My Conversation with Ross Ulbricht

I had a quick phone conversation with Ross Ulbricht the other day. I expressed my support and passed on the support of thousands of others. His voice was clear, with a pretty tenor intonation. He thanked me for the public support I’ve given him. We exchanged a few other thoughts.

It was a deeply moving moment for me.

It can be easy to de-humanize a public figure like Ross, especially given that he has been so demonized by the government as a dangerous drug kingpin who hires hitmen against his enemies. He has never even been allowed to speak to the public in any way. He has not really been given a fair chance to respond to the claims made about him. As a result, he has been presented to us as a hateful archetype.

But the voice I heard on the other end was that of a real human being. He could be your brother, your son, your cousin. He is an innovator, a sincere idealist. He is now trapped by a vindictive government, used as a tool in a propaganda war. He is caged, and pointlessly so. It’s a tragedy, a deeply human one.

I’ve followed the case of Silk Road closely for years. It is a fascinating episode in the struggle toward a freer world. After a half century of a violent, costly, and unwinnable drug war, one that has massively empowered governments and drug lords, and led to mass incarcerations around the world, the Silk Road represented actual progress.

It was a peer-to-peer platform that permits exchange of goods and service without government intervention. It might be called the first truly free market of the 21st century. Ross set it up as a real-time experiment. What would happen if there really were a free market? How would it work?

The results far exceeded his expectations. It actually began the process of de-monopolizing narcotic markets, connecting buyers and sellers directly. It also brought producer accountability to a market that desperately needs it. The consumer feedback features of the site were extremely useful, even essential. After half a century of pointless violence, Ross’s innovation actually showed us a new way.

Through this technology, producers of narcotics no longer had to crawl to scary and violent drugs to find a market for their goods. Consumers no longer had to skulk around in scary neighborhoods and take inordinate risks with their lives.

And here is an incredible irony. From what I could tell from looking at the Silk Road, the main product that was being sold was actually marijuana. In the last few years, its possession and use has been dramatically liberalized all around the country.

What good did caging him do for the world? Another version of Silk Road went online soon after his arrest. When that was taken down, another popped up within days. Beyond that, there are now dozens of other narcotics markets on the darknet, all of them more robust and less vulnerable to takedown than the original Silk Road.

Ross’s arrest did absolutely nothing to curb online drug markets. If anything it was the opposite: the publicity of the case enticed countless new entrepreneurs to build new platforms.

And ask yourself: who celebrated Ross’s arrest the most? Surely it was the drug lords. They are business people. They want the market cornered. They want to crush all competition, and they do, violently. A P2P technology that permits disintermediation in this market is the worst possible threat to their power.

All of this would be true even without the claims that Ross attempted to hire a hitman against those who threatened to expose his identity and those of the Silk Road’s customers. Please note several facts about these claims. There was never a victim found for these supposed hit jobs.

Also, these claims were made to the press repeatedly but they were not part of the government’s case, and this is surely for a reason. But what of the transcripts that seem to show that the Dread Pirate Roberts made such a contract? We do not know it was Ross and we do not know the context or the deeper story.

I do not trust the evidence and I do not trust any story that bureaucrats feed to the press but do not submit to a fair trial. It struck me at the time that these stories and the spin around them seem constructed to dupe naive libertarians into pulling back from their support for Ross’s case.

As you know, Ross was convicted on all counts, even though all he really did is precisely what he admitted to doing: he founded a website for P2P exchange. His prosecution sets a very dangerous precedent for all website builders. There will be an appeal, and my highest hope is the decision of the jury will be reversed. Ross needs to be free. He is a threat to no one. No justice is served by keeping him locked up.

The drug war itself is unjust. So is the prison system. So is the court system. Ross is a victim of all three. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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12 comments

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  • Even if Ross did put out hits and they had been carried out, from what I have read of the situation, such an action could be considered defensive violence against someone threatening to bring deadly initiatory force against peaceful people.

