(From the Ask Dr. Ruwart section in Volume 20, No. 3 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)
QUESTION: I am concerned about the problem of blackmail. Some libertarians, as you recently discussed, consider blackmail simply an economic interaction involving the exchange of information that, however distasteful, does not involve direct use of force against others, and therefore should be legal. However, I am hard pressed to think of any instance of blackmail where no one is being harmed. As libertarians shouldn’t we base our actions upon sober observation of what is actually happening in a given situation, not on some abstract concept of free speech?
Please comment on these two examples:
EXAMPLE ONE: A gay man lives in a conservative neighborhood, but loves his community. His friends would not understand his orientation. I find out, and offer to not tell anyone — for a fee. Is it just a business interaction that I hold the threat of ruining his life over his head to coerce him into giving to me what belongs to him, when he has harmed no one?
MY SHORT ANSWER: I suspect that not all libertarians would have the same answer to this question. Here’s mine:
If you simply told this man’s friends that he was gay, you would only be saying what is true. It would be his so-called friends who harm him by shying away from him because of that truth. This very scenario undoubtedly happens a lot. The only reason that you would share this information is to disrupt this man’s life by revealing something he has kept private. While that’s certainly unkind, it isn’t legally actionable.
Sexual orientation is something that most of us would consider private, and not something that neighbors and friends should necessarily be privy to. But If the man wants to pay you not to reveal the truth to his friends, you aren’t coercing him.
Of course, someone could make a living discovering things about people that they wouldn’t want broadcast and suggesting that they pay him not to tell unsavory truths. That could backfire if one of his “clients” decided to share just how this person made his money, leaving few people excited about interacting with him.
EXAMPLE TWO: A young woman is assaulted and I know who did it. I offer to keep silent for a fee. Is it merely a business interaction if I allow a rapist to continue to prey on the community so I can get paid?
MY SHORT ANSWER: No. In this case, you know the identity of an aggressor. In today’s society, and most likely in a libertarian one, you would be considered an accomplice if you let the aggressor pay you to keep silent.
The principle here is not, in my opinion, free speech, but whether you are using first-strike force, fraud, or theft against your neighbor. In the case of accepting money from the rapist, you are colluding with an aggressor so that he can continue to perpetrate harm on others. That would make you, in most people’s eyes, an aggressor too.
LEARN MORE: Suggestions by Liberator Online editor James W. Harris for further reading on this topic:
* “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.”
* Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick. Nozick was a libertarian and one of the premiere philosophers of the twentieth century, and Anarchy, State and Utopia is widely regarded as one of the most important philosophical books of the century. Nozick briefly discusses blackmail and the case for prohibiting it near the end of chapter four, but unfortunately I cannot find an excerpt online. You can read a summary of Nozick’s argument in “Blackmail, Extortion and Free Speech: A Reply to Posner, Epstein, Nozick and Lindgren“ by Walter Block and David Gordon, who disagree with it and offer opposing arguments.
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