It Takes Brains

 
August 8, 2011Robin Hanson

Why exactly should the cash price of gossip always be zero?

Robin Hanson

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Old saying, that few believe.

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, (Romans 1:29,30)

Law, first and foremost, keeps the peace. Sometimes people have big complaints about others, complaints so big that they are tempted to do something big about them. In such cases it can be very nice to have a law step in and declare who is right. If many accept the law’s resolution, peace may be preserved.

Gossip is dangerous. This has long been known, as the bible quotes above indicate. People can be greatly harmed by others talking about them, so sometimes gossip leads to very big complaints. Through most of the history of formal law, dangerous gossip was dealt with simply: law banned saying bad things about others. Of course this rule wasn’t always or even usually enforced — it was expensive to make a legal complaint. And there were various conditions and exceptions. But the basic idea was simple: keep people from hurting each other.

Our modern Western world thinks differently. We idealize conversation, and letting people say what they think. So we no longer have law punish people for saying bad things about each other, especially true things. We instead tell folks to tough it, that true mean words don’t excuse violent retaliation. Sometimes we see people hurt others greatly, out of malice, and we refuse to stop them. We sacrifice such victims on the altar of our respect for conversation.

Of course there are good things to say about gossip. By freely sharing info, we might aggregate it, and all learn the sum of what we all know. For example, we might learn to identify people who are mean or uncooperative, helping us to avoid them, and giving them stronger incentives to cooperate. While such social pressure to please aren’t always good, they seem good on average.

Blackmail is basically a threat of gossip; “if you don’t pay, I’ll gossip.” So almost all the things people don’t like about blackmail are things they don’t like about gossip. Someone could, out of selfish motives, say something that hurts someone else. If you don’t like this scenario, it is mainly something you don’t like about a freedom to gossip.

Yes, in addition to harmful gossip, blackmail can also involve money, and a threat. But money-inspired threats happen anytime parties haggle over a price, and few folks get worked up over that. If people are free to buy or not buy, and to sell or not sell, why not let them make threats about the price they’ll accept? Similarly, if people are free to gossip or not gossip as they prefer, why not let them haggle over the price of their gossip?

Yes, some prices are seen by many as unfair or immoral. Many don’t think the price of water or gas should rise in a crisis, and think the cash price of sex, babies, and organs should always be zero. But the arguments folks give for those cases don’t apply well to gossip — why exactly should the cash price of gossip always be zero?

Now a world that allows blackmail about gossip, i.e., haggling over the price of gossip, isn’t exactly the same as a world with only gossip. Legal blackmail should increase the incentives to discover embarrassing info, and thus the expected penalties from embarrassing actions. But these are mostly just stronger versions of the effects of gossip without blackmail, and they are effects we think we mostly like about gossip.

If we don’t want to discourage certain embarrassing actions, then why allow gossip about them? We could extend our privacy laws, and declare some topics off limits to casual conversation. But for topics where we do want conversation, because it is on average good to discourage people from doing embarrassing things, why not also allow blackmail?


Back To It Takes Brains