Recently a friend was engaged in a dispute before the Employment Relations Authority and during a discussion between the parties the Judge* claimed, and advised all parties, that my friend’s conduct may amount to blackmail. One of the parties involved in the discussion was the Crown and the punishment for blackmail is up to 14 years imprisonment so it was quite a serious proposition**. This got me thinking about blackmail and whether it should be illegal or not.

As far as I can tell blackmail, extortion and duress are much the same thing and are of the following form…

Do X or I’ll do Z.

One problem with blackmail is that many obviously just interactions are this same form*** e.g. “give me a pay rise or I’ll accept another job offer” or “give me back my money or I’ll have you prosecuted for fraud”.

The difference, I think, between just blackmail and unjust blackmail is what is being requested (X) and what is being threatened (Z).

Proposing “do X or I’ll do Z” is no worse than doing X and/or Z.
If X or Z are unjust then laws against X or Z should be sufficient to cover unjust blackmail.
If X or Z are not unjust then laws against this type of blackmail would be unjust.

Therefore, I say, blackmail itself is not unjust and blackmail laws may be unjust in some situations.

My challenge to you is to find examples where blackmail laws would be justified and, where laws against the request and threat wouldn’t be justified.


* ERA decision makers are not actually judges.
** Ironically similar to blackmail i.e. “don’t threaten us or we’ll prosecute you for blackmail”.
*** NZ law arbitrarily allows blackmail if the making of the threat is, in the circumstances, a reasonable and proper means for effecting his or her purpose.

7 thoughts on “Blackmail”

  1. Couldn’t disagree more, Reed. Blackmail is an initiation of force, and thus must always be immoral. In an instance when the result of a blackmail is supposedly moral, that can only have been because the law in that concern is immoral, thus civic action should be about changing that. But the blackmail is still immoral. You have the rule of law, or you don’t.

  2. The Crime of Blackmail: A Libertarian Critique by Walter Block is a must read.

    There is something deeply paradoxical about laws that criminalize blackmail. How is it that, as Glanville Williams put it, “two things that taken separately are moral and legal whites together make a moral and legal black”? For the crime of blackmail involves the criminalization of two otherwise legal acts when they occur in combination—for example, the threat to disclose damaging information about another, and the offer to refrain from disclosing it for some valuable consideration.

    Were Alfred to (threaten to) disclose damaging information concerning Bill’s extramarital affairs, no offense recognized by law would be involved (even if there were something distasteful about such gossip); were Alfred to ask Bill for $5000, again there would be no contravention of any proper law (even if it displayed a degree of chutzpah). But were Alfred to threaten Bill that he would disclose information concerning Bill’s extramarital affairs unless Bill paid him $5000, his two-part act would—under current laws—constitute the crime of blackmail. Why should the conjunction of such otherwise legal acts have an entirely different legal status?

    The paradox is heightened when we consider the reverse situation. Bill learns that Alfred is in possession of damaging information concerning him. He seeks Alfred out, and offers him $5000 to keep silent. If Alfred accepts Bill’s offer, and subsequently keeps mum, he should not be held to have blackmailed Bill. Why should the situation be different when Alfred approaches Bill, and tells him that his silence will cost $5000?

    This is the heart of the libertarian critique of blackmail laws …

  3. Couldn’t disagree more, Reed.

    But you could think a little more, Mark. 🙂

    Blackmail is an initiation of force, and thus must always be immoral.

    What unites libertarians—whether Christian, Objectivist, or some other flavour—is the NIOF (non-initiation of force) principle, which has its canonical statement in Galt’s speech.

    Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.

    If I threaten to disclose details of your (hypothetical) marital indiscretions, I am not initiating, nor threatening to initiate, physical force. Nor am I violating any of your rights. In fact, I am threatening to exercise my own right to free speech.

    It would seem, Mark, that you are happy to criminalise free speech to avoid personal embarrassment. How do you plead?

  4. This is very interesting Reed.
    I have never thought about this subject.
    One ‘black mail’ that i would say is immoral would be in Nazi Germany, Extorting money from someone who had helped Jews, or in today’s NZ extorting money by threatening to dob in a potsmoking Jew to the Police.
    In these cases unjust Laws are being used to threaten violence and loss of liberty against a peaceful person.

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