The Bitter Irony of Ross Ulbricht’s Silk Road Sentence

The alleged founder of online drug market Silk Road, another victim of the war on drugs. (DigitalTrends)

EspañolThe name Ross Ulbricht, the alleged founder of Silk Road — a virtual marketplace hosted in the Deep Web — could have appeared next to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and many other entrepreneurs that are a touchstone when talking about innovation.

Despite having fulfilled a market need, just like some of the most revered entrepreneurs on the planet, Ulbricht’s name is now chalked up on the inmates list of a New York prison. Unlike the above individuals, the US government took a dim view of his online activities.

On February 6, a federal jury in New York found Ulbricht guilty of seven offenses. The official indictment lists drug trafficking and money laundering, among other charges. But the case against him says more about the accusers than about the defendant.

US officials say the former UT Dallas student was the head of a criminal empire: they’ve pinned him as the creator of an organization that enabled drug traffickers worldwide to operate beyond the gaze of the law.

Silk Road, Ulbricht’s creation, allowed thousands of people to trade products that can be found in any mall. But it also became the location of choice to buy illegal drugs online. The combination of the Tor network and digital currency bitcoin cemented a meeting point between sellers and buyers.

Silk Road generated a drug market far from the dangers created by draconian US drug law. On the online marketplace, laws responsible for cramming US prisons with people who haven’t committed violent crimes against life, property, or individual freedoms, could be circumvented.

On Silk Road, sellers had a public reputation: buyers could evaluate their experience and share it with others, and didn’t finalize payments until satisfied with the delivery.

Users employed forums to denounce scammers and support those offering an honest service, eliminating many of the risks involved in transactions outside the law. But above all, it eliminated the myth that the product, drugs, are the cause of violence around drug trafficking, rather than the context in which the market develops.

Silk Road proved that state heavy-handedness drives the drug trade into the hands of criminals, and that an open community of buyers and sellers could operate without harm to anyone else.

Of course, to accept the lesson of Silk Road, we must also accept the right of responsible adults to choose what substances they introduce into their bodies, prohibited or otherwise.

In the past five decades, the US government has driven a brutal criminalization of this right, artificially generating exorbitant levels of violence inside and outside its borders, and ruined many more lives than any psychoactive substance could. The human and material destruction wreaked by drug law is off the scale when compared to that generated by drugs.

Ulbricht, however, sought to expose the hypocrisy that still reigns in a nation designed to be a home for personal liberty. He offered a forceful exposition of his philosophy on his LinkedIn profile:

I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, 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.

If the Silk Road experience was not convincing enough to prove Ulbricht’s point, the actions of the US government have, ironically, done his work for him.

In the face of the consensual, peaceful, and voluntary activities that took place on the website, the state again revealed its true nature, throwing a genuine freedom fighter in jail, and undermining any claim it has to be striving to help realize “the land of the free.”

Translated by Rebeca Morla. Edited by Laurie Blair.

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