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Block: Defending the Blackmailer


[Excerpted from Defending the Undefendable.]

At first glance it is not hard to answer the question, "Is blackmail really illegitimate?" The only problem it would seem to pose is, "Why is it being asked at all?"

Do not blackmailers, well, blackmail people? And what could be worse? Blackmailers prey on people's dark, hidden secrets. They threaten to expose and publicize them. They bleed their victims and often drive them to suicide.

We will find, however, that the case against the blackmailer cannot stand serious analysis; that it is based upon a tissue of unexamined shibboleths and deep philosophical misunderstandings.

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.

The sole difference between a gossip and a blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking — for a price. In a sense, the gossip is much worse than the blackmailer, for the blackmailer has given the blackmailed a chance to silence him. The gossip exposes the secret without warning. Is not the person with a secret better off at the hands of a blackmailer than a gossip?

With the gossip, all is lost; with the blackmailer, one can only gain, or at least be no worse off. If the price requested by the blackmailer is lower than the secret is worth, the secret-keeper will pay the blackmailer — this being the lesser of the two evils. He thus gains the difference to him between the value of the secret and the price of the blackmail.

When the blackmailer demands more than the secret is worth, his demand will not be met and the information will become public. However, in this case the person is no worse off with the blackmailer than he would have been with the inveterate gossip. 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 slight contempt and smugness.

Blackmail need not entail the offer of silence in return for money. This is only the best known form: it may be defined without reference to either. Defined in general terms, blackmail is the threat to do something — anything that is not in itself illegal — unless certain demands are met.

Many actions in the public arena qualify as acts of blackmail, but, instead of being vilified, they have often attained a status of respectability! For example, the recent lettuce boycott is a form of blackmail. Through the lettuce boycott (or any boycott), threats are made to retailers and wholesalers of fruits and vegetables. If they handle nonunion lettuce, the boycotters assert, people will be asked not to patronize their establishments. This conforms perfectly to the definition: a threat that something, not in itself illegal, will take place unless certain demands are met.

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Contact Walter Block

Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at Loyola University, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, and regular columnist for LewRockwell.com.

Click here to see an extensive online compendium of Dr. Block's publications.

Click here for a complete list of Dr. Block's books.

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