Blackmail as a Victimless Crime: Reply to Altman
49 Pages Posted: 4 May 1998
Date Written: March 1998
The legal theory of blackmail is the veritable puzzle surrounded by a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Consider. Blackmail consists of two things, each indisputably legal on their own; yet, when combined in a single act, the result is considered a crime. What are the two things? First, there is either a threat or an offer. In the former case, it is, typically, to publicize an embarrassing secret; in the latter, it is to remain silent about this information. Second, there is a demand or a request for funds or other valuable considerations. When put together, there is a threat that unless paid off, the secret will be told.
Either of these things, standing alone, is perfectly legal. To tell an embarrassing secret is to do no more than gossip; no one has ever been incarcerated for that. To ask for money is likewise a legitimate activity, as everyone from Bill Clinton to the beggar to the fund raiser for the local charity can attest. Yet when combined, the result is called blackmail and it is widely seen as a crime.
But that is just the puzzle. The mystery is that over a dozen attempts to account for this puzzle have been written, and not a one of them agrees to any great extent with any other. It is as if there are a plethora of witnesses to a motor vehicle accident, each not only disagreeing with all the others, but each telling a completely different story. The enigma is that with the exception of a corporal's guard of commentators, no one has seen fit to assert the contrary: that two legal "whites" cannot make an illegal "black."
This is precisely the point of the present paper. The authors maintain that since it is legal to gossip, it should therefore not be against the law to threaten to gossip, unless paid off not to do so. In a word, blackmail is a victimless crime, and must be legalized, if justice is to be attained. The authors also reply to a paper written by Scott Altman, who takes a different position.
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