The Blackmailer as Hero

by Walter Block

retrieved from The Libertarian Forum VOLUME IV, NO. 10 DECEMBER, 1972

(All original emphasis conveyed via italicization is absent here, sry.)

Is blackmail really illegitimate? At first glance it is not hard to answer this question. The only problem it would seem to pose is why it is being asked at all. For do not blackmailers well,... blackmail people? And what could be worse? Blackmailers prey on your most hidden deep dark secrets they threaten to publicize them, they bleed you white, they can even drive you to suicide. Blackmail is so evil that even to consider its legitimacy will strike many as an unmitigated evil; even those scholars who would otherwise favor the spirit of free and untrammeled inquiry.
_ We shall push on in any case. And we shall find that the critique of the blackmailer falls like a house of cards; we shall find that the case against blackmail is based on a tissue of unexamined shibbleths, blown out of all proportion, and on deep philosophical misunderstandings.
_ What, exactly, is blackmail? Blackmail is the offer of a trade; it is the offer to trade something, usually silence, for some other good, usually money. If the offer of the blackmail trade is accepted, then the blackmailer maintains his silence and the blackmailee pays the agreed amount of money. If the blackmail offer is rejected, then the blackmailer may exercise his right of free speech, and perhaps announce and publicize the secret. Notice that 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 rights of free speech, something he has a complete right to do in the first place, whether or not the offer is made or accepted.
_ The only difference between a gossip or blabbermouth and the blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking - for a price. In a sense the gossip or the blabbermouth is much worse than the blackmailer, for the blackmailer at least gives you a chance to shut him up. The blabbermouth and gossip just up and spill the beans. A person with a secret he wants kept will be much better off if a blackmailer rather than a gossip or blabbermouth gets hold of it. With the blabber-mouth or gossip, as we have said, all is lost. With the blackmailer, one can only gain, or at worst, be no worse off. If the price required by the blackmailer for his silence is worth less than the secret, the secretsholder will pay off, and accept the lesser of the two evils. He will gain the difference to him between the value of the secret and the price of the blackmailer. It is only in the case that the blackmailer demands more than the secret is worth that the information gets publicized. But in this case the secret-keeper is no worse off with the blackmailer than with the inveterate gossip. (He may still be better off with the blackmailer, even here, because the typical blackmailer gains nothing if he publicizes the secret - except the dubious value of making sure that the secret-keeper knows he is not bluffing - so the secret keeper may well be able to bargain down the blackmailer's price.) It is indeed difficult, then, to account for the vilification suffered by the blackmailer, at least compared to the gossip, who is usually dismissed with merely slight contempt.
_ Blackmail need not entail the offer of silence in return for money. This is only the most well known form. More generally, blackmail may be defined as threatening to do something, anything, (which is otherwise entirely legal) unless unless the blackmailer's demands, financial or otherwise, are met. In its more general form there are several acts which qualify as blackmail but interestingly enough, far from receiving the vilification associated with blackmail, have even attained respectability among certain segments of the population. As an example, let us consider the lettuce boycott, beloved of every radio-lib worth his limousine.
_ The lettuce boycott is (a form of) blackmail!! What is being done in the lettuce boycott (and every other boycott, for that matter), what the lettuce boycott consists of, is making threats to various retailers and wholesalers of fruits and vegetables. These threats are that if the retailer or wholesaler handles non-union lettuce, people will be asked not to patronize their establishments. The not inconsiderable energies, time, and money of the lettuce boycott movement will be brought to bear on all handlers of non-union lettuce.
_ Now, there are plenty of reasons to oppose the boycott of non-union lettuce. But I am here concerned to show that the lettuce boycott is indeed blackmail, and that, as a form of blackmail, it is entirely legitimate. We can see that the lettuce boycott conforms perfectly to the more general definition of blackmail as a threat that something oherwise entirely legal will take place unless the blackmailer's demands are met. In this case, the threat is to withhold patronage from establishments unless they refuse to handle non-union lettuce. Although it is not legal to threaten this, it is perfectly legal not to patronize establishments that one, for any reason, does not like. So the lettuce boycott is legitimate, and blackmail as well, a pair of strange bedfellows if ever there was one.
_ Let us consider the question of the threats involved in blackmail, because perhaps more than anything else, it is this aspect of blackmail that is most misunderstood and feared. Now threats are usually considered evil, and rightly so. The usual dictum against aggression warns of aggression against non-aggressors as well as the threat of such aggression. And the reason is not hard to fathom. If a highwayman were to accost us, it is usually the threat of aggression that will get us to do his bidding. It is the threat of aggression that will relieve us of our possessions. If the highwayman actually had to use aggression against us, as opposed to the threat thereof, it would be practically an admission of defeat. So the threat of aggression is entirely illegitimate.
_ But notice that the threat involved in blackmail is entirely different. In aggression, what is being threatened is aggressive violence, something that the aggressor has no right to do. In blackmail, however, what is being "threatened" is something that the blackmailer most certainly does have a right to do! To exercise his right of free speech, to gossip about our secrets, or in the case of the lettuce boycott, to threaten not to patronize certain stores. One can hardly call the "threat" in blackmail a real threat. When contrasted to the real threat of the highwayman, the "threat" of the blackmailer can only be characterized as an offer to keep silent, and not as a real threat at all. The blackmailer never threatens bodily violence or any type of violence. If he did, he would no longer be a legitimate blackmailer; he would be an illegitimate aggressor, who uses threats as a means of coercion.
_ There is one case where blackmail would not be legitimate, but not because it is blackmail. It would rather be illegitimate because it would be in violation of a contract. For instance, if the secret-keeper takes a lawyer or a private investigator into his confidence on the condition that, among other things, the confidence be maintained in secrecy, then, if the lawyer or private investigator turns around and tries to blackmail him, it would be in violation of the contract, and therefore illegitimate. It is only when the blackmail violates an agreement that it is illegitimate. If there is no contract, if it is a perfect stranger who holds the secret, then the blackmail is legitimate because perfect strangers have free speech rights. It is only someone who has sold his right to speak freely (about the secrets of his client) like the lawyer or the private investigator who then has no right to engage in blackmail.
_ In addition to being a legitimate activity, blackmail has many good effects, the litanies to the contrary notwithstanding. And once we get over the shock that there is anything at all that can be said in favor of blackmail, it is not too surprising that this should be so. For apart from some innocent victims that get caught in the net, who does the blackmailer prey upon? There are two groups. On the one hand we have the murderer, the thief, the swindler, the embezzler, the cheater, the rapist, etc., all criminals and violators of the stricture against aggression upon non-aggressors. On the other hand we have people who engage in activities which are not illegitimate themselves, but go against the mores and habits of the majority of the people. There are the homosexuals, the sado-masochists, the sex perverts, the communists, the adulterers, etc. It is my contention that the institution of blackmail has beneficial, but different, effects on each of these groups, none of which seem to have been realized by writers on the subject. Let us consider them each in turn.
_ In the case of the criminals, blackmail, the threat of blackmail, and the very existence of the institution of blackmail serves as a hindrance. It makes the payoff to the criminal less certain and less rewarding because if caught, the criminal must now share some of his "hard won" loot with the blackmailer, with the risk that the blackmailer can always turn him in. Even with blackmail illegal, this can have a much greater effect than many people would believe possible. How many of the anonymous "tips" received by the police can be traced, directly or indirectly, to blackmail? And the value of these tips cannot be over estimated. How many criminals are led to pursue crime on their own, eschewing the aid of fellow criminals in "jobs" that call for cooperation - out of fear of possible later blackmail? Since there are always some people on the verge of committing crimes, or at the margin of criminality, as the economist would say, where the least factor will propel them one way or another, the additional fear of crime-related blackmail may be enough, in many cases, to dissuade them from crime.
_ Imagine then how much more effective blackmail would be in curtailing real crime if blackmail itself were legalized! Then the blackmailer would not have to worry about possible legal steps being taken against him because of his public-spirited preying on criminals. This would undoubtedly encourage the quantity and quality of such blackmail efforts, with attendent depredations upon our criminal class.
_ It is sometimes said that what diminishes crime is not the penalty attached to the crime but the certainty of being caught. Although this controversy rages with great relevance in the debates on capital punishment, we need not enter into it here. For our purposes it will suffice to point out that the institution of blackmail does both. It increases the penalty associated with crime, since criminals are forced to share a part of their loot with the blackmailer. It also raises the probability of being caught, as the blackmailers are now added to the police, private citizens, vigilantes and others whose function if not purpose it is to suppress crime. And let it be added that blackmailers who can often be members of the criminal gang in good standing are in an especially good position to foil crimes. Their "inside" position surpasses even that of a spy or infiltrator. who is forced to play a part. The blackmailer can live the part of the criminal, for until he turns against the gang as a blackmailer, he really is a criminal. Legalizing blackmail also will at one fell swoop allow us to take advantage of not one but two crime-fighting adages: "divide and conquer," and "take advantage of the lack of honor among thieves." So it is pretty clear that one effect of legalizing blackmail will be to diminish crimes of aggression.

