I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be Heroes, just for one day
I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns shot above our heads
(over our heads)
And we kissed,
as though nothing could fall
(nothing could fall)
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes,
just for one day
Bowie’s song is about lovers separated by the Berlin Wall (inspired by a less moving real-life story). I think it doesn’t take much imagination to apply the lyrics to Ross Ulbricht. …nothing will drive them away…guns shot above our heads…the shame was on the other side…we can beat them, just for one day…then we could be heroes….
This is a difficult post to write: first and most important, a young man’s life has been stripped from him for a non-violent offense, a crime that is no crime. Additionally, it is difficult because in the end I have no satisfying answer to the question, Is Ross Ulbricht a libertarian hero?
Others have tackled this: on the “yes” side sits Jason Byas; Jeff Deist suggests at least some caution. A comment or two from each will suffice to set the stage:
Ross Ulbricht is a hero, worthy of our praise, whose virtues we ought to cultivate in ourselves. He deserves our respect for his courage to break the law. (Emphasis in original)
The courage to break the law isn’t sufficient for libertarian praise.
Ulbricht not only saw a way that he could make the world a better and more just place, he saw a way to do it without first getting the law to agree. Most importantly, he acted on the information he had.
As long as “better and more just” fit within the framework of the NAP. I believe it does in the case of Ulbricht’s actions. The same could be written about Edward Snowden, for example. I think most libertarians would agree that Snowden could be considered a hero, but I am only guessing.
…Ulbricht not only had entrepreneurial alertness, but also the courage to risk imprisonment. He did not waste time with ballot initiatives, campaigns, or lobbying. He went straight to the source, taking direct action by circumventing the law.
Byas points to examples of individuals in the past who, at the time of their actions were ridiculed or punished, yet today – in hindsight – are viewed as heroes.
Now Deist, who – as best as I can tell – does not directly answer “no,” instead offering some caution on the matter:
…is Ulbricht a commendable libertarian martyr by definition, simply by virtue of falling into the crosshairs of an immoral federal government waging an unjust drug war? Does lamenting his indefensible sentence mean celebrating him and his actions?
Deist addresses the question by assessing the effectiveness of Ulbricht’s strategy:
Unfortunately the Silk Road prosecution will only strengthen dark connections in the public hive mind between internet markets, privacy, cryptocurrencies, and real (i.e. not victimless) criminality. That these connections are mostly unfounded misses the point: the conflation of voluntaryist agorism with libertarianism is not likely to push the public in our direction.
He cites Rothbard’s view that such methods are not helpful toward the libertarian cause.
Clearly Mr. Ulbricht is the victim of shocking injustice. But his story serves as a cautionary tale about the priorities of those who seek a freer society. We should celebrate men and women of good character who wake up every day and provide us with value — whether economic, familial, social, civil, or religious. These are true libertarian heroes, individuals who go around, under, over, or through the state and its clutches in their everyday lives. It is not always the swashbuckling anti-hero, but often the quiet, sober, staid, bourgeois businessman who deserves praise for sustaining us.
I posted a couple of comments at the Mises site, in response to Deist’s post; I offer my primary comment here:
No matter how much we might disagree, the state will not tolerate anonymous financial transactions (except cash, and only barely). Those who promoted the anonymity value of bitcoin and various “anonymous” marketplaces as advances toward freedom did no one a service.
There are ways to advance the libertarian cause in addition to those mentioned by the author in the last paragraph - ways that, in addition, come with the benefit of not painting a bulls-eye on your chest.
Raise your children well. Take every rule the state allows and stretch it – two of the most radical statements for freedom are perfectly legal and relatively easy in the United States: homeschooling and firearms ownership. Both offer opportunities to extend the franchise to the next generation.
“Agorism and its implications, however much they resonate with libertarians, have always been a losing proposition with the general public.”
There is no advancement of freedom without successes in education. In general, we get all the “state” that the public demands (count how many people opt out at the airport line, as one example; watch how many people stand and cheer at the military worship at a sports event as another).
So, start a blog – it is a great way to both educate yourself and reach others; if you open the eyes of one person, it is one more than would otherwise have been the case. Support organizations that promote freedom and free markets – like this one.
