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.