Acton Institute Powerblog

Complaining to Mary: Should Christian Libertarians Defend Blackmail?

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[Note: Since my previous post on Christian libertarianism stirred up an interesting debate, I thought it might be worth adding one more post on the subject before we move on. I think the following thought experiment will help shed light on our previous discussion.]

The medieval monk and scholar Caesarius of Heisterbach tells of hearing a lay brother praying to Jesus: “Lord,” the man declared, “if Thou free me not from this temptation I will complain of Thee to Thy mother.”

Attempting to blackmail Jesus is, of course, not the best way to seek absolution. But while blackmail is a sin, should it also be a crime? Libertarians, who claim it is a “victimless crime” would say no. As economics professor Walter Block explains,

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?

Good question. I can’t imagine why secular libertarians would think these acts should be illegal. Would a Christian libertarian also argue in favor decriminalizing the practice? The reason I ask is because, as I noted in my last post, one of the main complaints I have with most libertarians is that they often work backwards from a grievance to the development of their core beliefs. Christians, on the other hand, must start with Biblical principles and work their way to a coherent political philosophy.

I’m eager to hear Christian libertarians make a defense of blackmail as a victimless crime from a Biblical perspective. I’d also be curious to hear how they would handle the situation if they themselves were being blackmailed, so let’s add to this thought experiment:

A bill was pushed through Congress that makes all blackmailing legal. To celebrate the new legislation, a blackmailer contacts you and says that he has private information about your family that would cause severe damage—financially, emotionally, etc. You agree that if the information were to be made public it could harm not only you and your family and hinder your ability to provide for them in the future, but it could indirectly cause harm to others (though not in an aggressive way). The blackmailer offers to keep quiet if you agree to pay a sum for the remainder of your life.

What do you do?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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