Have Romney’s Tax Returns Been Hacked?


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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109 Responses

  1. I really hope this is all bullshit. It’s a distraction, and will only (if true) make people sympathetic for Romney, to say nothing of its horrifying illegality and the implications for everyone’s privacy.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Everything related to the election is a distraction.

      I agree it’s scary from a security perspective. But at least we’ll know that there were security issues now (if it’s true).Report

      • Yeah, but there are vaguely useful distractions and ones that offer no helpful information.

        Info in tax returns? Possible helpful. Illegal means of obtaining them? Too much noise added to data, rendering possibly helpful information significantly less so.Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      Agreed. As much as I’m curious about Romney’s taxes, to have them revealed by hackers would be an egregious breach of privacy. And yeah, it could easily generate sympathy for him.Report

  2. Avatar Sam says:

    It’d be awesome of it was stolen so that we might finally know what Romney was hiding.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      “He paid around 12%!!! And he has so much money! He donates to the Mormons! Thank goodness this genie will go back in the bottle now that we’re done with it!!! Wait… where’d it go?”Report

      • Avatar Sam says:

        If he paid 12 percent, he’d own up to it. It’s gotta be worse than that.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Blaise posted the link to “reputable sources” on Romney’s tax amnesty for illegal swiss bank account. It’s a good bet that they’re telling the truth –something that woiuld get him in as much trouble with The Church as the Polity.

          “I always tell the truth, but nobody ever believes me” –B.F.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      My guess is that there’s something there that’s totally legitimate, but which looks bad to someone who doesn’t understand the nuances of taxation of investment income. Which is to say, just 99+% of the electorate.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Laying aside the issue of whether that is true, I think there’s a different way to phrase that.

        “There’s something there that’s totally legal, but non-multi-millionaires would be shocked to find was legal”.

        I don’t think the problem, in general, with the aggressive way the super rich shield their income from taxes is that it’s too complicated for people to understand. I think people see the end result (ridiculously low effective rates that they could never, ever achieve) and found the outcome unfair. Distasteful.

        The problem isn’t that they don’t understand the nuances — it’s that, in bulk, they’re unlikely to like the outcome.

        (As to the hack: I’m rather against hacking and the release of personal data. Despite it’s relevance to the public at large, unless Romney did something illegal in his taxes — which I doubt — this isn’t even remotely whistleblowing and should be prosecuted, even if it was released for free. To basically auction it off? There can be no noble intentions behind it — it’s blackmail, pure and simple)Report

  3. Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

    I’m with Russell. The privacy implications, as he says, are horrifying. The core of standing up for liberty is standing up for the liberty of assholes.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      A law should be passed that requires Presidential candidates to forfeit that liberty.Report

      • Arguing for that law on its merits is one thing. Subverting the law in a way that makes everyone’s privacy less sound is another thing entirely.Report

        • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

          Breaking the law (I’m not sure who’s subverting it) only shows that there was always a problem. It doesn’t make us “less” secure in our privacy.Report

          • I could not possibly disagree more. (Fine, “breaking” would have been the better word. Score one for you.)

            Breaking into someone’s confidential records because you believe you should have the right to see them is something that nobody should be supporting. You apparently think that running for President means that candidates should be willing to forfeit their right to keep such records confidential. Fine. Make your argument. But you seem to be saying that the mere fact that a law was broken in this case somehow provides evidence that the law should not have been there in the first place. It is question-begging at its most blatant.

            What other records of Romney’s should we be allowed to hack? Medical? Veterinary? Is it just the presidential candidates whose privacy we are allowed to wantonly pillage, or any candidate for higher office? How high is high enough to justify our invasion? Town selectman?Report

            • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

              I believe that, as a blogger, Ethan has given up his right not to have us use satellites to take pictures of him in the shower.Report

            • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

              “Breaking into someone’s confidential records because you believe you should have the right to see them is something that nobody should be supporting.”

              I support this in this specific event. I would also support the prosecution of those who did it if they actually did it, and could be discovered.

              I’m not saying this proves the law shouldn’t have been there in the first place, I’m saying it proves that we’re not as secure as we thought we were, so at least one upshot is that we know our privacy is not as secure as, at least some of us, probably believed. A wake-up call if you will.

