Thursday, June 4, 2015

We Can Be Heroes

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

-        David Bowie

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:

First, Byas:

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.

He concludes:

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.


  1. Many people are familiar with the image of a protester facing down a tank during the Tiananmen Square protests. The tank stopped, so the nameless protester is not a hero in my opinion, but his courage is undeniable. If the tank did not stop, I think it would be fair to call him a hero.

    Well, the tank did roll over Dread Pirate Roberts. He faced the threat of the State and still had the courage to carry on with his activities which, crucially, were entirely consistent with the NAP. And now he has paid for it with his life. There is no doubt in my mind: Ulbricht is a libertarian hero, a martyr just like Irvin Schiff.

  2. I'm sick of this tyrannical government in Washington, DC.

    It's the elite statists versus the citizenry. They lie, cajole, bribe (as they are bribed) and murder to stay in power. I want it to collapse, to end, to be no more. I want nothing from them for what they offer is the earnings of others they steal by force of law.

    I want to participate in unfettered commerce, I want to decide my own fate, take my own risks good or bad. I want to feel empowered to do whatever I choice so long as I don't infringe on the natural rights of others. I want my hard-earned wealth to be inoculated from the disease of monetary inflation. I want my grandchildren to breathe the fresh air of freedom, not the poisonous vapors created by despotic men.

    Dissolve it, start over, dissolve it, start over, dissolve it start over!

  3. Opposition to a structured wrong is usually much surer and clear-cut than designing and promoting an unstructured positive. For instance, Dr. King was amazingly brave and effective in leading the fight against the repressive remnants of the plantation. But he was rather at sea with regard to the management of “freedom” for a damaged and long repressed population. Political opportunists had him moving from dependency on the Old South plantation to dependency on government socialism –though, to be fair, he never had the opportunity to actually structure a cogent program.

    Similarly, it’s easier to criticize extant programs that don’t work than to structure new libertarian programs that initially work in practice as well as they appear to in theory. And most libertarian theory is as yet untested.

    1. Points worth considering within the framework of my post. Thank you.

  4. You could look at the letter as being a backing away from Silk Road, but when I read it I didn't see him actually state that he personally believes it was wrong for people to use Silk Road as they did or that Silk road was fundamentally wrong. Instead, I saw it more as damage control attempting to lessen the destruction levied by the state monster. He may feel running Silk Road as he did when he did was a mistake (which he does say), but the hard facts of his being imprisoned alone speak to that. Furthermore, given recipient of that letter, one can expect it to be written as much in line with the state agenda as possible without actually employing a statement that unarguably false in light of his beliefs. Now that sentencing is over and done with, would he still write a letter that backs so far from Silk Road?

    1. All very understandable and rational reasons to write the letter.

    2. Indeed, and the more I think about it the more I think that the letter should be interpreted in an extremely narrow sense, taking nothing from it that isn't explicitly stated.

      I know I've written a letter to tax authorities that could at least be read as falsifying my beliefs, perhaps even going over the line over a trifling issue by comparison to this. As public as this is, being reviewed by supporters and enemies alike Ross doesn't have the luxury of employing falsehood without repercussion from supporters.

      For example, take the first sentence in the quote you took: "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."

      While in common parlance this means that one has since changed one's beliefs, in a strict interpretation it says absolutely nothing about current beliefs. Therefore, I am of the opinion that such a statement can be true even if he would, knowing what he now knows, seriously consider going back to when he started Silk Road, and design and launch Silk Road 2.0 instead.

      Thus, on the knowledge I have at this juncture, and considering when and to whom this was written, I must consider that reading into this letter a backing away from the principles behind Silk Road may be not just wrong, but a gross misjudgment of Ross Ulbricht's principles.

    3. “…reading into this letter a backing away from the principles behind Silk Road may be not just wrong, but a gross misjudgment of Ross Ulbricht's principles.”

      I purposely remained bland in my reply to your first comment. I am so hesitant about sounding judgmental in a situation where an individual has been already victimized by the grossest injustice. Were I in his position, I likely would have written the same letter; the point isn’t to assess the rationality or reasonableness of the letter given his circumstance (as you seem to be doing), but to consider the letter in context of “hero.”

      Therefore, I must reply to this view of “a gross misjudgment,” keeping in mind the context of my post: Was Ross Ulbricht a libertarian “hero”? The key word being “hero.”

      Again, the definition:

      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.

      When facing judgment for an act of principle, here is a hero:

      ‘May you be punished, bloody tyrant, both you and those who have given you power to defile me with your impious sacrifices!’ shouted Andronicus. ‘One day you will know what you have done to the servants of God.’

      ‘Accursed scoundrel,’ replied the magistrate, ‘do you dare to curse the emperors who have given the world such long and profound peace?’

      ‘I have cursed them and I will curse them,’ was the reply, ‘these public scourges, these drinkers of blood that have turned the world upside-down.’

      Andronicus shouted these things knowing he was soon to be torn limb by limb for his so-called crime.

      There is more where that came from:

    4. After a busy time and minor computer issues I'm managing to reply.

      I'm coming to agree with the hero issue being a side issue made of much more import than it ought, but I've started this, so I'll finish it.

      It seems only fair and proper to assume that, by founding and running Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht had prepared to some degree to face retaliation - something that he has ended up having to do.

      Consider the case of Andronicus. At the point you quote, was there any real hope of his escaping death? While I haven't looked into this I would doubt it.

