Blackmail is a weird thing.
As Joe Weisenthal pointed out recently, it’s legal to go to the press and tell a story about someone, and it’s legal for someone to pay someone to keep quiet. So why is it illegal to threaten to do something you can legally do?
The New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe talks to several experts — law professors included — about this legal conundrum. “Most theorists,” she writes, “agree that blackmail should be legal; they just can’t agree on why.”
“10 Moral Paradoxes” author Saul Smilansky admitted most capitalistic transactions have tinges of blackmail, and that most divorces are rife with it. But, he said, our collective attitude toward blackmail is it is just so terrible we want it not to be legal.
And maybe it’s not because we are worried about it happening to other people, but that it could one day happen to us.
Other experts cite this “ick factor” — people are uncomfortable with the thought of someone having the power to legally hurt someone or for parties to agree to do something outside the norm. Like prostitution, it’s a theoretically consensual agreement where one party has a lot of the power. And though there are all sorts of situations where this is true, we choose to regulate the ones that “feel” the worst.
It should also be noted that extortion statutes, like New York’s, also address threats to tell a lie about someone. Blackmail, therefore, is not always this idea of paying “fair value” for that that you don’t want out there. Criminalizing blackmail also keeps someone from taking an agreed upon $10,000 and then asking for $10,000 more next week. The “Letterman” in the scenario would have no recourse but to sue the “blackmailing Halderman” for breach of contract, which would end up with the secret out anyway.
Keeping blackmail illegal also lessens the frequency, one would guess, of doing what is legal — but still not nice — and revealing secrets someone does not want revealed. People are usually a lot less interested in talking about someone if they are not going to get something out of it.
We are indeed a capitalistic society. If one cannot get a little cash, they probably will not bother at all. On the simplest of levels, blackmail laws let us all rest a little easier.
Read The New Yorker article here.
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