Civil Liberties

Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace

The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty.


As I reported earlier today, Ross Ulbricht was found guilty of all seven counts related to running the Silk Road website.

The government baldly asserted—and the judge allowed the grossly prejudicial speculations to be aired in court—that Ulbricht was also involved in some (fantasized, un-carried-out) attempts to hire people to murder others threatening to reveal some of Silk Road's secrets. (I find randomly discussing the case in both real life and online that this water-muddying was remarkably successful. Lots of people vaguely familiar with the case are sure he was tried and convicted for these accused murders-for-hire.)

Yet the crimes the government actually chose to indict, try, and convict Ulbricht for—with a possible sentence of 30 to life—were all about allegedly facilitating the sales of things the government has decided was illegal (drugs, certain computer tools, "fake I.D.s", or using means to preserve privacy and anonymity in the flow of money and identity of the money owners). The charges were:

narcotics trafficking; distribution of narcotics by means of the Internet; narcotics trafficking conspiracy; continuing criminal enterprise; conspiracy to aid and abet computer hacking; conspiracy to traffic in fraudulent identity documents; and money laundering conspiracy.

And its also worth considering, though the government and the jury did not seem to think it mattered, that he didn't do any of those things, but merely helped manage a website that allowed people to do them. As his legal team and his supporters have pointed out, that's a somewhat dangerous legal precedent for the Internet age in which sites that facilitate communication and commerce are incredibly valuable and will become more so.

Ulbricht wrote, when discussing his hopes for the future in an old LinkedIn page, that he hoped "to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind." He wanted to make, he wrote, "an economic simulation to give people a firsthand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force." 

And that's what he  did, if the government's accusations are correct, and that's what his life has been destroyed for: created a site that helped bring more intelligence, more freedom, more consumer awareness, more harm reduction (because of the intelligent and communicative community that arose around the site, helping educate you about safe and sensible use, mixing, and sources of drugs), and more peace to the sometimes dangerous process of drug buying. That act can be dangerous both because of the quality of sellers and product, and because of the occasional physical danger presented by the people or situations that real-life drug deals sometimes create.

In creating this safer, better, smarter marketplace via eliminating the systemic use of force, Ulbricht attracted the dire attentions of the biggest such systemic user of force in the world: the U.S. government.

If you delve into the world of Silk Road forums and fans, as I did in researching my December Reason feature, talk to some of its users, study the academic work on it, you realize Silk Road was a place that helped eliminate fear, uncertainty and danger; that made quality and customer satisfaction a more powerful incentive to succeed in drug dealing than violent defense of turf or money.

Even while it still allowed, like everything in life, the occasional rip-off, it made drug buying and selling in every way better, safer, more reliable, more peaceful.

Thus, the government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America.

The edifice of foolishness and lies that the government has built with its fabulously expensive and fabulously destructive war on drugs is crumbling around us, with marijuana, its firmest and most massive base, more and more recognized as either medicine or a perfectly acceptable personal choice. The logic that is bringing down marijuana prohibition should apply to other drugs eventually, and the politics of a large-scale war on the far-less-prevalent other drugs should become unsustainable within the next few decades or sooner merely on a cost-benefit analysis. There likely isn't enough business or money to be made for the government and its contractors and agents and imprisoners in continuing to wage a large-scale war on the other, less widely used drugs. The political logic, both explicit and implicit, that keeps the war going ought not be able to survive losing pot as a target.

The government can, and will, continue to spend enormous amounts of our money and its employees' time destroying people's lives for trying to help people the way Silk Road tried to help people. But it will never win the war. It will commit crimes against the person, the property, and the privacy of its citizens in doing so. It will practice, in issues I hope Ulbricht's lawyer Josh Dratel succeeds in airing more thoroughly in the appeal, an abusive and invasive practice of surveillance and hacking in pursuit of crimes that, lacking victims, lack any other way to prosecute, creating bad precedent that will bedevil all of us, not just accused "drug lords."

Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did. 

The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.