Should Ross Ulbricht Be Emulated?
The libertarian hero shouldn't be in prison, nor should his actions be taken as an example.
I’ve gotten a ton of new Substack followers lately, which is pretty cool seeing as I haven’t written a single post since way back on March 28th. Those that follow me in podcast or Twitter form know that I’ve been embroiled in a bit of controversy in the Liberty Internet world lately, mostly stemming from my recent podcast addressing the Mises Caucus, as well as some admittedly intentionally (hopefully thought-) provoking tweets.
I’ve received both praise and pushback from the liberty world at large. Rothbirdian wrote an article seeing the truth in much of what I’ve been saying. I won’t respond to it here; I just want you to go read it.
I will however, respond today to a Substack post from Justin O’Donnell entitled “May Your Chains Sit Lightly Upon You.” As he mentions in the post, I’ve hung out with Justin a number of times, most notably at the NOLA LP Convention in 2018 as well as PorcFest. Some of these times are a bit blurry, but I can say he’s the kind of fellow whose company I enjoy, and he was kind enough to reach out to me to be sure he wasn’t misrepresenting my views in his post.
The backstory on his article starts with this tweet from me about Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road black market who is spending life in prison for his actions.
Before I go further, I’ll just state this now so that I am clear: I don’t believe Ross Ulbricht did anything ethically wrong via the creation of the Silk Road (with the caveat being the assumption that the site did indeed ban it’s users from activities such as child prostitution, murder-for-hire, etc. For the purposes of this dialogue, I’ll just presume that’s true.) He is clearly no threat to society and should unequivocally be released from prison immediately.
I’ll skip over Justin’s summary of “Post-libertarians”, a loose collection of people I’ve found myself somewhat associated with of late due in large part to the commonality of our criticism of the Libertarian Party Mises Caucus’ political pathway. I would take some issue with his characterization but that’s not the purpose of this particular post and well, this introduction has gone on long enough already, hasn’t it?
Before we get to the part about me and my Ross Ulbricht tweet, I did find Justin’s comment about the NAP relevant to the conversation. He states:
Libertarians have a cultural obsession, no rather a fetish with non-violence and pacifism that I find to be detrimental to their own goals of increased liberty and freedom. The non-aggression principle is an ill-defined, vague, and childishly incomplete philosophy that fails to account for situational nuance or a recognition that the state by its very existence comprises a continual and ever-present violent threat to the natural rights and liberty of those it governs. Violence was initiated the moment you were forced into the state-sanctioned system of slavery known as citizenship.
I agree completely with the portion of his statement “the non-aggression principle is an ill-defined, vague and childishly incomplete philosophy that fails to account for situational nuance.” (After that it gets murkier, but I don’t want to get too sidetracked here.) While I don’t in a vacuum disagree with the libertarian “non-aggression principle”, it is not a sufficient means of filtering out the nuance of everyday conflicts and the dynamics of political power. Bookmark this thought because it ties right into the conversation about Ross.
Now onto the part about the Watcher (that’s me, pay attention!), to which I’ll provide my running commentary. O’Donnell writes:
Marc Clair, of Lions of Liberty, one of the larger names in the liberty community’s little podcasting spheres, and one of the more influential celebritarians, has made the transition to an advocate of post-libertarianism himself and adopted a more “Jordan Petersenesque” approach to activism. Clean your room, get your life together, and become secure in your life and your family, before tackling the larger issues of the state, he would tell you.
It’s funny hearing myself called a “larger name” in the liberty community. When I hear large I think “Dave Smith”, I think “Tom Woods”, I think “Archie Flower” - but hey, I’ll take it! Justin’s not the first one to refer to my recent approach as having a tick of Jordan Peterson in it, and I won’t shy away from that. Jordan Peterson’s work has been very influential on me, and I’ve cited his simple yet direct “Clean your room” ethic often.
He would encourage you to become a stoic, to stomach the hardships of the state for the benefit of your family, as opposed to sacrificing your happiness and wellbeing to oppose it. Rather than venturing into the politics of vaccine mandates, you should simply work to put yourself in a position to refuse the vaccine should it become required. He recently decided to surf the views of controversy on Twitter with his latest hot takes on the matter of compliance vs sacrifice.
I would say this is a mostly fair characterization, though I certainly wouldn’t necessarily say to not to venture into the politics of vaccine mandates - an issue that has directly affected my life in more ways I can begin to explain here - if one is in a position to influence them directly. But it’s true that my primary message has been to improve your own situation so that when the next mandates do come - and they 100% will - you are more prepared to shield yourself from their effect.
