Ross Ulbricht’s life sentence has been met with shock in the liberal community. It was jarringly disproportionate, even by the state’s muscular, martial standards in the ‘war on drugs.’ The size of the Silk Road operation was a drop in the drug trade ocean. Any judge with a heartbeat could understand that Silk Road made the drug trade safer and the drugs cleaner, and therefore almost certainly saved lives. There were also no formal charges of violent crime brought against Ulbricht, seemingly due to insufficient or weak evidence.
Maybe Ulbricht does have blood on his hands, but it wasn’t proven, and it could have been in defense of his own life which may well have come under threat from rival drug kingpins as Silk Road’s market share grew. That’s more or less eventually what you’d expect when someone becomes a ‘big player’ in a prohibited market because, as we learned from liquor prohibition in the US, the black market is not illegal because it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous because it’s illegal.
And yet, on the whole, Silk Road and its many progeny today make a horrendously dangerous market vastly less dangerous.
Ulbricht received a much longer sentence than far worse drug thugs have, for creating a peaceful online brokerage platform for goods bought and sold by consenting adults. So why the absurdly harsh sentence?
Well, I think it’s pretty obvious. Silk Road and its spawn embody probably the largest existential threat to the state itself in all of history: the technological neutering of the state’s regulatory, taxation and monetary control – its lifeblood.
Anonymously trading drugs for Bitcoin in the deep, dark web is just about the most subversive anarcho-capitalism you can get – or at least that we’ve seen so far. The implications of Bitcoin and highly efficient virtual networks are quite obviously fatal for the parasitic state. Almost everything can be traded like this, and the really scary part for the state is that the technology is only getting better and more widely adopted – it’s becoming unstoppable.
To a greater or lesser degree, the state has always been able, technologically, to regulate, tax, and control the money supply. Silk Road showed the first glimpse of structural cracks in that omniscience. It opened – or at least helped open – a Pandora’s Box of trouble for the statist quo. I think the Ulbricht judgement showed a wounded, cornered tiger lashing out in desperate survival mode. I would be incredibly surprised if there wasn’t direct influence on the decision from the upper echelons of power within the state.
As technology surges forward – and particularly technology which so radically, anonymously, and efficiently decentralises knowledge and decision-making power – the state is in a flat panic, scrambling to discover and define its role and legitimacy in this brave new world.
When the state is existentially threatened, it always exerts brute force to induce legitimacy through fear – a kind of domestic political ‘shock and awe’ strategy. That’s what Ulbricht’s life sentence is – shock and awe, and woe betide anyone who tries what he tried. But allegiance out of fear and compulsion is inherently unstable. As the technological tide envelopes the old modes of state parasitism at an accelerating rate, I think it is safe to say the state is, at the very least, being forced by history’s march of progress into perhaps the most dramatic and unpredictable metamorphosis yet seen. That is if it isn’t already vainly drawing its last gasps of air.
While the destination of this process is likely to be tremendous for liberty, prosperity and progress, it seems that greater political volatility, more shuddering shock and awe tactics, and more pervasive legislative and judicial irrationality is, for some (hopefully short) period of time, inevitable.