              With regard to your last paragraph, and the issue in general, I would start by searching for the equilibrium point at which good people are still willing to run for that office, despite the privacy invasion (which is kind of what we already have in some ways). So selectman? Probs not, since I can’t imagine enough people going out for that if they had to give up all their privacy.

              And yet, I just assume that if someone wants to, they can find out everything about me, that I ever did, etc. and release it to the world. They would only do that if I were an important person, or if they had an important enough reason (to them at least) to do so. As I am, no one’s going to waste time on me. If I run for President, probably. And even if it’s illegal, once the information is out there, it’s out there, meaning that if you decide to run for President, you should probably already be prepared for whatever’s going to come out, whether you want a right to privacy at that point, or not.

              But certain for someone who claims the power to assassinate citizens abroad, and indefinitely imprision them at home, I think they should be willing to let us take as long and as scrupulous a look as we please.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                +1. Allowed, but prosecuted.
                Shame I don’t believe that the prosecution is likely to be done by ethical folks, but…Report

              • I think I get a better sense of where you’re coming from after this comment.

                I still think this break-in hurts more than it helps. Whatever the ends we might desire, breaking into records that would otherwise be confidential are means I cannot support.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                What if you don’t know about these confidential records?
                What if they’re being used for ends that you also haven’t been made aware of?
                What if you’ve never actually allowed someone to keep those records? (aka didn’t agree to it…?).

                [I realize this is not about tax records anymore. sorry for the tangent]Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “certain for someone who claims the power to assassinate citizens abroad, and indefinitely imprision them at home, I think they should be willing to let us take as long and as scrupulous a look as we please.”

                And, just as certainly, for someone who claims the freedom to has business dealings abroad, and communicate with possibly-dangerous persons abroad, I think they should be willing to let us take as long and scrupulous a look as we please.Report

              • You can’t stop the signal, Mal.Report

          • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

            That’s a bizarre argument. If I murder you, does that show that we shouldn’t have a law against murder?

            Breaking the law to demonstrate the injustice of the law is classic civil disobedience, but it requires suffering the punishment for breaking the law. If these hackers would like to go to prison to show us how unjust it is that Romney doesn’t release his tax returns, I welcome that.Report

            • Avatar Morat20 says:

              As I said upthread — hacking and release might be considered civil disobediance. (Which yes, does involve prosecution and jail time. As Thoreau himself demonstrated). If it was done to show illegal activity on Romney’s part, it could be considered whistleblowing (if they knew ahead of time).

              The moment they charged for the information, it becamse something purely criminal with no reedeming qualities — any good it might do (I doubt any) is purely incidental and any of those involved trying to offer it as a defense should be have a bigger, thicker book of law thrown at them. 🙂Report

  4. Avatar Chris says:

    PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Franklin office

    Ah, my hometown.Report

  5. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    It would be great if the hackers were employed by Romney, as a way to release the records but still generating enough sympathy to make the issue a wash.Report

  6. Avatar b-psycho says:

    Far as uses of alternate radical means to make a statement or provide info go, this is a total freakin’ waste if true. The relevant facts are already obvious, the ransom threat just makes it extortion, and to send a copy to a Democratic party office even makes it partisan (weird behavior for a hacker. Hacker politics tend more towards fringes).

    Unfortunately this “anonymous group” will probably be conflated with Anonymous despite this not being their MO. Dumb, just dumb.Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Still reading, but re this part:

    “Which leads me to believe that there is something going on, or else there wouldn’t be an ongoing investigation to worry about.”

    Real or hoax, I think this threat of extorting a US Presidential candidate kind of demands a federal investigation.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Now that I’ve read the whole thing and the comments, I’m going to double down on what I said.

      I agree with (almost) everyone here that the hacking and theft of documents in inexcusable. But the far worse potential crime, imho, is the extortion. Hoax or not, I really, really hope they catch the people that did this.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        I’ve never understood extortion as a legal entity (I understand why people do it, and don’t want it done to them).

        Perhaps now is a good time for you to expand on the ethical and societal problems with allowing extortion to occur unpunished.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Seriously? You don’t see any reason that being allowed to extort or blackmail someone in a position of power might be a problem?

