Monday, July 24, 2017

No, Rothbardian Anarchist Walter Block, a Blackmailer Isn't Better Than a Snitch

Stuart K. Hayashi

Walter Block; source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Rothbardian anarchist Walter Block is known for his book Defending the Undefendable: The Pimp, Prostitute, Scab, Slumlord, Libeler, Moneylender, and Other Scapegoats in the Rogue’s Gallery of American Society, originally released in the 1970s. This book purports to explain why victimless crimes, such as smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home, should be decriminalized. However, the book’s text goes farther than that, saying that the perpetrators of these acts are morally superior to respected business executives:
The professional pimp performs the necessary function of brokering [between the john and the sex worker]. In this performance he is if anything more honorable than many other brokers, such as banking, insurance, and the stock market. They rely on restrictive state and federal laws to discourage their competition, whereas the pimp can never use the law to safeguard his competition.

Actually the very outlawing of prostitution, by definition, reduces legal competition against the pimp. By Walter Block’s own logic, his defense of the pimp in this passage does not make sense.

In the later edition from the 1990s, Walter Block said that his moral praise for the pimps was just a rhetorical embellishment, but the aspect of the book that he wanted to be taken literally is that all of the jobs described in the book really should be decriminalized. Even if one interprets the book charitably in that manner, though, the book is highly dubious, such as in Walter Block’s claim that no one was damaged so severely by defamation that a lawsuit against a defamer could be justified.

Not everything Walter Block says in the book is wrong. He points out that while middlemen have a bad reputation — the middleman is what you normally want to cut out — the middleman makes goods more accessible to the consumer than they otherwise would be, and the middleman’s profit is the reward for easing the consumer’s access to the goods desired. For the most part, though, this book is terribly overrated among libertarians. As you can imagine, it was a highly zealous and misguided Rothbardian anarchist who kept recommending this book to me in the first place when I was sixteen.

I want to address an argument from Defending the Undefendable that stumped me for many years (as you can imagine, the overzealous Rothbardian touted both this argument, and Walter Block’s whitewashing of defamation, as airtight and unassailable). This is my paraphrasing of Walter Block’s argument as to why there should be no law against blackmail, and also of why a blackmailer is morally superior to a snitch.

Suppose there is a household with a married man and woman. They have three neighbors: Steve the Silent Bystander, Jessica the Snitch, and Murray the Blackmailer. Suppose the married man is having an extramarital affair, and the wife does not know about it.

Walter Block asks us to consider the following: Steve the Silent Bystander knows about the affair, but he keeps his mouth shut; he never tells the wife. In keeping silent, Steve is not initiating the use of force. By contrast, Jessica the Snitch does end up going to the wife and blabbing on the philanderer. Walter Block agrees with most people that this snitching is not an initiation of the use of force either. Thus, Walter Block says, both Steve the Silent Bystander and Jessica the Snitch are exercising their free-speech rights, which includes the right not to say anything. In neither course of action is the use of force being initiated.

Then Walter Block invites us to ponder what would happen if Murray the Blackmailer took action before Jessica the Snitch did. Murray approaches the philanderer and tells him, “Give me $100 for the first of each month, or your spouse discovers what you did.”

Maybe the philanderer coughs up the money and Murray the Blackmailer keeps silent. In that case, Walter Block imparts, Murray the Blackmailer is not doing anything different from what Steve the Silent Bystander did, and he is therefore not causing any damage beyond what Steve the Silent Bystander’s inaction would have caused. If Steve the Silent Bystander was not initiating the use of force, then neither was Murray the Blackmailer. By refraining from telling the wife, Murray the Blackmailer is exercising free speech (including the freedom not to speak), just as Steve the Silent Bystander is.

But maybe the philanderer fails to pay up; he calls Murray the Blackmailer’s bluff. Murray the Blackmailer then informs the wife about what the philanderer did. In that scenario, Walter Block tells us, Murray the Blackmailer is not doing anything different from what Jessica the Snitch would have done, and he is therefore not causing any damage beyond the damage that Jessica the Snitch’s snitching would have caused. If Jessica’s snitching was not an initiation of the use of force, then neither was Murray the Blackmailer’s. By telling the wife, Murray the Blackmailer is exercising free speech, just as Jessica the Snitch would have.

Therefore, concludes Walter Block, the blackmailer’s ultimatum to the philandering husband is itself just free speech. Then Walter Block says that the blackmailer is morally superior to the snitch, as the snitch will reveal “the secret without warning,” whereas the blackmailer at least allows an out to the philanderer — “the blackmailer has given the blackmailee a chance to silence him.” In that light, the snitch “is much worse than the blackmailer…” (emphasis Block’s).

Yes, this argument stumped me for years.😐

However, there is a consideration of criminal law that Walter Block’s argument overlooks: mens rea. Dictionary.Com defines that term as the “intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime...” If a man drives recklessly and strikes you accidentally, what he did was a horrible initiation of force, and you would be right to sue him for damages. But that is not a deliberate assault; mens rea was absent. By contrast, if a man hates you and he plans to mow you down with his automobile, mens rea is present and that is a deliberate assault; that is not merely a matter of civil law but a criminal act.

Someone who snitches on a philanderer can have a variety of motives. It may be the case that the snitch is well aware that the wife would be devastated to learn of the affair, and the snitch makes her aware of the affair precisely out of the hope that this will emotionally cripple the wife for the rest of her life. However, another snitch may be genuinely concerned for the wife’s well-being, and tells her on the premise that the wife is better off knowing the truth.

Conversely, in his very actions the blackmailer demonstrates that the wife’s well-being is not one of his considerations. In performing the extortion, the blackmailer demonstrates that his motives can only be malicious, namely to extract a value from someone by threatening to damage that value. Given that the blackmailer’s action already demonstrates an absence of concern for the wife’s well-being, the blackmailer’s ultimatum can only be properly interpreted as a form of extortion — the ultimatum that if the blackmailee does not pay up, damage shall be inflicted. This is comparable to an extortionist telling the husband that if the husband does not pay $100 on the first of each month, he shall find his automobile damaged. The principle is the same, except that the blackmailer is telling the husband that if he does not pay $100 on the first of each month, it will be the marriage that experiences further damage, which, in many respects, is much worse.

No, Walter Block, the blackmailer is not better than the snitch.