  • I’m also extremely skeptical of the hit contracts though not so much of Ulbricht’s involvement in the Silk Road long after its initial development. Using unsubstantiated allegations to prejudice a jury should be unlawful.

    Still, the dark web and some crypto-currencies do enable hit contracts, and libertarians should discuss these developments openly. I wrote about this possibility before TOR, Bitcoin or Silk Road existed, and I wrote approvingly at the time, but this approval is not consistent with my libertarian values. I don’t claim to be a perfectly moral creature. I can be pushed beyond the limit of my devotion to libertarian ethics, including my respect for an inalienable right to life.

    That’s fair warning to anyone, particularly statesmen, threatening me or mine, but I won’t call the threat libertarian, and I would never threaten anyone’s life over vulgar property rights. My children are my property in a now uncommon sense of “property”, and i will kill, mercilessly, to defend this relationship with them, but I won’t call this killing either proper or libertarian. I am the beast God made me, and neither Tolstoy nor Rothbard is His prophet. That’s all.

    My heart also goes out to Ross and to his mother, but a free community may forbid the sale of some drugs for recreational use among its members, and most free communities presumably would. We should have this debate too.

  • Thank you for your insightful thoughts and for speaking to Ross. He is certainly a hero to tens of millions. He is also a victim of the drug war, a war that has cost thousands of lives, incarcerated millions of persons, and thrown trillions of dollars into the hands of government contractors and law pushers.

    As you note, Ross points the way toward free markets. He exposed some of the methods that law enforcement uses to catch people like himself. Future wary entrepreneurs in the Silk Road space won’t trust TOR, won’t use public libraries for wireless connectivity, and will probably avoid web browsers which are inherently insecure.

    The technical pieces of a secure, censorship-free, open economy are firmly in place. Location agnostic servers, page kites, Jabber/XMPP, “off the record” for chat, encryption for e-mail – “these are a few of my favourite things.” The future of freedom is very bright indeed.

  • Forgive me for being emotional. This all just breaks my heart. Why, why, WHY? This wonderful young man who saw an opportunity to bring sanity to a market that needs some sanity. Caged. Possibly for the rest of his life. I got addicted to Crack Cocaine when I was in my mid-twenties. I used to skulk around the dangerous areas of a large city I lived in looking to get more. Was robbed, cheated, even unknowingly bought a chunk of soap one time, etc. I wasn’t going to stop doing Crack Cocaine just because I had to get it illegally. It wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other to me. The fact remains… buying a product I wanted to use at the time was terrifying. And I wasn’t afraid of the law… I was afraid of the places I had to go and the people I needed to see to get what I wanted. (That also… did *not* stop me) An open market system with consumer driven checks and balances would have maybe saved me a whole lot of heartache. (BTW, I no longer do any drugs or alcohol. I grew out of it, grew up and stopped)

    Ross doesn’t deserve a cage for starting the silk road (if he hired hit men, then let the punishment fit that crime). He deserves a medal.

  • My heart is with Ross (and Lyn). Only a few issues in the national spotligjht get my attention and my emotions and this is one of them.

  • Ross is a legend… period!
    It breaks my heart he is in jail. He will go down in history as the man who civilised the drug trade and removed a ton of violence from it. He has done humanity a great service and now he has to languish in prison. Truly shameful (but are we surprised?)
    Anyone fascinated by the Silk Road story should read the book “Silk Road” by Eileen Ormsby (a real page turner).
    I would like to see more discussion re. the alleged ‘hits’ from a libertarian perspective. We don’t have the details, but a hypothetical discussion would be worth having. Most people seem to react (without knowing the details) totally against the (alleged) action. I’m thinking more along the lines of Matthew Reece’s comment (first comment in the comment section). More discussion please 🙂

  • It’s one thing for me when we’re just talking about foolish or cruel policies. It’s another feeling altogether when you realise this is a real human victim of the laws, with a real human family.

  • Thank you for the opportunity for me to remind FIJA’s constituents that we should always be mindful as jurors that we sit in judgment of real human beings—not the Evil Bad Guy caricatures that the state so often tries to frame them as.

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