The legalization of blackmail will also have good effects upon actions which may be illegal but are not criminal in the sense that they involve aggression but are at variance with the mores of the majority of the people. Far from suppressing them, the legalization of blackmail will have a liberating effect.

Even now, with blackmail still illegal, we are witnessing some of its beneficial effects. Let us take homosexuality as an example. Homosexuality may be illegal but is not really criminal since it involves no aggression. For individual homosexuals, we must admit, blackmail causes untold harm and can hardly be considered beneficial. But for the group as a whole, or rather, for each individual as a member of the group, blackmail has helped. Blackmail has helped the gay community as a whole by making homosexuality more widely known, by making the public more accustomed to homosexuality, and by placing the homosexual in a more open light. In so doing, the blackmailer has contributed to forcing the homosexuals to make themselves more known. Let it be repeated. Forcing individual members of a downtrodden group out into the open, or "out of the closet'', can by no stretch of the imagination be considered doing them a favor. Forcing anyone to do anything can usually only violate rights; and forcing someone to do something "for his own good" is a particular rung in hell reserved for liberals. But still it must be realized that practically the only way a downtrodden group of people can attairi liberation is by being known to each other so that they can cooperate with each other. And it must be realized that one important effect of blackmail is to force people out into the open where they will be able to know each other. In this way blackmail can legitimately claim some small share in the credit for the liberation of groups whose only crime is to deviate from the norm in some non-criminal way.

It is not surprising that this should be so when we reflect upon the old aphorism that "the truth shall make you free". For the only "weapon" at the disposal of the blackmailer is the truth. If it were not for the truth, the blackmailer would be in no position to be able to blackmail. But in using the truth to back up his threats, as upon occasion he must, without any intention on his part he sets the truth free to do whatever good, as well as whatever bad, it is capable of doing.