          This seems one of those things I needn’t take too much time to build a theory around.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            I’m surprised most people don’t understand that this is just plain normal in higher level politics/economics/etc.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            “Things you’d think Libertarians would support: Blackmail.”Report

          • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

            I suppose on one hand, the possibility of blackmail (because of secrets), would be an added incentive to try not to do things for which you are ashamed or embarrassed about.

            On the other hand, the prospect of being able to blackmail might overly incentivize people to dig up dirt on one another in the hopes of getting some money for keeping quiet.

            The calculus here doesn’t seem to readily result in a positive or negative net value here.

            Again, I’m specifically talking about blackmail in cases where none of the constituent acts are criminal, but the aggregate result is.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              “I suppose on one hand, the possibility of blackmail (because of secrets), would be an added incentive to try not to do things for which you are ashamed or embarrassed about.”

              I must respectfully disagree with this position.

              Black mail doesn’t bring truth to light. It just gives one person power over another, and it does so in the darkness; it’s purpose is not to reveal, but to cloud.

              Blackmail is on the opposite side of the spectrum from transparency.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                Right, but if you hadn’t done something you were ashamed of/embarrased about/wanted kept private/secret, you wouldn’t be vulnerable to this kind of blackmail.

                I’m not arguing against libel laws either. Those should still be upheld. Now if “I know you slept with someone who wasn’t your wife” and “You don’t want anyone to find that out” and “So I need X dollars to keep quiet” involves coercion, I think we’d also have to drastically rethink all contract laws.

                I needed an apartment then and there or I’d lose my job, etc. so I signed the lease and now am subject to stuff that I didn’t want to be subject to but I was coerced into unfair terms because the renter knew my position…well, would that be criminal as well?Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                I think that this is where relying too much on debating skills forces us to rely too much on words like “coercion,” which leads to (possibly willful) obfuscation.

                I am on the freeway and I am almost out of gas, and the only station near me is one that is very expensive, almost .50 a gallon more than in other more populated areas. Was I coerced into paying more?

                Like your apartment scenario, I can easily make the debating point that yes, I was. But when I do that, and then point out that, “blackmail is also coercion, so really, is one any worse than the other – aren’t they both contracts I have put myself in a position to be coerced into entering?,” then you have reached that point where finding truth and wisdom has been abandoned for trying to win a debating point.

                Agreeing to sign a lease contract you really can’t afford is not the same as being blackmailed by someone for your transgression, no matter how you parse the definition of words. If you can actually make it so by that parsing, then those words cease to have any useful meaning.

                That would be my response.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                So my analogy was from one set of circumstanecs wherein not agreeing to a contract will hurt me (not signing a lease will lead me to lose my job), to another set of circumstances, where in not agreeing to a contract will hurt me (my wife may divorce me, my peers will look down on me, etc.).

                What I think makes the analogy even stronger is the fact that in both instances I could have done something to prevent the precarious contract (I could have planned better in advance to have a place of stay and more time to apartment hunt/I could have not had the affair).

                Even if you don’t grant the analogy (for what reason I don’t think you’ve made completely clear, other than calling it a debate trick) I’m still curious why, even though we agree it’s morally wrong to exploit people, it should be legally punishable. What is the public good obtained that justifies this incursion on personal/contractional freedom?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Right, but if you hadn’t done something you were ashamed of/embarrased about/wanted kept private/secret, you wouldn’t be vulnerable to this kind of blackmail.

                This phrase can be parsed a lot of ways.

                Most of them lead me to a place where the person who is using the phrase is supporting an argument that I find completely reprehensible.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                And what would that argument be?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                If you (a) believe that the community has a right to know what you’re doing and thinking at all and any times, you’re messed up in the head. Full stop. We can go around that discussion if you like.

                If you (b) believe that the community has a right to know specific things for specific reasons, you need to hammer that out.

                If you (c) believe that the community has a right to know specific things that it has not yet acknowledged, and that breaking the codified law is justified because it has a right to know those specific things, you need to do some heavy lifting. Scaffolding isn’t enough. You need a foundation and a bunch of support struts and the whole nine yards.

                If you’re not willing to do the heavy lifting, you cheat. You use the argument that the (a) people make. “Well, if you don’t have anything to hide…” That’s back to “you’re messed up in the head”.

