Link post

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.

Voluntary Blackmail

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?

Bad news.

I’ve been describing our world.

It’s legal.


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.