David Letterman and the illegality of blackmail

The David Letterman fracas has caused the New Yorker to pose this very Libertarian question: Why should blackmail be illegal? If information is a commodity, why should its sale be restricted or impeded?

Here’s a taste:

“The Marxists used to say that capitalism is like blackmail—everyone tries to buy people off. Many social transactions look like blackmail when you examine them.” He listed a few: “couples in divorce proceedings basically blackmailing each other to get a better deal,” consumers telling a company “if they don’t get a settlement they’ll go to the press”—in other words, any negotiations based on threats.

What makes blackmail different? “There’s no good reason to allow it,” Smilansky said. “But our attitude towards blackmail, that it’s so unusual, so terrible—it’s just sanctimonious.”

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11 comments Add your comment


October 13th, 2009
11:06 am

Do you not know that already blackmail is legal? Why, only yesterday our insurance giants threatened every American with higher health insurance premiums if the health care reform bill passes. That, my friend, is blackmail, but what you would expect from the oleaginous insurance salesmen.


October 13th, 2009
11:12 am

WHY NOT MAKE THE Atlanta-Obama-Journal ILLEGAL.-???/..


October 13th, 2009
11:48 am

Was actually thinking similar when this case was originally made public. Seems like the perp was trying to sell information to Letterman that he could have easily sold to the National Enquirer or TMZ. If he actually made the offer to “World-Wide Pants” (Letterman’s entertainment company) for the “exclusive” rights to the story, can he be found guilty? Seems weird, but I’m not sure they’ll get a conviction even under existing law.


October 13th, 2009
11:50 am

David….you’re an idiot!

Dash Riptide

October 13th, 2009
11:55 am

“If information is a commodity, why should its sale be restricted or impeded?”

Ironically, you just stated the rationale for outlawing blackmail. Blackmail is a coercive attempt to sell the nondisclosure of information to one who would prefer that the information be kept confidential. The whole point of the blackmailer’s effort is to gain from agreeing to restrict or impede the commoditization of certain information. Often, though not always, it is in the public interest for the information in question to be made public. In those cases, at least, blackmail should definitely be illegal, since it is akin to aiding and abetting wrongful conduct. In David Letterman’s case, since it was none of the public’s business where he was dipping his pen (wrongful though it may have been), there’s no reason for the government to prevent the blackmailer from gaining cash to keep a secret (rather than selling that secret to TMZ).


October 13th, 2009
12:02 pm

sharecropper – Their costs would go up and in turn, so would ours. It’s not rocket science.


October 13th, 2009
12:24 pm

Where to start?

W R Hearst analogy. A bad analogy, as the “powerful people” made the first offer, essentially to buy off the studio. Even if the studio had accepted the offer, it wouldn’t have been extortion, as the studio made a freely arrived at choice. As long as the studio didn’t raise the ante (compulsion), extortion doesn’t occur.

If Letterman had heard third-party that Halderman was writing a screenplay and then went to him with an offer, its legal. Contract arrived at freely by consenting adults. This is why citizens should want to restrain government as much as possible, as only government has the legal ability to compell action against one’s own interests.

Divorce actions are the personification of conflict, so most of the rules of contract don’t apply. As far as companies getting threatened, the question of threatening an economic entity becomes a cost/benefit question for the company.

In the case at hand, it’s fascinating that the Libertarian opines that the use of threats raises the basis for human interactions.


October 13th, 2009
12:32 pm

geoffdawg-healthcare insurance companys are a pack of liars. no it’s not rocket science.


October 13th, 2009
1:01 pm

I’m just shocked someone would sleep with him voluntarily..He’s kinda gross and him being married makes it even worse. Ew..


October 13th, 2009
1:27 pm

I see this debate has deteriorated before it started. Surprise, surprise.


October 13th, 2009
5:14 pm

A blackmail is not something that occurs once because the blackmailer usually comes back for more. Dave could have ignored the threat and disclosed, as he did anyway, but that may have led to something worse. I think that blackmail creates a catch 22 condition where something serious eventually has to happen, which is probably why it is illegal.