                Everybody has something to hide. But let’s pretend that’s not the case. Even if they don’t have anything to *hide*, nobody has a right to demand that they tell you any goddamn thing they don’t want to tell you.

                If Mitt Romney doesn’t want to release his tax returns, and the law says he doesn’t have to do so, he doesn’t have to. Don’t like it? Change the law. In the meantime, don’t vote for the guy.

                If Mitt Romney doesn’t want to release his tax returns, and you think it is vitally important that people have this information for some reason and you just don’t want to wait for the law to be changed, start the heavy lifting.

                Saying, “Oh, it’s probably okay with me in this case because what’s he got to hide?” is bypassing the heavy lifting. In justification of something that is clearly illegal. Without doing the work of changing the law.

                I can give a long laundry list of people bypassing the heavy lifting to justify doing something that is clearly illegal without doing the work of changing the law with really terrible consequences.

                Or, chuck the whole “right to privacy”. And that means ditch a whole, gigantic slew of other things.

                Are people really going to be surprised by what Mitt Romney’s tax returns say? Well, maybe. I suspect that the people that care enough to make it their deciding factor in their vote have already decided what Mitt Romney’s tax returns say… and if you release the tax returns and they don’t say what they’ve already decided they say… they’ll decide they don’t say that, anyway.

                See “Birth Certificate, Obama, release of.”Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                A right? how about the practical ability??
                You lack the ability to guard your right to privacy, and keeping an absolute right to privacy is impossible anyhow.
                “Society has the morals it can afford”… and privacy is one that dwindles with every new advance.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                So I take it you weren’t talking about blackmail when you made that comment?

                And that no one here is actually talking that blithely about rights of private citizens to privacy?Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                The point is that blackmail is an example of one entity acting to violate another’s presumed right to control the release of personal information. That is to say, the right to privacy. If you’re going to start with the assumption that privacy doesn’t exist, then obviously blackmail as a crime has no meaning.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:


                “If you’re going to start with the assumption that privacy doesn’t exist, then obviously blackmail as a crime has no meaning.”

                I assume there is a right to privacy, which is why I made sure to note that I back libel laws. The point is that the law already anticipates different cases (are you a private or public citizen? Joe the Plumber or Mitt Romney?) and that in most cases, me telling your wife you had an affair with someone, and showing you how I know (you printed an email at work by mistake), isn’t illegal at all.

                But as soon as I say I’ll give you the paper back for $500, it is. What happend in those few seconds that ethically transforms the situation into something that needs to be criminall punished?Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “What happend in those few seconds that ethically transforms the situation into something that needs to be criminall punished?”

                Remember that discussion about whether or not libertarians were okay with someone’s boss saying “sleep with me or you’re fired”?Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

                If you’re making a point, make it. I’m too *dense* to get at what you’re insinuating.Report

              • Avatar James H. says:

                Right, but if you hadn’t done something you were ashamed of/embarrased about/wanted kept private/secret, you wouldn’t be vulnerable to this kind of

                As a simple empirical claim, this is true. But its normative conotations seem to me trend in the direction of repeal of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination, or at least legitimating a jury’s assumption that if a defendant doesn’t testify in his/her own behalf, s/he must be guilty.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                That’s a terrible argument.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                Well it’s not really an argument, but rather a discussion (as there is no conclusion).

                So what exactly did you think was horrible about the *discussion*.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                It appears to presuppose many things regarding an individual’s intersection with a community that are (at least to em) demonstrably nutty.

                It also presupposes many things regarding the other individual’s intersection with the same community that are in fact distinctly at odds with the first.

                “(With) blackmail the perpetrator is threatening to do something legal. If the act itself – revealing the information – isn’t bad enough to be criminalized, then why is merely threatening to commit the act so terrible?”

                Well, duh, because something being legal is not the same thing as something being terrible?

                Because the act itself – revealing the information – is assessed one way. I may be revealing information for good reasons. I may be revealing information for bad reasons. However, the information is itself true, and thus the opprobrium (or lack thereof) attached to me for revealing the information is in the public domain, but is (rightly so, in this case) not subject to legal redress. Whether I’m doing this for good or ill, one cannot know for certain without crawling into my head.

