The FBI claims Ross William Ulbricht, 29, of Austin, Texas, ran an online drug market called the Silk Road using the alias Dread Pirate Roberts. Ross Ulbricht had this to say about his economic philosophy:
“I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression amongst mankind… 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.”
Dread Pirate Roberts, by the way, is a character in the film The Princess Bride, who is not just one man, but a series of individuals who periodically pass the name and occupation of pirate captain to a chosen successor. The world seems to contain more than one radical libertarian willing to dress up their greed as a political ideology, so, you never know—maybe Ulbricht is just the latest captain of the Silk Road. Life imitates art.
Ulbricht hails from Texas, home of lots of other radical right wing libertarians, like perennial presidential contender Ron Paul. Cody Wilson deserves a mention, even if he considers himself an anarchist. Wilson is using 3-D printers to make assault rifles and isn’t breaking any laws. Regardless, libertarians want to give you some serious freedom. Or, at least, sell it to you.
Now, you may not be willing to view the Silk Road as anything but a for-profit endeavor. I’m sure that’s what the FBI thinks, not that they care one way or the other. But let’s imagine it really was an attempt to change the world.
The problem specifically with Silk Road is that it will take more than a radical “economic simulation” to achieve freedom from the injustices of the War on Drugs (Albricht’s quote didn’t get this specific, but it stands to reason if you ask, “freedom from what?”) Not to mention the fact that improving drug consumers’ shopping experiences (in what still amounts to a black market) doesn’t significantly improve drug safety. Having a feedback system and a more normalised shopping experience may have ensured that bad sellers got fewer customers, but the black market of Prohibition still guarantees the existence of toxicity, additives, and the poor manufacture of substances designed for human consumption. Drugs require control, safety—regulation, perhaps; which is anathema to many libertarians. The main problem then is the law, not the economy.
Second are cultural perceptions of drug use, and here Silk Road might have had some impact. Anything that lessens the stigma and risk of the black market has the cultural potential to change people’s minds about what it means to use drugs. But power (law) usually trumps culture (attitudes toward drug use). It’s a two-way street, and culture can change law, but only when cultural forces reach a critical mass. Normally, power dominates culture. And Dread Pirate Roberts is up against one of the great empires of our times, which puts his ability to effect cultural change there at a significant disadvantage.
As for the notion that laissez-faire economics leads to a more free society, let’s take a case Ulbricht himself mentions in the same LinkedIn comment: slavery. Slavery in the United States was certainly first and foremost a financial institution, but it didn’t end because of market changes. In fact, global market changes and rules restricting the U.S. market did very little to force change. It took a civil war to eradicate the market, and the culture of racism slavery created in the U.S. only shifted gradually over the following one hundred years.
To change unjust laws that correspond to social norms, you must first change what people believe. A social movement, not an economic simulation, is required to end the Drug War.
- Silk Road, Part One: The United States vs. the Internet (pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com)
- Silk Road, Part Two: Ross Ulbricht vs. The World (pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com)
- The man behind Silk Road – the internet’s biggest market for illegal drugs (theguardian.com)
- FBI claims largest Bitcoin seizure after arrest of alleged Silk Road founder (theguardian.com)
- Sociology of culture (wikipedia.org)