Blackmailers are privateers in the war on hypocrisy

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Allow­ing black­mail seems prima fa­cie good to me, since it’s a tax on covert illicit be­jhav­ior. Zvi seems to think, to the con­trary, that it’s prima fa­cie bad. Robin Han­son ar­gued: If there ex­ists some in­for­ma­tion about some­one that, if re­vealed, would cause peo­ple to co­or­di­nate to pun­ish them, then it’s good for this in­for­ma­tion to be re­vealed be­cause on av­er­age it’s good for such peo­ple to be pun­ished. Black­mail re­wards peo­ple for in­ves­ti­gat­ing covert illicit be­hav­ior that would oth­er­wise re­main un­de­tected, and cor­re­spond­ingly pun­ishes the peo­ple en­gag­ing in that be­hav­ior. Zvi offered two in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ments against this, which I’ll ad­dress one at a time.

The ar­gu­ment against leverage

First, Zvi re­sponded that black­mail is ob­vi­ously bad be­cause it cre­ates the in­cen­tive to pres­sure peo­ple into covertly be­hav­ing in ways that would get them in trou­ble if re­vealed, in or­der to to have lev­er­age over them—which can then be used to force more covert bad be­hav­ior for yet more lev­er­age. When done at scale, this can lead to both large amounts of bad be­hav­ior which would not have oth­er­wise oc­curred, and large lev­els of ex­trac­tion. Peo­ple can get away with sub­tle and in­di­rect black­mail already. But so long as it’s tech­ni­cally ille­gal, re­peated lev­er­aged black­mail at scale is not a fea­si­ble strat­egy; a large firm spe­cial­iz­ing in black­mail would quickly be­come un­pop­u­lar, and the tar­get of reg­u­la­tory scrutiny. This ar­gu­ment as­sumes a prior state where some agents already have enough lev­er­age over most peo­ple to force them to en­gage in mildly illicit be­hav­ior. But any agent in a po­si­tion to do that could eas­ily use their lev­er­age to force their vic­tim to ex­tract some sort of perfectly le­gal fur­ther lev­er­age, such as bor­row­ing at a high rate of in­ter­est, or mak­ing their lifestyle de­pend in­creas­ingly on some core bot­tle­neck con­trol­led by the ex­tor­tion­ist. This too con­strains the vic­tim to do what the ex­tor­tion­ist says, lest they de­fault on their obli­ga­tion and lose ev­ery­thing.<br/​>This ar­gu­ment against black­mail is not spe­cific to black­mail, but seems in­stead to be a gen­eral con­sid­er­a­tion against cap­i­tal­ism, pri­va­ti­za­tion, and do­ing busi­ness at scale—since these em­power pos­i­tive feed­back loops of rent-seek­ing be­hav­ior.

The ar­gu­ment against information

Zvi also offers an ar­gu­ment that is more purely tar­geted against black­mail. Even with­out lev­er­aged schemes to man­u­fac­ture ever-in­creas­ing amounts of illicit be­hav­ior as the raw ma­te­rial for black­mail, al­low­ing black­mailers to go into busi­ness at scale would in­crease the to­tal amount of black­mail performed, ex­tract­ing large amounts of wealth from peo­ple do­ing perfectly or­di­nary illicit things. Most of us do things that we would be pun­ished for if they were re­vealed, and it can’t be good to take money away from nearly ev­ery­one, so we shouldn’t le­gal­ize black­mail. Cru­cially, Zvi treats re­veal­ing the in­for­ma­tion as a net harm here. It’s even worse, on his model, than ex­tract­ing money from the vic­tim; it’s a dead­weight loss, harm in­flicted on the vic­tim with no cor­re­spond­ing benefit to the black­mailer. This ar­gu­ment fails in a more in­ter­est­ing way, since it de­nies the fun­da­men­tal premise of Han­son’s ar­gu­ment: that we benefit both from find­ing out about illicit acts, and by pun­ish­ing them. Zvi in­stead seems to think that if so­ciety as a whole were bet­ter-in­formed about what peo­ple were do­ing, it would in gen­eral on av­er­age make worse de­ci­sions, by pun­ish­ing more peo­ple who ought not to be pun­ished. Licit black­mail at scale wouldn’t just pun­ish peo­ple for hypocrisy—it would re­veal the un­der­ly­ing rate of hypocrisy. Soon, ev­ery­one would know that it’s an or­di­nary part of life to pay off black­mailers. Peo­ple would have a gen­eral idea what sort of be­hav­ior is black­mailable, be­cause the be­hav­ior of the oc­ca­sional per­son who re­fuses to pay would be re­vealed. In a so­ciety that’s try­ing at all to do a sen­si­ble thing, we should ex­pect two things to hap­pen in re­sponse to this situ­a­tion. First, by effec­tively tax­ing illicit be­hav­ior, we should ex­pect get less of it. Se­cond, once peo­ple find out how com­mon cer­tain kinds of illicit be­hav­ior are, we should ex­pect the penalties to be re­duced. Zvi counts both of these as costs, not benefits. But for more re­li­able pun­ish­ment of and more fre­quent rev­e­la­tion of illicit be­hav­ior to be harm­ful, so­ciety has to be try­ing to get the wrong an­swer. If you think that peo­ple are worse off when bet­ter in­formed—if our so­ciety is that per­verse—then it’s not clear what we’re do­ing when we pre­tend to offer con­se­quen­tial­ist ar­gu­ments on policy de­ci­sions like whether to le­gal­ize black­mail. The gen­eral con­sid­er­a­tion that you ex­pect peo­ple to make bet­ter de­ci­sions when bet­ter in­formed doesn’t ap­ply here.

