03 Oct 2009

Crimes vs. Sins: Letterman’s Blackmailer

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I actually haven’t seen the full clip yet; I’ve been traveling like crazy and my internet connection in this hotel is slooooooow. But I’m sure you all know about David Letterman’s recent announcement.

I don’t know all the details, so there might be something specific to the story that really shows the producer engaged in (what ought to be) criminal behavior. However, as Walter Block argued with great flair, in general the police shouldn’t punish blackmailers. Yes, you are arguably a moral degenerate, a huge jerk, etc. etc. if you blackmail someone, but why is it a crime?

If I know a secret about you, and it’s something that I have the legal ability to publicize, then how in the world is it a crime if I give you the option of paying me not to do something that is perfectly legal? Now if, say, you start to work for a company, and you sign all kinds of non-disclosure agreements, then it could be a crime if you demand hush money from them to keep your mouth shut about their secret trading strategies, or the special ingredient in their BBQ sauce. But there, you are extorting money under the threat of doing something clearly illegal; it’s akin to saying, “Give me some money or I’ll stab you.”

But if some producer happens to know that David Letterman is building his own special Top Ten List (you know I had to work in some cheesy pun in this post), and if that producer has the legal right to blog about it, talk about it, even to write a book about it, then how in the world is it a crime for him to give Letterman the option of buying his silence?

The way I see it, the only true crime involved with blackmail per se, would be if Letterman paid the guy $2 million, and then the guy went ahead and spread the gossip anyway. Of course, the crime there would be violating the deal, not the offer a deal in the first place.

To repeat: Something can be morally reprehensible and yet not qualify as criminal. For example, it is (and should be) illegal to steal a pack of chewing gum. Yet in the grand scheme, that’s a far lesser offense than cheating on your wife, or telling your parents that you hate them just to hurt their feelings. Yet clearly those latter two should NOT be crimes, punishable by the judicial system. So when I make these points, it’s not to defend the blackmailer as a nice guy; I’m just saying he shouldn’t be a criminal.

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