The Lighter Side of Blackmail

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Dr. Walter Block, professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and unrepentant anarchist, made the claim in his 1976 book, Defending the Undefendable, that there is nothing inherently immoral about blackmail and in fact if legalized could reduce immoral activities overall.

Let us test Dr. Block’s hypothesis in David Letterman’s recent case and perhaps discover a new perspective on the morality of blackmail.

According to Block, blackmail is simply an offer to keep silent in exchange for another good, usually money. If the offer is accepted, then the blackmailer keeps quiet. If the offer is rejected, the blackmailer exercises his freedom of speech, which in this case is to go public with a certain truth.

By telling the truth no crime is committed, so why should an offer to keep silent be illegal?

Walter Block defines in general terms that blackmail is the threat to do something — anything which in itself is not illegal — unless certain demands are met.

Take for instance a potential boycott. Perhaps a nationwide religious group’s leadership meets and demands that their constituents should no longer buy from companies that advertise on The Late Show until David Letterman is replaced with Kirk Cameron. Couldn’t this threatening action be construed as blackmail? If Company X does not give in to Demand Y, then Action Z will be taken. Logically, blackmail and boycotts work on the same principle.

In another example, CBS makes their employees sign non-disclosure agreements. These contracts protect the network from leaks that could damage its ability to attract an audience. Couldn’t non-disclosure agreements be construed as blackmail? If Person A does not maintain silence, he will be fired and possibly sued. Isn’t this a threat? Possibly, but it’s perfectly legal and no network would allow its employees — or even visitors — leave the premises without signing these documents. Can’t networks instead pay their employees and guests to stay quiet about a show until it is aired? Doesn’t that make more sense? Perhaps we should boycott the networks until they change their policy…

Lastly, if blackmail were legal, it may have prevented David Letterman from acting immorally in the first place. Perhaps he was a day away from putting himself in a situation where he would give into his temptations and sleep with a staffer. If blackmail were legal, there would no doubt be more blackmailers, so Letterman would have to factor that into his decision. He would have to know that there might be little chance to keep such an action a secret. Factor that in with the huge numbers of marginally paid employees at CBS and his chances of having wanton sex without consequences would be close to zero. With this knowledge, wouldn’t Letterman think twice before dropping his pants?

As humans with certain natural rights, we have the freedom to speak, and we also have the freedom to not speak. We also have the right to make offers and engage in trades. Therefore, the person in the wrong wasn’t necessarily the blackmailer since he did not commit any real crime.

I for one do not condone blackmail. It is my hope that in the future, the thought of committing a crime or immoral activity would be incentive enough not to engage in the action. Until that time is reached, perhaps we are better off with blackmail than without.

Todd Steinberg [send him mail] or [friend him on Facebook] is creator of the upcoming series “Don’t Tell My Wife I’m a Cult Leader” and a principal of a wholesale teddy bear company in Dallas.

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