Last week Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison stemming from charges related to running the online “anonymous” drug marketplace. In response, the ILC (Internet Libertarian Community) has largely reacted with an outpouring of support for Ulbricht. Many libertarians view Ulbricht as a hero for creating the Silk Road, thereby circumventing “the State” and it’s rights-violating War on Drugs.
There have been some dissenting voices, such as the Mises’ Institute’s Jeff Deist as well as our own John Odermatt, both of whom, while opposed to the War on Drugs and Ulbricht’s obscene sentencing, do not view his venture as being particularly heroic nor something libertarians should be clinging to.
To be clear: the purchase and sale of all drugs should be completely legal, and creating a website in order to enable such transactions should not, in and of itself, be viewed as a crime in any way. While I fall into the camp alongside Deist and Odermatt, the purpose of this article will not deal with whether the creation of Silk Road is per se a heroic act. Rather, I intend to examine one of the consequences which inevitably follows black market economic activity, that being violence.
The FBI claims that Ross Ulbricht ordered the assassinations of up to five people, though it’s now admitted that no actual murders ever took place. The full (and fascinating) story of Ulbricht’s founding of Silk Road and the subsequent events leading to his arrest are documented in this very detailed Wired article, which I highly recommend reading. Many libertarians have come to his defense on this issue, pointing out that the chat logs and diaries implicating Ulbricht in the assassination attempts could have been manipulated by an admittedly corrupt DEA agent, and that Ulbricht has not been convicted on any charges related to assassinations. But focusing on the specific facts related to whether or not Ross Ulbricht initiated attempts to assassinate individuals who may have harmed his business – either through attempts to steal from him or fear they would assist the Feds in arresting him – misses the point entirely.
By creating the Silk Road, Ulbricht was creating a black market explicitly for the purpose of enabling drug transactions. He has claimed that he did this in order to “to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind.” The grand contradiction here is that black markets inevitably lead to aggressive violence due to a lack of any sort of established judicial process to adjudicate disputes and enforce contracts and property rights.
And hold your horses, anarchists – I’m not claiming a “coercive monopoly” on justice is required to establish a judicial process, nor that governments should coercively extract funds from citizens in order to fund such judicial systems. But regardless of how they are funded, a system of justice is necessary for peaceful economic exchange.
Many will claim that the creation of Silk Road actually made drug transactions safer by taking them off the streets, citing a study that seems to confirm this. You will hear no argument from me that, on an individual basis, ordering drugs online is likely safer than walking down to the “bad part of town” and attempting to purchase drugs on the street. But Silk Road was by no means “safe” for its users. One of Silk Road’s biggest drug dealers, Cornelius Van Slomp, was recently sentenced to ten years in prison. He would tell the judge in his case “I don’t think any of this could have happened without the anonymity of the internet.”
Target Liberty’s Robert Wenzel pointed out another danger of operating on the Silk Road online:
If anything, using the internet and Bitcoin are a more dangerous method of selling drugs. If you get caught selling drugs on a street corner, you are busted for that deal. If you sell online using Bitcoin, there is a very real possibility that every transaction you have done can be traced back.
Indeed, on page 1 of the prosecutors 16 page letter to the judge asking for a sentence beyond the minimum 20 years in the Ulbricht case, they wrote:
“As the Presentence Report (“PSR”) filed by the Probation Office makes clear, that enterprise resulted in serious real- world consequences, including at least six drug-related deaths.”
When have you ever heard of a street dealer being busted and all his deals being traced back to numerous drug-related deaths? It doesn’t happen.
Ulbricht’s naive false belief in the anonymity of the internet and Bitcoin has cost him his freedom forever. The libertarian fan boy, turned black market operator, now has none.
The fact is, operating on a black market, particularly in a society which largely views the activity taking place on that market as criminal, is dangerous, both for the buyer and seller. The black market invites violence from the government, as well as violence among its users when disputes occur.
As I discussed with Dr. Mark Thornton on an early edition of the Lions of Liberty Podcast, violence is an inevitable by-product of black market economies, and the fact that the black market in this particular instance took place online does not negate that fact. Even if all of the accusations regarding Ross Ulbricht hiring assassins are completely untrue, this type of violence will inevitably occur in such a black market.
I must also address a subsect of libertarians – and I will qualify that I don’t believe this to be a majority view even among Ulbricht supporters – who claim that even if Ulbricht really did order the assassinations, that this could be justified by the fact that he was facing a potential threat to his business or even his life, and therefore had little recourse but to hire an assassin to deal with the problem. In some way, this further drives home my point that by driving a market underground, violence becomes the main method of dispute resolution. But the deeper issue here is the endorsement by some of “vigilante justice” – the idea of taking the “law” (in this case, the “law of the Silk Road” as Ulbricht reportedly referred to it) into one’s own hands.
When one orders an assassination, they are declaring themselves judge, jury and executioner – the sole and final arbiter of justice in their universe. As the operator of the Silk Road, Ulbricht created an environment devoid of justice, where ultimately the most ruthless of operators rise to the top. In order for a just society to thrive – and justice should be a top priority for anyone proclaiming to stand for the principles of liberty – everyone must be allowed some form of due process. There is no due process involved when it comes to hiring an assassin, and this sort of activity should be thoroughly rejected by libertarians.
By all accounts Ross Ulbricht is an incredibly bright mind that unfortunately got diverted into an ill-advised attempt to end the War on Drugs through the creation of a black market for drugs. But the War on Drugs will not be ended by shuttling drug use further into the black market. It can only be combated through altering the bad philosophy of our fellow man. Black markets should be created and utilized out of necessity – whether it’s to free slaves or a man illegally using marijuana to battle his anorexia.
Otherwise, leave the black markets to the assassins and other such low-lives of the world.
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