                I can tell your wife that you’re sleeping with my wife. I might tell her that because I want to ruin her life, or your life, or my wife’s life, or some combination thereof. I might be telling her that because I feel an obligation to your wife due to the way I am processing my own feelings about you sleeping with my wife. I might be an asshole and not care who my wife sleeps with, but just want to ruin your day. Whether or not that act itself is “terrible” is circumstantial and kind of depends on my motivation.

                The thing is, all of that discussion (and whether or not it was a “good” thing or a “bad” thing) is regarding our obligations to each other, as members of the community, and our attempts to deal with each other in good faith.

                On the other hand, if I tell you that if you don’t pay me $500, I’m going to tell your wife that you’re sleeping with my wife, there aren’t any obligations involved. It’s not even possible for me to be operating in good faith. In fact, it’s not only possible but very likely that I’m *voiding* my own human obligations to your wife on account o’ I wanna get paid. There is no good faith there at all. Any way you slice it, that’s terrible.Report

        • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

          I rarely get to come down on the positive side of libertarian principles, so I’m going to milk this as much as possible.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        I should add: specifically extortion in cases where threats of violence are not involved.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        One last clarification: I’m coming from this point of view–

        “From a libertarian perspective, blackmail is not always considered to be something that should be treated as a crime.[33][34] Some libertarians point out that it is licit (in the United States at this moment in time) to gossip about someone else’s secret, to threaten to publicly reveal such information, and to ask a person for money, but it is illegal to combine the threat with the request for money. They say this raises the question, “Why do two rights make a wrong?””Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          Blackmail is just another contract. This does argue that, when prostitution is legalized, confidentiality should be covered by the standard contract for that.Report

        • Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

          I think it’s similar to the way that paying someone to have sex with you is illegal, but paying someone to have sex with you on camera is totally cool.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      The extortion is what concerns me most. If some group sent e-mail to a dozen media outlets saying “Here’s Romney’s tax returns, Obama’s transcripts, and the original entry for the birth certificate. Now talk about something important,” I’d have a hard time not applauding them.Report

  8. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    These hackers are bluffing. If they had the goods, they would have released one return and said they had the others. That’s the way Internet extortion works.Report

  9. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    It strikes me as odd as a sophisticated hacking operation like this would want bitcoins.Report

  10. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    So I take it that:

    1.) Everyone (most people) here believe blackmail should be a criminally punishable offense.

    2.) No one (most people) here have an argument for why?Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      ahh, there’s plenty of blackmail that’s legal.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      It really is surprisingly hard to put into words, but to me it’s the ‘threatening’ part that makes it wrong (and threatening plays into coercion). Here’s an attempt:

      Blackmail is not much different from extortion, the mob coming into your shop and saying, “Nice place, shame if anything happened to it”. Blackmail threatens violence to your reputation rather than your person or property.

      Adding quid pro quo (‘unless you pay me’) moves us to ‘threat’

      Saying ”Nice reputation, shame if anything happened to it” followed by “But, I’m going to tell Mom what you did” is OK; but once you add ‘unless you pay me’, it’s now a threat.

      Isn’t making threats generally legally actionable?Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        I could “threaten” you with a joke.

        $10 or I’ll tell them about that time at that place during the trip to Amsterdam. How exactly does a threat become an illegal one when what you’re threatening isn’t illegal (unlike say assault or property damage).

        And again, I can damage your reputation, and be an a-hole, but assuming I’m not in libel territory, wouldn’t the same logic that makes this criminal make many other things criminal as well? How do you even police it?Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          Yeah, since the threatened action isn’t in itself illegal the analogy doesn’t quite hold. But the only reason the threatened analogy doesn’t hold is as you say the US is pretty loose on libel. I wonder if blackmail laws were kept pretty intact from English common law, without noticing that they conflict a bit with the US’s free speech near-absolutism.

          Maybe it’s instructive to look at other places where free speech isn’t absolute – like the classic shout of ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater, or fighting words. Those are illegal because people could get hurt.

          Could threatening to release sensitive information greatly increase the odds of people getting physically hurt (the blackmail victim commits suicide, or tries to murder the suspected blackmailer)?Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            The more I think about ‘fighting words’, the more I like this theory. By putting the victim over a barrel, the blackmailer makes the odds of violence greater, no?

