Re-Assessing the Morality of Blackmail in the Age of Social Media
The recent congressional hearing of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg illuminates the complicated questions raised by our ever evolving technologically immersed society. The idea of a person or entity being able to track the digital viewing habits of innumerable individuals posits concern about the permissibility of encroaching on private lives. Fortunately, the concept of invading the intimacy of another person's day to day dealings for financial gain has been addressed before, in the form of blackmail.
Blackmail is often perceived as contemptable due to the devastating economic and social impact it wreaks upon its victims. Loss of reputation, estrangement, and financial ruin are among numerous consequences that await those who have unflattering information held against them. As heart wrenching as the outcomes of blackmail may appear, this is not to say that it infringes upon individual rights. In fact, noted economist Walter Block has produced a prolific amount of work concerning blackmail and personal liberty. One of his most significant and extensive works, Legalize Blackmail, combats the most eminent theories of blackmail from the perspective of libertarian law. Notably, while criticizing Leo Kratz’s evaluation of blackmail as immoral due to its retaliatory nature, Block points out that “The blackmailer never invades, or threatens to invade, anyone’s boundar,” then provides an example of the victim seeking the information holder to persuade him, with money, not to release said information.
Assessing Blackmail in Light of Mises's "Hegemonic Bonds"
According to Mises in Human Action, there are two forms of bonds in social cooperation: Hegemonic bonds and Contractual bonds. Mises describes a hegemonic bond as “cooperation by command and subordination.”This bond gives way to a scenario where one class of men (directors) dictates the actions of the other class (wards). While Directors, under a hegemonic bond, can act indefinitely, Wards only make the choice between the consequences of obedience and disobedience. Once obedience and subordination are chosen, the director assigns actions to the ward. This is in contrast with a contractual bond where the individuals have a much larger scope of choices (Mises also mentions the need for a symmetrical relationship between the two parties but does not elaborate much further than this). I distinguish the differences as thus: in a contractual agreement, the propositioned party can voluntarily return to the previous status quo (life before the offer is made) without any infringement upon their property. With hegemonic agreements, the propositioned party will have to face a penalty that infringes on their property to return to the previous status quo. Suppose person A and person B are eating lunch, and A wants B to dispose of their plates but B refuses. A then threatens to physically harm B if B does not heed to his demand. In this scenario A has placed a cost on retaining the present health status of B’s body, i.e. his property. B has been placed in a situation where if he wants to retain the current condition of his property, his body, he will have to physically struggle against A. Even if B successfully defends himself against A so flawlessly that B incurs no physical injuries, B would’ve still used his property in a way that diverted from his preferred use due to the nonconsensual costs imposed upon him by another party.
Nowhere throughout the act of blackmail do the victims pay a penalty on their property. A person who has unflattering information held against them is not restrained in any fashion from using their bodies and material possessions as they were before (This is excluding the possibility that the blackmail victim committed a crime, in which relinquishing material possessions or free bodily use would be in due course). As with a contractual bond, the offered party (blackmail victim) is allowed greater freedom in terms of their rightfully owned property. This, however, is wholly different from saying that the blackmail victim will be allowed to use other’s property as the victim did before. What blackmail does in a sense is place a price on not indirectly convincing others to use their mental facilities in ways that they were not previously using them. While this can and usually does influence how the blackmail victim is received in his or her community, the victim is not being deprived of any property right. The only losses a blackmail victim suffers are the ones others are inclined to take away anyway. The victim may be denied admission from certain establishments based on the information presented by the blackmailer, yet privately owned establishments have a right to accept or deny whomever they want to on any bases. Although members of the community may choose to disassociate with the victim, their company was never owned by the victim anyway. Diminish reputation may also await a person whose contemptable deeds have been exposed. This also does not violate a blackmail victim's property. To quote Rothbard in Man, Economy, and State:
a man has no such objective property as “reputation.” His reputation is simply what others think of him, i.e., it is purely a function of the subjective thoughts of others. But a man cannot own the minds or thoughts of others.
Each opinion is owned by an individual, so one cannot claim legitimate ownership of the final product of those opinions, since each marginal input belongs to a different person. Furthermore, since each individual is the rightful owner of their own body, then anything that individual produces with the sole use of their own body is also rightfully theirs, since they would’ve mixed their labor with something that was inherently theirs to begin with. This would include the labor of using one’s mind to form an opinion.
I will use the Dennis Hastert case to display this theory in a real setting. When former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert worked as a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School, he sexually abused 4 wrestlers and the team equipment manager. One of the victims, dubbed Individual A (of whom this analysis will focus on), chose not to publicly expose Hastert’s misdeeds so long as he was financially compensated with $3.5 million by Hastert. Eventually Individual A was confronted by the authorities and, by law, had to disclose the details of Hastert’s transgressions.
In this situation, Hastert committed an act of theft unto Individual A by sexually assaulting him. When a person commits sexual assault they are deriving sexual pleasure, but from another person without his or her permission. This is akin to robbing someone of a particular service. During the act of theft, the owner of the stolen property is still the title holder of said property, even if it’s not in the owner’s physical possession. If someone steals Jon Doe’s car from his garage, the car still belongs to Jon Doe, even if he does not have physical access to it. This logic extends to forced sexual activity. Although Individual A already had sexual pleasure derived from the use of his body without his consent, he still owns the ability to lease his body for sexual services to whomever he pleases, provided the circumstances are in Individual A’s favor. Since Hastert robbed Individual A from setting his own preferences for their sexual arrangement, Individual A has the right to seek compensation for the service that was stolen from the faculty (his body) that is inherently his own. The blackmail price of $3.5 million is simply the appraisal of the liberties Hastert took on Individual A. Since the service was already consumed by Hastert, he is obliged to compensate Individual A.
Hastert was not placed in a hegemonic bond by being blackmailed. Hastert paid no penalty on his property that he was not already obliged to pay by his actions towards Individual A. Furthermore, Hastert wouldn’t have faced any unwarranted punishment had he refused to pay for Individual A’s silence. By committing sexual assault, Hastert made himself eligible for legal imprisonment anyway. Financial payment was simply an agreed upon alternative by both parties. To say the blackmailing of Hastert was a hegemonic bond would be to say that Individual A transgressed upon Hastert returning to the normalcy of his life before the blackmail. This insinuates that Individual A did not have the right to hold Hastert accountable for his crime in the first place.
During the publicization of the scandal Hastert suffered a "state of despair caused by extreme isolation and the withdrawal of support from many friends and former colleagues." Moral judgment aside, Hastert was never, and is still not, entitled to the company of anyone. People choose amongst themselves who to associate with based on whatever criteria they deem appropriate. The people who chose to disassociate with Hastert made a rational decision based on the information at their disposal.
We do not know of cases in which social media companies have employed blackmail as a way to take advantage of information gleaned about users. However, as social media matures, we will likely be faced with many situations in which social media companies are in a position to disclose information about their customers to third parties — information those customers might prefer not be shared. These situation are not strictly analagous to blackmail, of course, because they do not involve demands for money, and the information in question was often directly given to the social media company by the customers. Nevertheless, the problem of attempting to control information about one's self is a growing issue. The insights of Rothbard and Block into the nature of blackmail may prove fruitful in better understanding this phenomenon in the future.