As you probably already know, Ross Ulbricht, the secret mastermind behind the online narcotics website Silk Road, was convicted of all seven crimes he had been charged with. The charges against Ulbricht included trafficking drugs on the internet, narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, running a continuing criminal enterprise, computer-hacking conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy.
Ross Ulbricht has been called a hero in libertarian circles for his role in creating the first anonymous online narcotics exchange. Before we crown Ulbricht a model libertarian, let’s examine his political and economic background, in order to better understand his goals in building Silk Road. Once we gain a better understand of why he built Silk Road, then we can examine the libertarian philosophy of agorism to which Ulbricht subscribes.
Ross Ulbricht and I have a few things in common. We both attended and received degrees from Pennsylvania State University; Ulbricht earned a master’s degree in Material Science and I graduated with a B.S. in Supply Chain and Information Systems. Ulbricht supported Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign in 2008, even attempting to become a delegate. As I’ve written before, I credit Ron Paul with waking me from a neoconservative coma.
Ulbricht and I have read many of the same authors from Austrian economists to libertarian scholars. The indictment against Ross Ulbricht claims he frequented the Mises Institute and studied the writings of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. Prosecutors claim the Austrian School of Economics and libertarian principles presented by these writers provided the philosophical basis for the idea of Silk Road. These same authors, Mises and Rothbard, provided my earliest lessons in liberty. There was a time when I considered myself an anarcho-capitalist. Ulbricht probably still considers himself one today. My views have evolved to be focused upon a defense of individual rights and rebuke of coercive government, rather than focus on one specific system that may exist in a more free society.
Ulbricht certainly sounds like an anarcho-capitalist and agorist when hinting about the reasoning behind the formation of Silk Road in his LinkedIn profile:
Now, my goals have shifted. I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. 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.
Many in the libertarian community have called Ross Ulbricht a hero. They claim that by creating Silk Road, Ulbricht created an economic environment free from influence by a coercive government. It is true that he created a marketplace free of government influence, but if the charges against Ulbricht are at least partially true, and based on the proceedings in court it appears that they are, then he most certainly is not a hero.
The Silk Road saga provides a real life example that demonstrates why the “agorism” strategy is a doomed philosophical construct. Agorists subscribe to the use of counter-economics, or black markets, to achieve political reform. Ulbricht was using Silk Road to provide an anonymous free market for trading illegal narcotics. His black market was working, but there was a major problem with this reasoning. Black market transactions beget violence and push those participants that need help to the back alleys of society.
Host of the Lions of Liberty Podcast, Marc Clair, hit the nail on the head during an email exchange where we discussed the Ulbricht verdict:
Obviously I think there should be legal drug markets, but encouraging the agorism route only invites violent behavior – see DPR’s hiring of assassins – and is the antithesis to how a proper strategy for advancing liberty should look.
Of course drug prohibition should end and coercive governments should not get to decide what individuals are permitted to ingest into their bodies, but the best way to achieve this is not through black market transactions. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be a free market in narcotics; there should absolutely be a free market in drugs. But it needs to be a market free from coercive forces and one that has access to arbitration in order to mediate disputes. A free market in narcotics would put a stop to criminalizing addiction and would allow for those that need help to seek help without fear of repercussions.
Ross Ulbricht is not a hero. His online black market bonanza did not advance the cause of individual liberty. The act of selling narcotics or facilitating illegal drug transactions is in itself not a violation of libertarian principles, but also is not a effective way to advocate the advancement of liberty. A successful agorist is a jailed agorist.
Ulbricht was the architect of what was essentially a narcotic marketplace and it appears Ulbricht may have personally invited violence upon people associated with that market place. At the end of the day who did Silk Road help? The marketplace helped individuals selling narcotics to find consumers to use those narcotics. It met a need, but in doing so it pushed the marketplace into the shadows where the most dangerous and conniving characters in society thrive. At the end of the day lovers of liberty need to focus upon the defense of individual rights and the elimination of coercive governments. We are no closer to either of those goals now than before Ulbricht created Silk Road. In fact, the government clamp down and likely internet regulations will likely end up shutting down many other online markets as well.