Robin Hanson’s latest entry in his series of posts about blackmail, “Blackmail Enforces Law,” contains the kernel of a valid idea:
[L]egalizing blackmail would create an especially cheap and flexible system of private law enforcement. If an associate of a criminal discovered evidence of their crime, this associate could via blackmail extract close to the cash equivalent of the punishment to the criminal. While this might modestly lower the level of punishment of a caught criminal, it should greatly increase the probability of punishment, leading to more expected punishment of crime.
Hanson’s claim is flawed by its detachment from reality. Blackmailing a criminal is not a life-prolonging exercise. But Hanson is onto something, though he may not know it. That “something” is the undoubted fact that — aside from sociopaths and persons who are severely mentally ill or retarded, mentally — human beings strive to earn approval (and even praise) and to avoid disapproval (and even ridicule).
Hanson comes close to acknowledging this crucial point when he says:
One unmentioned possible cost of blackmail is a weakening of the bonds that tie people together. You’ll be less open to people who could blackmail you.
But he continues with his defense of blackmail as a socially valuable practice instead of pausing to reflect about “the bonds that tie people together.” Those bonds, as I suggest above, derive in part from the need to gain approval of others, while avoiding their disapproval.
How often does a person (well, perhaps not an academic of Hanson’s ilk) do or say something — or refrain from doing or saying something — in order to gain approval or avoid disapproval? I daresay that the only a small fraction of the actions influenced by the prospect of disapproval would be deemed worthy of blackmail. And then there are all of the actions that are influenced by the prospect of approval, and which are not contemplated in Hanson’s kind of traditional blackmail.
Hanson, once again, cannot see the forest because he is intent on inspecting a particular tree.
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