Bitcoin, Crime, Democracy, Dread Pirate Roberts, Drugs, FBI, Freedom, Libertarian, Libertarianism, Liberty, marijuana, Micronations, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Ross William Ulbrich, Silk Road, War on Drugs
I am a libertarian in everything but name. I do like the name but it rolls off the tongue with a ringing eighteenth-century magnificence which is very hard for somebody as modest and unassuming as myself to live up to. Calling myself a libertarian may seem a little like donning giants’ robes, but in believing that one cannot be a complete human being without unrestricted freedom, I am nonetheless, I suppose, a libertarian.
Last week’s shutdown of the Silk Road black market website by the FBI should be bad news for libertarians, but I find myself sharing in the general indifference to its demise. I do not think that its hitherto-anonymous founder, the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” should be banged up or his website shut down. Yet the Dread Pirate did relatively little to further the cause of liberty, and Silk Road instead signified an abandonment of democracy and revolutionary change. For the users of Silk Road, liberty was something which had been won only in their bedrooms rather than throughout public life.
Silk Road provided a genuinely free market, without taxation or state interference. According to the FBI, 70% of Silk Road’s trade was in illegal drugs, it had 957,079 registered users, and an estimated turnover of $1.2 billion in sales, and $80 million in commissions. In order to purchase drugs from Silk Road, you needed to employ the TOR programme, which conceals your IP address, and you could only trade in the internet currency Bitcoin.
Most of the information divulged about Silk Road over the last week consists almost entirely of assertions made by the FBI, which have yet to be challenged in court. A 29 year old Physics graduate named Ross William Ulbrich has been unmasked as the Dread Pirate, and arrested in San Francisco. Indicted in New York and Maryland, Ulbrich faces the charge (amongst others) that he hired a contract-killer to bump off a troublesome Silk Road user. It is a suspicious story, apparently featuring agents provocateurs, and its purpose seems to be ultimately presentational: to convince us that the Feds are not menacing a harmless and clever young man, but bringing a bona fide mobster to justice.
The Dread Pirate’s comeuppance has been predominantly greeted in the media with amusement and some degree of gloating. The Times’ Caitlin Moran today tweeted sarcastically, “Silk Road – who knew selling drugs on the most talked-about site on the internet would get you in trouble??” The Washington Post tutted over the Dread Pirate’s “sloppy digital hygiene,” whilst The Guardian pointed out the “five stupid things” that led to the Pirate’s arrest. In fairness to the media, they at least know what they are talking about: The Guardian, Channel Four News, Forbes, and PBS have all run identical investigations about purchasing drugs from Silk Road.
Any protests about the shutdown within the media have tended to run on pragmatic lines, albeit if indulging in a sentimental dream about buying drugs from blameless small businessmen. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has warned that Silk Road “facilitated a significantly less damaging drug trade than what existed before it,” and he ventured that “we’d be better off with a sanctioned online narcotics trade.” The Guardian’s Oscar Rickett agreed that, “Silk Road could have ended up providing a real alternative to the cartels… whose many crimes include mass-murder and kidnapping.” There has been greater anguish amongst media commentators about disruption to the value of the tech-currency Bitcoin, than about the Fed’s attack upon what the Silk Road undoubtedly represents: our freedom to make decisions about our own lives. Gabrielė Stakaitytė, at The Libertarian, is virtually alone in declaring that, “The fall of Silk Road is a blow to freedom.”
The shutdown of Silk Road may constitute a blow to freedom, but the website has proved so vulnerable to state oppression because it had never attached itself to any popular libertarian struggle. Indeed it does not seem to have been especially popular. At its height, Silk Road had acquired 957,079 users out of an estimated worldwide market of around 200 million people. The Dread Pirate has admirably proclaimed that, “What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong.” Yet it seems likely that Silk Road, with the requirements of its users for technical knowhow and not a little risk taking, provided a niche market for established professional dealers rather than individual customers. It is unclear whether this website had replaced the guy from Dumbiedykes who mixes your vitamins with baking powder, or whether it had instead supplied vitamins to the guy from Dumbiedykes to mix with his baking powder.
In its flight from democratic politics, Silk Road bears a conspicuous resemblance to “micronations”: those agreeably crackpot projects to launch tiny fantasy or virtual nations, or to maintain that dots on the map represent sovereign states. The most famous micronation to date is assuredly the Principality of Sealand: an abandoned Sea Fort off the coast of Sussex, which was declared to be an independent nation in 1967. Most of Sealand’s population are its own Royal Family. Another is the Republic of Molossia, which its “dictator” Kevin Baugh first began in Nevada as a childhood hobby. Today the republic comprises of 6.3 acres and it has 27 citizens. Libertarians have transformed farmsteads and floating platforms into aspirant sovereign entities, whilst the micronation Talossa has flourished on the internet as a roleplaying game.
Micronations may never amount to very much, with their fancy-dress monarchs trying to pretend that hanging out with their mates on a few designated acres of land, or in an online forum, carries the same constitutional status as China. Yet these suburban despots are usually good with the merchandise, and between them they have produced an array of flags and coinage that look surprisingly indistinguishable from those of real nations.
Silk Road had several of the hallmarks of a micronation, but both its extensive population and preference for anonymity over pastiche-citizenship are uncharacteristic of the model. As with any micronation, however, there was a rich fantasy element to Silk Road, with its title suggesting Oriental adventure and opulence, and even the Feds referring to the website as a “black market bazaar.” Yet Silk Road muddled up its pantomime imagery and it ended up being commanded by a swaggering “pirate,” albeit one named after a character from the 1987 Hollywood comedy-romance The Princess Bride. The Dread Pirate claimed of the drugs dealers on his website that, “There are heroes among us here at Silk Road. Every day they risk their lives, fortunes, and precious liberty for us.” As Forbes has noted, “Commenters on the site describe Roberts as a “hero,” a “job creator,” “our own Che Guevara” and a “name [that] will live [on] among the greatest men and women in history as a soldier of justice and freedom.””
If the king of the average micronation turns out to be typically an ageing businessman in a silly costume, the Dread Pirate may be equally unimpressive in the flesh. Ulbrich’s puzzled family and friends have despaired that, “He’s always been upstanding and never had any trouble with the law that I knew of,” and that, “he was always at home in his room on the computer.”
The micronation concedes through its very existence that it has given up on democracy. When His Excellency John I was asked why Freedonia was a constitutional monarchy, he explained that, “Elected officials are, by the vary [sic] nature of their electability, open to being compromised. Elected politicians are always seeking to hold their elected office and as such they all too often are ruled by the need for funds and votes.” Silk Road was cut from the same undemocratic logic, in offering an escape from the citizenship of a real nation and real public life.
Once on the Silk Road, the libertarian has left the electorate behind in dreary old America. They have renounced the tiresome moral obligation of persuading their fellow countrymen that they can and should be free. When extradited back to the real world, and made to face the wrath of the state, such libertarians may find that they are very much alone.