I would like to expand on my thoughts in this post. I will let you know now, I am not going to offer a satisfying answer to the question – is Ulbricht a libertarian hero? I find it almost unanswerable.
1. A man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2. A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.
Virtually every word in the definition is subjective (in italics), at least in my view. How do you solve for a problem with so many variables? Per the dictionary definition, a hero is in the eyes of the beholder. That doesn’t help much.
What is a libertarian hero? One view considers the fight as one of ideas; therefore the libertarian hero is the great writer, thinker, philosopher, debater. It doesn’t take much to come up with several names that would fit: Murray Rothbard certainly is on the list, and first on the list. Further, it seems to me one could include a non-libertarian like Ayn Rand, as many libertarians point to her writing as foundational, or at least inspirational, in their journey.
There is also a view of the libertarian hero as a person of action – taking the ideas of freedom and giving these life; a dealer in precious metals could be considered as such. It is in this group that the dialogue regarding Ulbricht belongs.
Within this group, there are two subsets – taking action within the law, and taking action outside of the law. I offered a couple of examples of taking action within the law in my comment, cited above: homeschooling and firearms ownership. Both actions are quite legal in the United States; both actions offer a means to express and expand liberty. Deist offers, in his concluding paragraph (and cited above) other possibilities – even less demonstrative than my suggestions, examples of every-day heroes; equally valid.
Then there is taking action outside of the law, and again this is where the dialogue surrounding Ulbricht is to be found. There are many examples of this type even in the last several years: Edward Snowden, Adam Kokesh, Randy Weaver, David Koresh, Andrew Stack, Timothy McVeigh, and Irwin Schiff – all, rightly or wrongly, conjure up images of this type. (And if I can include Ayn Rand as a libertarian hero on the “thinker” side, I can certainly include in this group those who did not necessarily make clear libertarian arguments for their actions.)
Even this group can be divided into violent vs. non-violent, and I find no reason to celebrate those in the violent camp. In any case, Ulbricht falls into the non-violent camp – the camp where libertarians (and others) would suggest that there is no crime.
One could look further afield – Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Gandhi; they broke laws, yet each would be considered a “hero” within their sphere. What separates this group from the Kokeshes, Schiffs and now Ulbrichts of the world may be nothing more than time and a following; Parks, King and Gandhi each worked within a movement that had legs, continuity.
They may have been at the source of the river, or one of the first tributaries, but they are considered by many to be “heroes” only because they inspired followers to take action. Only because of those followers (or the evidence of beneficial fruits from their actions) are they remembered as heroes. After each a movement grew; after each a significant change took place. Maybe not an appropriate hurdle to determine “hero” status, but if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears…well, you know.
I will add one other thought on the subject of “hero.” It seems to me that a hero suffers his consequences; he does not back away from the principle that drove him to act. Ulbricht has backed away, however:
I believed at the time that people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else. However, I’ve learned since then that taking immediate actions on one’s beliefs, without taking the necessary time to really think them through, can have disastrous consequences. Silk Road turned out to be a very naïve and costly idea that I deeply regret.
Here I come to difficult bridge for me personally. To properly assess the question of “hero,” I feel I must assess this statement. Yet this leads me to seem critical of someone whose life is unjustifiably ruined.
Ulbricht’s statement is not a statement of one who thought through his principles and actions, understood the potential consequences, and chose to act in the face of this. It is not the statement of one with firm conviction in his previously-assumed principled beliefs. The statement does not lend itself to a “hero.”
Snowden never made such a statement – then again, Snowden’s punishment is not life in prison without parole. Gandhi never made such a statement. To my knowledge, Irwin Schiff never made such a statement – and Schiff is spending more than a decade in prison, with time still to go; at his age, a life sentence.
Is Ulbricht a libertarian hero? Until I examined this statement, I felt this was impossible for me to answer. Now? I guess if forced to answer the question based on this construct, my answer would be no; however, I don’t like the answer because I don’t like that a young man’s life is ruined for a non-crime.
I don’t like writing it, and I don’t like that people close to him might read it. And I am not even sure if I fully believe it.
In the end, I go back to the subjective nature of the definition, and that subjectivity allowing for reasonable people to come to different conclusions. I also consider the as-yet-to-be-determined future that may result due to Ulbricht’s actions, and conclude, as I began, with no satisfying answer.