Now to the fun part (text picks up after he posted my Tweet about Ross from above):
In a shot across the bow of the liberty movement, Marc called out one of the universally praised martyrs of freedom, Ross Ulbricht, who is currently serving two life sentences for creating an online marketplace that threatened the government’s monopoly on violence in the drug trade. Ross, along with Edward Snowden, are held up as paragons of libertarian martyrdom- two examples of people who struck such a big blow to the status quo of government tyranny that they had to be made political and legal examples. Ross normalized the use of cryptocurrency and opened access to black markets and agorist trade to millions of people. And Snowden exposed the largest violation of privacy rights in government history.
Firstly, I didn’t “call out” Ross. That’s just silly. This is not an attack on Ross. In fact, I imagine 2022 Ross might agree with much of what I am going to say.
I also find take issue with lumping Ross Ulbricht and Edward Snowden into the same pond for the purpose of this conversation. Short of the idea that, generally speaking, they are both “universally praised martyrs of freedom” by many in the libertarian sphere, the two cases have little in common. Ross was practicing agorism - a purposeful attempt to subvert the “laws of the land”, “the State”, or whatever you want to call it. He did so anonymously (until he was caught). Snowden was partaking in whistleblowing* - he technically broke laws but did so with the express purpose of exposing greater crimes by the government. If anything he wanted to improve the government, not destroy it. He was not partaking in agorism nor trying to take down the State, and did so with his name attached to it.
They paid the price, and for that, Marc believes they shouldn’t be the role models we believe they are. Their sacrifice shouldn’t be respected for the good that came of it. That the level of direct action they undertook should not be aspired to. In his opinion, they had poor risk assessment and are paying the price for their own mistakes.
I’ve already addressed why Snowden shouldn’t be lumped in here, so I’ll address Ross only from here on out. I am not morally opposed to agorism - even something as simple as an exchange of services for cash or a payment via cryptocurrency could be considered agorism, and I’ve actively encouraged this in the past.
But the path of agorism does pose a dilemma - if you become very successful at it, you are going to place a giant target on your back. The more attention brought to your agorist activities - and they will get attention, again, if you are extremely successful at it as Ross was - the more attention that will you will draw from the State.
Ross found out first hand what happens when you are too successful at agorism - “a good agorist is a jailed agorist”, as my friend Shayne often says (check out his writing at ReasonAndLiberty.com.)
This does not mean I believe Ross should be in jail for life. But he is, and this would be a very predictable outcome for anyone exercising sound judgement and risk assessment.
Let’s go back to the “non-aggression principle.” Did Ross violate it with the creation of Silk Road? No. Therefore, in the strict libertarian view “he did nothing wrong” and therefore should not be criticized.
It’s my firm belief that the world is a worse place having Ross Ulbricht behind bars instead of out in the world building something even more incredible than Silk Road. He is still a very young man who should by all justice have his entire life ahead of him to do so.
But to encourage others to emulate Ross - to walk the path that he walked - would be to encourage more young minds to toss their lives away so they can “get a win” against the State. It’s not a win when you are behind bars, and I’d prefer to see the best young libertarian minds free in the world improving their own lives instead of rotting behind bars in what is ultimately a vain attempt to subvert the State.
Another point to address from O’Donnell:
But, Marc’s new focus on post libertarianism, and his new gospel of self-improvement and independence before resistance, would have you comply with the growth of government tyranny, as opposed to fighting back at every step because each strike is a risk too far. Rather than fight to stop vaccine mandates, he believes you should simply put yourself in a position to live around them, regardless of the larger social consequences of such a growth in government power.
This is the one point that I think O’Donnell has got me wrong, though I’m sure unintentionally. I don’t want people to stop fighting back against vaccine mandates or to stand up against injustice. I would say most people are in far less of a position to do so politically than they are too improve their own lives, and would argue to control what you can the most first. But in no way does that preclude me from encouraging those in a position to do so to influence the political realm against injustices like vaccine mandates.
That can only be done via politics, and in this aspect, Justin sounds like even more of a “post libertarian” than I do.
I will end this much-longer-than-intended post by making it even longer, with Ross’s own words. In a letter to judge Katherine Forrest prior to his sentencing, Ross referred to the creation of Silk Road as a “naive and costly idea,” as he expressed regret for his actions. Many will cite this as just taking his lawyers advice in an attempt to get a lighter sentence, but I suspect this to be more genuine than most would give him credit for, and this tweet of his seems to back that up.
Right now there are many brilliant 26 year olds out there who are just learning about libertarianism and may be tempted to lash out against “the State” in ways that will surely bring them a fate similar to Ross. Those are the people I am trying to reach.
Learn more and sign the petition to help free Ross Ulbricht at FreeRoss.org.
*My Edward Snowden Caveat: I have my doubts about the Snowden story and his actual intentions and effect - I didn’t want to distract too much from the issue at hand above but if you’re interested in my take on that you can hear me hash it out in my debate with Eric Brakey from last year.