Hop­ing for or against justice

Zvi’s ar­gu­ment isn’t an­a­lyt­i­cally rigor­ous—it ap­peals to an im­plied shared feel­ing about black­mail. He doesn’t ar­tic­u­late a clear model of how the rele­vant parts of the sys­tem work, and then show that in equil­ibrium, the harms caused by le­gal­iz­ing black­mail out­weigh its benefits. He doesn’t even as­sess its benefits. He just tells a vivid story about some pos­si­ble costs it could im­pose. I no­tice I’m in­clined to do the op­po­site—fo­cus on ways black­mail re­pairs prob­lems. I think this re­flects two very differ­ent per­spec­tives on how jus­tice re­lates to hypocrisy (though I’m used to see­ing Zvi on my side on this is­sue and am still a bit sur­prised we seem to be dis­agree­ing here). In the tra­di­tional Latin mass, judg­ment day is de­scribed as a catas­tro­phe from which the singer seeks re­fuge:

Dies irae, dies illa
Solvet sae­clum in fav­illa,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quan­tus tremor est fu­tu­rus,
Quando judex est ven­tu­rus,
Cuncta stricte dis­cus­su­rus!

Tuba mirum spar­gens sonum
Per sepul­cra re­gionum,
Co­get omnes ante thronum.

Mors stu­pebit et natura,
Cum re­sur­get crea­tura,
Ju­di­canti re­spon­sura.

Liber scrip­tus pro­fere­tur,
In quo to­tum con­tine­tur,
Unde mundus ju­dice­tur.

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet ap­parebit.
Nil inul­tum re­manebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dic­turus?
Quem pa­tronum ro­gatu­rus,
Cum vix jus­tus sit se­cu­rus?

Here’s an ap­prox­i­mate trans­la­tion:

The day of wrath, that day
shall dis­solve the world in ashes,
tes­tifies David with the Sibyl.

What trem­bling there will be
When the judge shall come
to weigh ev­ery­thing strictly!

The won­drous trum­pet scat­ter­ing sound
Across the graves of all the re­gions
Calls all be­fore the throne.

Death and na­ture shall be stu­pefied
When Creation arises
Re­spon­sive to the Judge.

A writ­ten book shall be proffered
In which all is con­tained
Whereby the world shall be judged

When the judge takes his seat
all that is hid­den shall ap­pear
Noth­ing will re­main un­avenged.

What shall I, a wretch, say then?
To which pa­tron shall I ap­peal
When even the just man is barely se­cure?

The Jewish liturgy about di­v­ine judg­ment can be quite differ­ent. Every week, at the be­gin­ning of the Sab­bath, Jews around the world sing Psalms a col­lec­tion of psalms fo­cused on the idea that the world is re­joic­ing be­cause God is fi­nally com­ing to judge it.

From Psalm 96:

Say among the na­tions that the Lord reigns: the world shall so be es­tab­lished that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the peo­ples with up­right­nesses. Let the heav­ens re­joice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and its ful­l­ness. Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it: then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy. Be­fore the Lord: for he comes, for he comes to judge the land: he shall judge the world with jus­tice, and the peo­ples in his faith­ful­ness.

From Psalm 98:

Melodize to the Lord with harp; with harp, and melodic voice. With the trum­pets, and the voice of the horn, shout be­fore the king, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and its ful­l­ness; the world, and those who dwell in it. Rivers shall clap their hands; to­gether, the moun­tains shall sing for joy. Be­fore the Lord: for he comes, for he comes to judge the land: he shall judge the world with jus­tice, and the peo­ples in his faith­ful­ness.

In one of these out­looks, hu­mans can’t be­have well enough to stand up to pure jus­tice, so we should put off the day of judg­ment for as long as we can, and seek pro­tec­tion. In the other, the world is groan­ing un­der the ac­cu­mu­lated weight of hypocrisy and sin, and only the rec­on­cili­a­tion of ac­counts can free us; in con­stant flux due to ever-shift­ing sto­ries, which can only be sta­bi­lized by a true judge.

We can’t rec­on­cile ac­counts if that means pun­ish­ing all bad be­hav­ior ac­cord­ing to the cur­rent hyp­o­crit­i­cal regime’s sched­ule of pun­ish­ments. But a true rec­on­cili­a­tion also means ad­just­ing the pun­ish­ments to a level where we’d be happy, not sad, to see them ap­plied con­sis­tently. (Some­times the cor­rect pun­ish­ment is noth­ing be­yond the ac­count­ing it­self.)

In wor­lds where hypocrisy is nor­mal, hon­esty is pun­ished, since the most hon­est peo­ple will tend to re­veal de­p­re­ca­tory in­for­ma­tion oth­ers might con­ceal, and be pun­ished for it. We get less of what we pun­ish. But hon­esty isn’t just a weird quirk—it’s the only way to get to the stars.

“The first prin­ci­ple is that you must not fool your­self, and you are the eas­iest per­son to fool.”—Richard Feynman