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Irony in Anarchy

David Kushner has a brilliant piece in Rolling Stone on Ross Ulbricht, the very strange, fascinating character behind the infamous Silk Road web site.

Silk Road, for those who haven’t followed this saga, was the first of the semi-secret Deep Web sites buried in the underground levels of the Internet to deal in illegal, criminal operations. The Deep Web is actually huge and contains enormous amounts of information (libraries, medical records, police files, military information, court records, government files, security sites, etc.) that lies outside the reach of regular browsers. You can’t get there with Firefox, Google or Explorer; you need the specially designed browser Tor which you can, if you wish, learn about here. Even Tor won’t get you past the firewalls that most of these Deep sites have but it has one big advantage. It allows you to cover your tracks in cyberspace with doubly-encrypted layers. The url used for a cocaine retailer’s site you visited won’t work the next time you try to get there because it is erased as soon as you leave the site to be replaced with a new one that only can be found with Tor. Similarly, your cyber-identity is encrypted so those you contacted cannot trace you. Tor has, of course, legitimate uses in that it keeps annoying robot-sites from finding you, tracking your activity, sharing data on you and, of course, cramming your inbox with ads. The anonymity makes it perfect for those who, like Ulbricht, wish to engage in activities that governments and other authorities frown upon.

Silk Road trafficked mainly in drugs, weapons, forged documents like fake passports and Social Security cards and “for-hire” folks if you wanted some nasty deeds done. It was, till the feds shut it down, rather like eBay or Amazon where you merely clicked on the desired product which was promptly deposited in your cart. Payment at the checkout was in Bitcoins, the cyber-currency famous for anonymity and untraceability, and delivery was straight to your home or business in the classic, plain brown envelope or box.

Ulbricht, as Kushner explains, was driven by many motives, some rational and others truly screwy. At the core, however, was a commitment to a pure, Randian-style Libertarian vision of society. Accordingly, Kushner describes Ulbricht as sticking to individualism, rugged selfishness and a disdain for those who disagree or who have not gained a foothold in the strange, unempathic Atlas Shrugged world.

But as the article progresses slowly ironic notes leak in. As Ulbricht’s dealings become more complex he finds he needs help. He has to hire others, make contacts with dealers, managers, money-launderers, hit-men, agents of various kinds. And, of course, he finds that he now cannot operate in full anarchistic mode. He needs rules, regulations, guidelines for the business. He has to build a cultural code by which to operate. In short, he begins to create a mini-government with him at the head!

The whole thing is wonderfully ironic and he doesn’t have a clue. In fact, no Libertarian I have ever talked with about these issues has a clue. Government isn’t some monstrosity that bleeds away the creative life force. There is nothing inherently bad about government. In fact, as Barney Frank put it, government is merely what people do when you get a bunch of them together. Governments are natural agencies that must emerge whenever groups become too large or complex to function without a well-articulated structure. Even the most ardent Libertarian, the most devoted anarchist, cannot operate without some regulatory scaffold.

Whether you judge government to be good or bad isn’t a position about principle; it’s about process. Whether you believe that governments should be small or large isn’t a matter of theory; it’s an empirical question. Are the regulations set up reasonable? Are the conditions sensible? Are they workable? Are the tax codes fair? Is property protected? Are the rights of others in balance with the rights of owners? How many agencies do you need to accomplish these goals? These are the questions that matter.

So let’s stop the nonsense. Stop pretending that the small government gang — the ones who, in Grover Norquist’s terms, want to shrink government to the point where it can be drowned in a bathtub — have anything sensible to say. They don’t and until they think through these issues with just a smidgen of intellectual dispassion they never will.

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