Thanks for responding directly to the arguments. It would be a waste of time to copy and paste all of Robin Hanson's points into this particular instance. I'm just posting a real world example which illustrates Hanson's argument. You can find these details more thoroughly explored on Overcoming Bias and in a past debate between Zvi and Hanson.
comment by jbash
· score: 3 (4 votes) · LW
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It would especially be a waste of time to copy and paste Hanson's stuff because, "Checkmate" subject lines aside, as far as I can tell, he's never posted anything that addressed anything I've said in this thread at all. And he keeps repeating himself while failing to engage properly with important objections... including clearly consequentialist ones.
We were talking about a case where the blackmailable behavior was already going on. As far as I can tell, Hanson hasn't mentioned the question of whether blackmail provides any meaningful incentive to stop an existing course of blackmailable behavior. I don't know what he'd say. I don't think it does.
If you want to broaden the issue to blackmail in general, Hanson's basic argument seems to be that having to pay blackmail is approximately as much a punishment for bad behavior as gossip would be, while the availability of cash payments would attract significantly more people who could actually administer such punishment. Therefore, if you want to see some particular behavior punished, you should permit blackmail regarding at least that kind of behavior.
He apparently takes it as given that blackmail being more available would meaningfully increase disincentives for "blackmailable" behavior, and would therefore actually reduce such behavior enough to be interesting. That's where he starts, and everything from then on is argued on that assumption. I don't see anywhere where he justifies it. He appears to think it's obvious.
I don't think it's true or even plausible.
I think Hanson probably overestimates how much legalized blackmail (and presumably more socially acceptable blackmail) would enlarge the pool of potential "enforcers". Blackmail is already somewhat hard to punish, so you'd expect formal legalization to have limited effect on its attractiveness. On the "supply side", it's much easier to act opportunistically on compromising information than it is to go into the business of speculatively trying to develop compromising information on specific targets.
But he could be right about that part, assuming a rational blackmailer. Legality has a big effect on large-scale, organized group activity. Maybe if it were legal, you really would have more organized, systematic attempts to investigate high-value targets with the idea of blackmailing them.
Where I think he's most surely wrong is on the strength of the effect that would have on the behavior of the potential blackmail-ee. I don't think that, in practice, significantly fewer people would choose to initiate blackmailable behavior.
Law, gossip, and illegal blackmail already produce most of the disincentives that legalized blackmail would. You already run a pretty large risk of anything you do being exposed. Much more importantly, it doesn't matter, because people don't react rationally or proportionately to that kind of disincentive.
People do not in fact think "I won't do this because I might be blackmailed". At the most, they may think "I won't do this because I might be found out", but they don't then break down the consequences of being found out into being blackmailed, being gossiped about, or just being thought badly of. Even noticing that something being found out might be an issue is more than most people will do. And forget about anybody consciously assigning an equivalent monetary value to being found out.
People might, maybe, think separately about the consequences of being punished criminally, but honestly I think the psychological mechanism there is much more "I don't want to see myself as a criminal", than "I don't want to get punished". People who actually commit crimes overwhelmingly don't expect to get caught, whether or not that expectation is rational. No plausible amount of blackmail-oriented investigation is going to change that expectation, any more than the already fairly large amount of government criminal investigation does.
Hanson seems to want to talk about a world of logically omniscient, rational , consequentialist actors, with unlimited resources to spend on working out the results of every alternative, and the ability to put a firm monetary value on everything. On a lot of issues, the vast majority of humans are not even approximately logically omniscient, rational, consequentialist actors, and the monetary values they assign to things are deeply inconsistent. Deviant behavior is one of the areas where people are least rational. Blackmail is all about deviant behavior, so Hanson's whole analytical framework is inapproprate from the get-go. It's probably a bit less unreasonable for modeling the conduct of blackmailers, but it's wholly wrong for modeling the behavior of blackmail-ees.
Speaking of that "rationality differential", there was also a suggestion in comments that legalized blackmail would give potential blackmailers an incentive to induce blackmailable behavior. That's pretty plausible and actually happens. It's 101 material in spy school, for example. It's often done by intentionally exploiting flaws in the target's rationality.
As far as I could see, Hanson just ignored that part of the comment. I'm tempted to put words into his mouth and imagine him saying "Why would you let a blackmailer induce you into blackmailable behavior? That's stupid.". Well, maybe it is stupid, but it happens all the time. So we have at least one unambiguously negative effect that he's totally ignored. All by itself, that one negative effect would probably create more blackmailable behavior than fear of blackmail would deter.
Hanson doesn't even concede enough to address the fact that the risk of blackmail is more manageable, and therefore possibly more appealing, than the risk of actual exposure, so a somewhat-less-extremely-unrealistic human actor might actually be more inclined to engage in "blackmailable" behavior if they expected anyone who happened to discover their behavior to blackmail them, rather than to simply expose them.
He's also talking about changes to law, but he ignores all of the factors that make legal systems gameable and load those systems up with friction. Unless forced, he more or less models the legal system as purely mechanical, and doesn't care to get into how actors actually use and abuse legal processes, nor systematic differences in various actors' sophistication, skills or resources for doing so. When negative effects based in those areas are brought up in comments, he just doubles down and suggests creating ever larger, more sweeping, systemwide legal changes essentially by fiat... which is politically impossible. He might as well suggest changing the law of gravity.
The behavior of homo economicus in a frictionless environment is simply uninteresting, and isn't quite as cut-and-dried as Hanson would have it anyway. The observed behavior of real humans suggests significant negative effects from putting his proposal into actual practice, and argues against the idea than any of his suggested benefits would be realized. And suggesting policy changes that are politically impossible is largely pointless anyway.
Personally, I'm not sure legalized blackmail would make a big difference in the world as a whole, but, if it did, I would expect it to be far more negative than positive. I would expect it to create a world with more snares, more fear, much more deliberately induced bad behavior, significantly more system gaming of all kinds, while not deterring much if any pre-existing bad behavior. Hanson hasn't said anything that changes that impression.
I will now go back to my usual policy of ignoring Hanson completely...