Link post

Follow-up to: Blackmail

[Note on Compass Rose response: This is not a response to the recent Compass Rose response, it was written before that, but with my post on Hacker News I need to get this out now. It has been edited in light of what was said. His first section is a new counter-argument against a particular point that I made – it is interesting, and I have a response but it is beyond scope here. It does not fall into either main category, because it is addressing a particular argument of mine rather than being a general argument for blackmail. The second counter-argument is a form of #1 below, combined with #2, #3 and #4 (they do tend to go together) so it is addressed somewhat below, especially the difference between ‘information tends to be good’ and ‘information chosen, engineered and shared so to be maximally harmful tends to be bad.’ My model and Ben’s of practical results also greatly differ. We intend to hash all this out in detail in conversations, and I hope to have a write-up at some point. Anyway, on to the post at hand.]

There are two main categories of objection to my explicit thesis that blackmail should remain illegal.

Today we will not address what I consider the more challenging category. Claims that while blackmail is bad, making it illegal does not improve matters. Mainly because we can’t or won’t enforce laws, so it is unclear what the point is. Or costs of enforcement exceed benefits.

The category I address here claims blackmail is good. We want more.

Key arguments in this category:

  1. Information is good.*

  2. Blackmail reveals bad behavior.

  3. Blackmail provides incentive to uncover bad behavior.

  4. Blackmail provides a disincentive to bad behavior.

  5. Only bad, rich or elite people are vulnerable to blackmail.

  6. We should strongly enforce all norms on everyone, without context dependence not explicitly written into the norm, and fix or discard any norms we don’t want to enforce in this way.

A key assumption is that blackmail mostly targets existing true bad behavior. I do not think this is true. For true or bad or for existing. For details, see the previous post.

Such arguments also centrally argue against privacy. Blackmail advocates often claim privacy is unnecessary or even toxic.

It’s one thing to give up on privacy in practice, for yourself, in the age of Facebook. I get that. It’s another to argue that privacy is bad. That it is bad to not reveal all the information you know. Including about yourself.

This radical universal transparency position, perhaps even assumption, comes up quite a lot recently. Those advocating it act as if those opposed carry the burden of proof.

No. Privacy is good.

A reasonable life, a good life, requires privacy.


We need a realm shielded from signaling and judgment. A place where what we do does not change what everyone thinks about us, or get us rewarded and punished. Where others don’t judge what we do based on the assumption that we are choosing what we do knowing that others will judge us based on what we do. Where we are free from others’ Bayesian updates and those of computers, from what is correlated with what, with how things look. A place to play. A place to experiment. To unwind. To celebrate. To learn. To vent. To be afraid. To mourn. To worry. To be yourself. To be real.

We need people there with us who won’t judge us. Who won’t use information against us.

We need having such trust to not risk our ruin. We need to minimize how much we wonder, if someone’s goal is to get information to use against us. Or what price would tempt them to do that.

Friends. We desperately need real friends.


Norms are not laws.

Life is full of trade-offs and necessary unpleasant actions that violate norms. This is not a fixable bug. Context is important for both enforcement and intelligent or useful action.

Even if we could fully enforce norms in principle, different groups have different such norms and each group’s/​person’s norms are self-contradictory. Hard decisions mean violating norms and are common in the best of times.

A complete transformation of our norms and norm principles, beyond anything I can think of in a healthy historical society, would be required to even attempt full non-contextual strong enforcement of all remaining norms. It is unclear how one would avoid a total loss of freedom, or a total loss of reasonable action, productivity and survival, in such a context. Police states and cults and thought police and similar ideas have been tried and have definitely not improved this outlook.

What we do for fun. What we do to make money. What we do to stay sane. What we do for our friends and our families. What maintains order and civilization. What must be done.

Necessary actions are often the very things others wouldn’t like, or couldn’t handle… if revealed in full, with context simplified to what gut reactions can handle.

Or worse, with context chosen to have the maximally negative gut reactions.

There are also known dilemmas where any action taken would be a norm violation of a sacred value. And lots of values that claim to be sacred, because every value wants to be sacred, but which we know we must treat as not sacred when making real decisions with real consequences.

Or in many contexts, justifying our actions would require revealing massive amounts of private information that would then cause further harm (and which people very much do not have the time to properly absorb and consider). Meanwhile, you’re taking about the bad-sounding thing, which digs your hole deeper.