      On the other hand I might (like to think that I would) in his position assume that such a letter would make no appreciable difference and therefore consider the apparent backpedaling a waste for no real gain. I have, however, watched fraudsters scarcely punished while good people dealing honestly but stopped from meeting obligations by changing government regulations get the maximum time in jail.

      Without knowing more than I do I can't fault Ross for believing enough in the system to think that such a letter might make a real difference in his situation. By a lawyerly reading the letter doesn't actually say that he has changed his mind about the underlying principles behind Silk Road, or perhaps even necessarily that he regrets more than specific implementation details or that he let it get so big that it was worth major resources to ferret him out. Had he known what would come, he could perhaps have taken steps to keep Silk Road from becoming huge and encouraged the proliferation of small Silk Roads, providing an expensive and difficult whack-a-mole game instead of a big trophy in himself.

      Therefore, until something more concrete, or something similar coming at a time when he doesn't have such good reason to attempt appeasing the system should come out, I feel it only proper to go by his actions in founding and running Silk Road, and consider hero an appropriate honorific.

    5. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I think it best, as you indicate, to leave this be - as it is, compared to the tragedy of this case - a side issue.

      In any case, hero - being a very subjective term - leaves room for reasonable people to disagree.

  5. I look at the actions and dismiss the words. It makes it very easy to separate the heroes from the cowards.

  6. Is Ross a hero? I think that is the wrong question. Is Ross a criminal? The answer to that is definitely no.

  7. Using Deist's logic, I suppose libertarians should not oppose drug prohibition either, since doing so runs the risk of some people thinking that we therefore support drug abuse. Or perhaps we should not oppose anti-discrimination laws, for fear that we might be mistakenly perceived as endorsing bigotry. Since when do libertarians abandon our principles, just because they might not be perfectly understood by the general public?

    I also find it rather odd that so much attention is being focused on the question of whether the "hero" label should be applied to Ulbricht. This seems to be a rather trivial question that largely boils down to semantics (hinging on exactly what definition of "hero" one chooses). In any case, one is almost tempted to see this whole debate as a deliberate attempt to draw attention away from the grave injustice committed against Ulbricht, which is what (in my opinion) libertarians should actually be focusing on.

    1. I think your second paragraph has merit. As to your first, I think the logic is incorrect. Advocating for repeal of bad laws via protest and breaking the law (whatever one believes regarding the relative merits of each, or the validity of the law) are two different things.

    2. No, his first paragraph is meritorious. Deist and Rothbard are not only wrong but their screeds are dripping with the perspiration of cognitive dissonance.

      Sometimes the brilliant are wont to express gibberish as Rothbard did in asserting that black market activity is not the pathway to liberty. Both ROthbard and Diest would have us believe that the bootlegging and speakeasy entrepreneurs along with all of the other folks who manufactured, delivered and served alcohol during Prohibition did not serve their fellow man and did not prove to be the undoing of the totalitarian tea-totalers and their big government thug enforcers.

      What about the underground railroad? Assisting run-away slaves was a multi-jurisdictional crime. The underground railroad, itself, was a black market proposition. The people who participated in that black market were every bit the hero as you or I might fashion Rothbard to be (and I do). Rothbard and Deist are just wrong on this as there is no credible argument to be made for the proposition that the underground railroad did not lead to liberty.

      Jesus Christ himself would scoff at a Christian who would even begin to denigrate the liberty enhancing value of drug dealing. The Black Marketeer is actually challenging Caesar while Rothbard dutifully and slavishly paid his tribute to Augustus.

    3. They are two different things. Do you deny this? I wrote nothing more than that.

    4. They may be two different things, but they also may be one in the same.

      However, you did not present a coherent argument that langa's first paragraph lacked merit. He sees the flaccidity of Deist's ratiocination that black markets are icky and that black market entrepreneurs and operators are even more icky and counterproductive to the cause of liberty.

      Deist and Rothbard are wrong on this. Period. Full. Stop.

    5. "They may be two different things..."

      That's good enough for me.

      "Deist and Rothbard are wrong on this. Period. Full. Stop."

      So take it up with Deist and Rothbard.

    6. Why the dodge? You are better than that.

      You cite both Rothbard's and Deist's pronouncements that black market activity does not translate into more liberty. To give the truth full sail, one would be on some terra firma in concluding that both Rothbard and Deist exude some hostility to engaging in black market activity.

      Thus, once again, I ask you to present a coherent argument that langa's first paragraph lacked merit.

    7. anonymous speaking for langa, is pressing bionic to speak for Deist and Rothbard.

      If langa wants a reply, let's wait for langa to ask. As to citing Rothbard and Deist, identify the cites I offer from either of them in this post in support of my position; I only offered the comments "to set the stage" (which, you will note, I said quite dodge).

  8. It is entirely irrelevant whether libertarians---so many of whom are poseurs anyway---regard Ulbricht as a hero or not. The one thing that all men of good will and decent ethics CAN agree upon is this: The young man does not deserve to be under a death sentence of spending the rest of his life in a cage. Fuck that. Every American of decency and intelligence should support an ongoing movement of agitation and pressure to remit Ross Ulbricht's unjust and sadistic sentence...until he is released.

    1. Normally I do not permit posts that cannot stick to respectful language. But, on this subject of terrible injustice, I cannot disagree with the sentiment.

    2. It’s dangerous to challenge faith-based systems –religious dogma in the past, civil monetary schemes currently. Money has morphed from having intrinsic value, i.e. gold coins, to a valueless paper symbol levitated by faith and habit. The harshness of the sentence correlates to the frailty of the system.