's it.
This is in response to other writers, esp. Robin Hanson. That's why.