            If there is no threat to release the info, violence is unnecessary; if the info will be released anyway but no threat was made, the blackmailee has no warning to prompt him to violence (though he could still retaliate after the fact or kill himself); but introducing blackmail into the situation (pay me or else) makes the situation fluid in a way that makes violence a much more likely outcome, and in a way that seems ‘preventable’ (‘don’t blackmail, because bad stuff happens when you do’)?

            That’s all I got 🙂Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              But this is legal:
              “Buy XYZ for $99.89!”
              You send them the money.
              They send you a note back, saying, “I’m sorry, we’re out of stock. Here’s your refund.” (a check from ZYX — i’ll let you fill in the details on exactly how foul you want to make it.)

              Blackmail? certainly. quite legal though. and, i’m told, profitable (or at least it used to be, back when people cared what the old teller thought of them).Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:


        Saying ‘Do what I want’ is OK.
        Saying ‘Do what I want, or I’ll beat you up’ is not. It’s a threat.
        Saying ‘Do what I want, or I’ll beat your reputation up’ is also not, as it is a threat.Report

        • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

          But number 2 is threatening a criminal act, where as numer 3 is not.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            assuming you’re blackmailing about truthful things, which is hardly a wise assumption.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            So we judge whether or not something is terrible based upon whether or not it is criminal?Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              Some swindles are quite legal. 😉Report

            • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

              Obviously that’s not what I’m saying Patrick, I’m asking at what point should we make it criminal, given that none of the preceding steps were.

              I understand you think blackmail is terrible. But that alone is not justification for curtailing an individual’s rights (in this case, to enter willingly into a contract, or even just propose an understanding).

              Plenty of terrible things are not deemed terrible enough, or fixable by legal means enough, to be made criminal.

              No one has yet attempted to answer that bit, whether on utilitarian grounds, or otherwise.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Ethan, did you have any opinion on my ‘fighting words’ analogy? That perhaps blackmail is a bit of ‘speech’ that increases the odds or risk of physical violence?Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

                If it were fighting words, then it would have to be dealt with on a case by case basis. Someone would have to decide when an offer becomes a threat.

                I’m also very liberal when it comes to free speech issues (though extremely conservative in some ways).

                Legally, perhaps there’s a connection. Personally, politically, etc. I think adults should be capable of keeping themselves contained, and you wait till the violence happens to punish it (giving the greater of it to whoever threw first).Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Yeah, it’s weird, I am pretty much a free speech absolutist (frankly not even sure I like ‘fighting words’ being banned) and mostly libertarian in outlook, yet I don’t have a problem with anti-blackmail laws.

                I have actually heard this puzzler before, and do not know why it evokes the response that it does. Whether there were some ugly situations that arose, or whether the rich & powerful (‘cos that’s who you want to blackmail, innit?) got blackmailed a few times back in Ye Olde Englande and said, hey, that’s not cricket.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > But that alone is not justification for
                > curtailing an individual’s rights (in
                > this case, to enter willingly into a
                > contract, or even just propose an
                > understanding).

                Then let us back up.

                Given: what exactly?
                Resolved: what, exactly?

                I can write those two in a couple of different ways, and both of them plant sets of goalposts around to aim at.

                For example:
                Given: that individuals have rights to enter into contracts.
                Resolved: The state must have a compelling interest to limit that right.

                There we’ve got a burden of proof to show that limiting the right to enter into blackmail-style contracts is a social good outweighing the individual right to propose them.


                Given: certain types of contracts are illegitimate
                Resolved: blackmail is not a legitimate contract

                There, given that blackmail is already regarded as an illegitimate contract, I think you’d have to give me some sort of justification as to why we ought to change our minds. I mean, if you grant that certain types of contracts are illegitimate, then who has the burden to show that blackmail is or isn’t one of those types? Well, if you’re asking me to convince you, you have to tell me what it is about contracts that are illegitimate that makes them illegitimate (and then I suspect you’ll have answered your own question).

                … what? I’m not certain where your givens are.

                “Plenty of terrible things are not deemed terrible enough, or fixable by legal means enough, to be made criminal.”

