Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why is it illegal to blackmail David Letterman? 

The New Yorker...
Moral-reasoning pop quiz:

There’s a film coming out — a thinly disguised portrayal of a media mogul — and word is that if it’s released it will hurt the mogul’s reputation.

Powerful people intervene: they call a meeting and offer the movie studio money — a lot of money — to scrap the movie and destroy the negatives. If the studio takes the money, could it be prosecuted for extortion?

“It’s an interesting question,” James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern, said last week.

The mogul in question was William Randolph Hearst, and the movie was Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.” The studio turned down the offer...

Lindgren is the author of a paper called “Unraveling the Paradox of Blackmail,” which raises the question: why is blackmail considered a crime?

The thinking goes like this: It’s perfectly legal for Robert Halderman to write, or threaten to write, a screenplay (or an e-mail to TMZ) exposing the fact that David Letterman had flings with “Late Show” employees. It’s also legal for Halderman to ask Letterman for money as part of a business transaction.

So why are the two things illegal when you put them together?

In other words, Lindgren said, “Why is it illegal to threaten to do what you can do legally anyway?” ...
So the lawyer must explain why it is illegal to threaten to do something that one is legally entitled to do.

Meanwhile, the economist will add that the blackmailer actually helps his victim by giving him an additional option he may voluntarily choose to minimize the damage he suffers.

That is, Halderman is perfectly entitled to take his dirt on Letterman to the National Enquirer or anyone else. If he offers Letterman a "first option" on the material for $2 million that can only help Letterman, not hurt him. If it is worth that much to Letterman, he pays and is better off compared to if the material is published. If it is not worth that much to Letterman he doesn't pay and is no worse off.

Making it illegal for Halderman to ask for money from Letterman, forcing Halderman to get his money from the Enquirer, can only hurt Letterman, not help him.

Isn't economics fun? It makes the blackmailer's demand of money from his victim an act of altruism.