Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mass Production Blackmail

(The following is from Chapter IX of my Future Imperfect)


Some years ago on a Usenet group, I read the following message:

I believe that it is okay to have sex before marriage unlike some people. This way you can expirence different types of sex and find the right man or woman who satifies you in bed. If you wait until marriage then what if your mate can not satisfy you, then you are stuck with him. Please write me and give me your thoughts on this. You can also tell me about some of your ways to excite a woman because I have not yet found the right man to satisfy me.

... . The message is read by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of men. A hundred or so take up the implied offer and email responses. They get suitably enticing emails in response – the same emails for all of them, with only the names changed. They continue the correspondence. Eventually they receive a request for fifty dollars – and a threat to pass on the correspondence to the man’s wife if the money is not paid. The ones who are not married ignore it; some of the married ones pay. The responsible party has obtained $1,000 or so at a cost very close to zero. Mass production blackmail.


It appears from a recent news story that someone in Japan liked the idea.


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This proves how the free (crypto-anarchist) market would destroy infidelitous husbands and creepy ex-husband stalkers.

Automated Blackmail is essentially the automation (and efficacization) of social obligations (i.e. SHAME)

Nichlemn said...

"Automated Blackmail is essentially the automation (and efficacization) of social obligations (i.e. SHAME)"

Is blackmail socially beneficial, though? After all, a good blackmailer should rarely if ever actually reveal the information he's threatening to - he'd much prefer to collect the money. He would only begrudgingly reveal as a signal to show that his threats are credible. There is limited purpose in this however, for a blackmailer well-know enough to have a reputation would soon find it difficult to keep blackmailing.

So blackmail might initially appear to be nothing but rent-seeking, with the blackmailers exerting effort to do nothing more than transfer resources to themselves. However, this disregards the fact that the existence of blackmailers should reduce the amount of blackmailable practices.

Is this good or bad? We can certainly conceive of cases where the answer is "no". The most clear-cut example would be a surprise. I could threaten men to tell their wives about their surprise parties. Men might respond by throwing fewer surprise parties as a result - something everyone would be disappointed in. But even cases where some party perhaps stands to marginally benefit are hardly sufficient either. Would a world where no-one did anything embarrassing enough to keep secret really be a better one? Almost all of us would think not. After all, we could exchange our most intimate secrets with lots of people, but rarely do so. I might perhaps be mildly amused by David's most embarrassing story, but David's willingness to pay to avoid that embarrassment is probably higher than my willingness to pay to hear about it. If David's incident did not hurt another party, there are no efficiency grounds for reducing the quantity of similar incidents.

Anonymous said...

@Nichlemn You are envisioning the opposite of what I am envisioning--a world where the threat of blackmail is so great that SHAME is made efficient.

What this means is--when a man wants to cheat on his wife, he, for fear of blackmail, just goes up to her and tells her: "I don't love you anymore, I will be having an affair with my secretary a week from Tuesday, do what you will."

Meanwhile, truly shameful activities like child abuse are hunted mercilessly by blackmailers and as a result, child abuse is made more expensive (as of today, it is very, very cheap), most parents these days treat their children like pets.

Nichlemn said...

"@Nichlemn You are envisioning the opposite of what I am envisioning--a world where the threat of blackmail is so great that SHAME is made efficient."

I don't see them as mutually exclusive. The threat of blackmail reduces the prevalence of shameful activities - but not all of those are necessarily ones with social costs. Reducing the quantity of non-harmful shameful activities imposes a deadweight loss in additional to the deadweight loss of the rent-seeking blackmailer.

Furthermore, it is not clear that blackmail is the best way to reduce the quantity of socially harmful secrets. Private investigators would seemingly do a much better job.