                Oh, sure. I’m not even certain that laws against blackmail are effective, even if they are a good idea.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Thinking of it in terms of contracts is misguided, I think. Usually when we speak of a contract being illegitimate, that means that the state will refuse to enforce it, not that it’s illegal just to propose one. In the case of blackmail, that would mean that the state wouldn’t compel the silence of a blackmailer who had been paid off.

                The objection to blackmail is not that the victim should not be able to enforce the blackmailer’s silence, so it’s not really about the contract at all.

                Oh, sure. I’m not even certain that laws against blackmail are effective, even if they are a good idea.

                If blackmail is illegal, that gives the victim a credible counter-threat.

                Blackmailer: Give me $500,000 or I’ll show your wife these pictures.
                Victim: If she ever sees those pictures, I’ll tell the police you tried to blackmail me.
                Blackmailer: Well played, sir.

                Though I guess many blackmailers find ways to blackmail their victims anonymously, as in this case. The victims, of course, would be reluctant to go to the police for help identifying their blackmailers, so maybe these laws don’t help much after all.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

                I’n unclear how you’d write or enforce such a contract, since the whole point is for its terms never to be revealed.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            I personally think and have argued that we draw to bright a line between physical violence and other forms of violence.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      To modify what I wrote up-thread:

      What’s your opinion on “sleep with me or you’re fired”?Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Well, one argument for making blackmail illegal is that it encourages rent-seeking. If you can profit by digging up dirt on someone, then digging up dirt on people becomes a viable but socially destructive way to earn a living.

      On the other hand, one could argue that it’s not really socially destructive. Public figures are more likely to behave honorably if they know that there are people who make a living digging up dirt on them.

      Perhaps the main reason that blackmail is illegal is that it disproportionately threatens the people who make the laws.

      I’m not all that sure that it should be legal, with certain caveats:
      -Blackmailing a public official in order to influence policy decisions or implementation should be illegal, as it’s essentially a form of bribery.
      -Blackmailing someone with information acquired illegally should be illegal, if only because it’s evidence of having acquired information illegally.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic says:

      I’d say blackmail exhibits the features of desperate exchange that ought to be strongly discouraged – to me it is similar to price-gouging, a contract made in circumstances where the parties are in such unequal power positions should be treated with a great deal of scrutiny by the state, up to and including outlawing certain classes of contracts entirely. The so-called right being curtailed is the right to exploit someone in a desperate situation. This echoes arguments in analyzing the employer-employee relationship and sweatshops. There are probably also communitarian underpinnings there. When I think of the features of a healthy community, or a socially cohesive community, blackmail isn’t one of them.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I disagree with the analogy to labor and anti-“gouging” laws. There actually are tenable arguments for banning blackmail.Report

    • Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

      This conversation has seemed to assume that whatever is in Romney’s tax returns is not illegal, but just embarrassing, politically or otherwise. And while I think that’s a good assumption in this case, does it hold in the general case?

      What I’m thinking is maybe that the original rationale for prohibiting blackmail was based on the assumption that the blackmailee had done something illegal. So then the harm to the community was the withholding of information indicative of a crime. Sort of a forced conspiracy to withhold evidence. So the injury wouldn’t be so much to the blackmailee as it would be to the community (or the State, which is the difference between a crime and a tort).Report

  11. Avatar Church State says:

    It is no big secret Utah Senator Orin Hatch and other LDS faithful lawmakers seem to have convinced the US Government that only LDS/Mormon return missionaries are capable of reading, writing and speaking a foreign language. Yet when they return these missionaries test at only an intermediate level of fluency – thus federally funded statewide elementary school level mulitple languages immersion programs were established (in what appear to be predominately LDS neighborhood schools. These children are expected to have advanced level foreign language fluency upon graduation for high school). Mormon return missionaries (60,000 serving worldwide) have been recruited by the CIA and FBI for decades. It is quite interesting how most international abductions, assaults, and deaths of Americans abroad go unsolved for months if not years, but when a LDS/Mormon church member is kidnapped (Russia & England), killed (China), or assaulted (worldwide) the crime is solved by either the FBI/CIA in 7-14 days or less. My bets are on Romney’s hijacked tax returns mystery being resolved and the culprits arrested in less than 7 days.Report