We all must do these necessary things. These often violate both norms and formal laws. Explaining them often requires sharing other things we dare not share.

I wish everyone a past and future Happy Petrov Day

Part of the job of making sausage is to allow others not to see it. We still get reliably disgusted when we see it.

We constantly must claim ‘everything is going to be all right’ or ‘everything is OK.’ That’s never true. Ever.

In these, and in many other ways, we live in an unusually hypocritical time. A time when people need be far more afraid both to not be hypocritical, and of their hypocrisy being revealed.

We are a nation of men, not of laws.

But these problems, while improved, wouldn’t go away in a better or less hypocritical time. Norms are not a system that can have full well-specified context dependence and be universally enforced. That’s not how norms work.


Life requires privacy so we can not reveal the exact extent of our resources.

If others know exactly what resources we have, they can and will take all of them. The tax man who knows what you can pay, what you would pay, already knows what you will pay. For government taxes, and for other types of taxes.

This is not only about payments in money. It is also about time, and emotion, and creativity, and everything else.

Many things in life claim to be sacred. Each claims all known available resources. Each claims we are blameworthy for any resources we hold back. If we hold nothing back, we have nothing.

That which is fully observed cannot be one’s slack. Once all constraints are known, they bind.

Slack requires privacy. Life requires slack.

The includes our decision making process.

If it is known how we respond to any given action, others find best responses. They will respond to incentives. They exploit exactly the amount we won’t retaliate against. They feel safe.

We seethe and despair. We have no choices. No agency. No slack.

It is a key protection that one might fight back, perhaps massively out of proportion, if others went after us. To any extent.

It is a key protection that one might do something good, if others helped you. Rather than others knowing exactly what things will cause you to do good things, and which will not.

It is central that one react when others are gaming the system.

Sometimes that system is you.

World peace, and doing anything at all that interacts with others, depends upon both strategic confidence in some places, and strategic ambiguity in others. We need to choose carefully where to use which.

Having all your actions fully predictable and all your information known isn’t Playing in Hard Mode. That’s Impossible Mode.

I now give specific responses to the six claims above. This mostly summarizes from the previous post.

  1. Information, by default, is probably good. But this is a tenancy, not a law of physics. As discussed last time, information engineered to be locally harmful probably is net harmful. Keep this distinct from incentive effects on bad behavior, which is argument number 4.

  2. Most ‘bad’ behavior will be a justification for scapegoating, involving levels of bad behavior that are common. Since such bad behavior is rarely made common knowledge, and allowing it to become common knowledge is often considered far worse behavior than the original action, making it common knowledge forces oversize reaction and punishment. What people are punishing is that you are the type of person who lets this type of information become common knowledge about you. Thus you are not a good ally. In a world like ours, where all are anticipating future reactions by others anticipating future reactions, this can be devastating.

  3. Blackmail does provide incentive to investigate to find bad behavior. But if found, it also provides incentive to make sure it is never discovered. And what is extracted from the target is often further bad behavior, largely because…

  4. Blackmail also provides an incentive to engineer or provoke bad behavior, and to maximize the damage that would result from revelation of that behavior. The incentives promoting more bad behavior likely are stronger than the ones discouraging it. I argue in the last piece that it is common even now for people to engineer blackmail material against others and often also against themselves, to allow it to be used as collateral and leverage. That a large part of job interviews is proving that you are vulnerable in these ways. That much bonding is about creating mutual blackmail material. And so on. This seems quite bad.

  5. If any money one has can be extracted, then one will permanently be broke. This is a lot of my model of poverty traps – there are enough claiming-to-be-sacred things demanding resources that any resources get extracted, so no one tries to acquire resources or hold them for long. Consider what happens if people in such situations are allowed to borrow money. Even if you are (for any reason) sufficiently broke that you cannot pay money, you have much that you could be forced to say or do. Often this involves deep compromises of sacred values, of ethics and morals and truth and loyalty and friendship. It often involves being an ally of those you despise, and reinforcing that which is making your life a living hell, to get the pain to let up a little. Privacy, and the freedom from blackmail, are the only ways out.

  6. A full exploration is beyond scope but section two above is a sketch.

* – I want to be very clear that yes, information in general is good. But that is a far cry from the radical claim that all and any information is good and sharing more of it is everywhere and always good.