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Would Blackmail be Legal in a Libertarian Society?

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(From the Ask Dr. Ruwart section in Volume 19, No. 16 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

blackmailQuestion: How would a libertarian society deal with blackmail? Thinking of the blackmailer as a gossip offering the service of his silence for a fee, I cannot find any reason why it should be illegal in a libertarian society. Both parties receive something of value and the agreement is consensual.

My short answer: The criteria for illegality in a libertarian society would be: “Does it threaten first-strike force, fraud, or theft?” For example, if I pay blackmail to someone who would otherwise beat me, they are using the threat of first-strike force to take my money, very much like a thief does. This would clearly be against libertarian law.

If I pay blackmail to someone so that they won’t tell a true but embarrassing tale about me, I am not being threatened with first-strike force, fraud, or theft. Quite possibly, such “blackmail” might (depending upon the circumstances) be considered a private contract under libertarian law. If the blackmailer told his or her story anyway, I might be able to sue for contract violation!

If I pay blackmail to someone so that they won’t lie about me, the situation is not as clear. Many libertarians consider slander of a person’s reputation to be a violation of the non-aggression principle; others don’t.

LEARN MORE: Suggestions for further reading on this topic from Liberator Online editor James W. Harris:

* “Defending the Blackmailer“ by Walter Block. Walter Block has been writing about libertarianism and blackmail for decades. His collected writings on this topic are in his 2013 book Legalize Blackmail.

This provocative selection is a chapter from his classic 1976 book Defending the Undefendable, which you can download as a free ebook from the Mises Institute.

Excerpt: “What exactly is blackmail? Blackmail is the offer of trade. It is the offer to trade something, usually silence, for some other good, usually money. If the offer of the trade is accepted, the blackmailer then maintains his silence and the blackmailed pays the agreed-upon price.

“If the blackmail offer is rejected, the blackmailer may exercise his rights of free speech and publicize the secret. There is nothing amiss here. All that is happening is that an offer to maintain silence is being made. If the offer is rejected, the blackmailer does no more than exercise his right of free speech.”

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