Will Libertarians Learn From the ‘Silk Road’ Blunder?

by John Odermatt, originally published at Lions of Liberty

Ross Ulbricht once posted the following on his LinkedIn profile (emphasis mine):

Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind… The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.

The statement above, which ross-ulbricht-volI have emphasized in bold, could not be truer. There is no better way to change a society’s philosophy on government, than by changing the minds of the governed and as a result, alter behavior of individuals. But how many minds did Mr. Ulbricht’s economic simulation, Silk Road, actually change?

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Claiming that Ulbricht’s Silk Road paved a path to libertarian enlightenment is tantamount to arguing that Mexican drug cartels have been waging the same intellectual battle for a much longer time. This is an irrational belief.

Black markets inherently push the trade of prohibited goods or services to the fringes of society. They do not teach the importance of protecting individual rights in a free society. Black markets provide a mechanism for skirting coercive regulations, but they do not provide the education necessary to understand that rights infringements are inherent to a society reliant upon government coercion.

It appears that Mr. Ulbricht now understands the error in his ways, as he has written a letter to United States District Judge Katherine Forrest admitting that he was naïve to create Silk Road and he deeply regrets the decision.

An article from ars technica provides the content of the letter:

As I see it, a life sentence is more similar in nature to a death sentence than it is to a sentence with a finite number of years. Both condemn you to die in prison, a life sentence just takes longer. If I do make it out of prison, decades from now, I won’t be the same man, and the world won’t be the same place. I certainly won’t be the rebellious risk taker I was when I created Silk Road. In fact, I’ll be an old man, at least 50, with the additional wear and tear prison life brings. I will know firsthand the heavy price of breaking the law and will know better than anyone that it is not worth it. Even now I understand what a terrible mistake I made. I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age. Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker.

In a prior article, I criticized those who called Ulbricht a “hero” for his creation of Silk Road. Those who defended Ulbricht’s actions claim that he created an economic environment free from the influence of a coercive government, and by so doing he had provided a glimpse into how a society without the intrusive hand of government force could operate.

This belief is misguided. Mr. Ulbricht followed this logic and now he is facing the better part of his remaining years on this earth locked in a cage. Hopefully young libertarians have noted the price Ulbricht is paying for his “economic simulation.”

The fact that Ulbricht will be spending significant time behind bars does not in itself invalidate his risky behavior. In recent years Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were locked away or were forced to apply for asylum in foreign lands because of the government secrets they revealed. Manning and Snowden took calculated risks because they saw no other path that would allow for the truth to be exposed. Ulbricht took repeated unnecessary risks and chose a path that was sure to lead to imprisonment. He set out to create a world without the systemic use of force, and as he sits in prison we are no closer to attaining that goal. Young libertarians should recognize that partaking in black market exchanges for the express purpose of advancing liberty is not a sustainable or repeatable method to be used to advance libertarian principles.

This isn’t to say that all black market transactions are useless. Black markets emerge organically due to prohibitions and some of these illegal transactions can be vital to an individual’s survival. For example, an individual who buys marijuana on the black market to ease or even cure a debilitating disease can save their own life.

However, it is dangerous to conflate those who need to use the black market to survive in spite of coercive prohibitions with those who believe the black market is a tool to advance the ideas of liberty. Black markets in banned items are inherently dangerous, and libertarians should in no way be encouraging people to create them.

Do you think Ross Ulbricht provided a useful service for the cause of liberty? Share your opinion in the comments.

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