Libertarians Beware?

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An article concerning the libertarian attitude towards the black market by Robert Wenzel entitled “A Warning to Libertarians: Please Do Not End Up Like Ross Ulbricht” recently appeared on the libertarian site Lewrockwell.com. Wenzel’s basic premise is that libertarians in their capacity as libertarians should not celebrate the black market, let alone get involved in it as budding entrepreneurs:

The trial of Ross Ulbricht, admitted founder of Silk Road, is over. He has been convicted on all the charges brought by the government. It is a terrible tragedy.

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Ubricht faces somewhere between 20 years to a life sentence. To be sure, from a libertarian perspective, there does not appear to be much that Ulbricht is guilty of. He simply provided a market for individuals willing to exchange, certainly not a violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle.

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BUT, despite the libertarian perspective, he is going to spend a a [sic] very, very long time in prison.

This is part of the reason, [sic] I find it remarkable that some libertarians are cheering on further efforts in the murky dark internet.

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The Ross Ulbricht trial marks a turning point for the darknet. Originally created to combat a problem, DNMs have now become a rallying point for the adherents of Libertarian [sic] ideology. Ulbricht himself described the Silk Road as an “economic experiment.” Many see him as a martyr and have supported him through it all, from patronizing the Silk Road via contraband purchases to donating over $339,000 via Bitcoin toward his legal defense fund. His downfall was an inspiration to push further, to continue the economic experiment, for the betterment of humanity (hopefully).

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As long as a commodity needs physical delivery, there is no protection from the government, even if it is done via the dark net – and that supposes the government isn’t watching on the dark net in the first place, before physical delivery.

There are just so many things that can go wrong operating in the dark net, with very heavy downside, it makes no sense for a libertarian, qua libertarian, to get involved, especially by running such an operation.

Just becasue [sic] libertarians are in favor of free exchange, where does it say they have to run underground markets?

He then quotes Murray Rothbard’s discussion of Samuel Konkin’s agorism:

If the black market should develop, then the successful entrepreneurs are not going to be agoric theoreticians…but successful entrepreneurs period.

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As much as I love the market, I refuse to believe that when I engage in a regular market transaction (e.g., buying a sandwich) or a black market activity (e.g., driving at 60 miles per hour) I advance one iota nearer the libertarian revolution.  The black market is not going to be the path to liberty, and libertarian theoreticians and activists have no function in that market.

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Historically, classical liberal political parties have accomplished far more for human liberty than any black markets.

Returning to his own commentary, Wenzel continues:

Advancing liberty is not about selling hooch or weed, though there is no reason to condemn those who enter into these noble professions. If you want to advance liberty, you do so by writing, speaking and reading about liberty. This requires that very little be done beyond libertarian study and actual libertarian activities, even at the early stages of developing such a career.

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Leave the drug dealing to drug dealers, There’s this thing called the division of labor and there is no path where drug dealers and libertarians have to pass, anymore [sic] than libertarians have to cross paths with fire eaters and sword swallowers, though I doubt many fire eaters and sword swallowers are paying much in terms of taxes, something that libertarians can appreciate, as much as they can appreciate the efforts of drug dealers, without getting into the business.

Indeed, just becasue [sic] street hookers must operate on the black market doesn’t mean we should be encouraging libertarian women to become hookers, even if they would only accept bitcoins.

One can agree that this appeal to libertarians to heed a bewaring of the black market makes several important points. First, a libertarian is certainly not necessarily a good entrepreneur and regardless of whether he is he would still need to devote a lot of time to reading, studying, absorbing, understanding and debating libertarianism. One cannot pursue a cause unless one has a thorough understanding of that cause. Second, simply because libertarian theory permits certain activities that are currently illegal (the vending and use of drugs being a pertinent example) does not mean that libertarians promote such activities as a good thing to be encouraged. Such a question concern’s one’s personal morality and not libertarianism as such. The libertarian movement itself seeks to neither promote nor disparage any substantive choice of action whatsoever and there is a genuine risk that libertarians will either be labelled as the “anything goes” crowd or, worse, may be identified with the active encouragement of acts which, while they do not breach the non-aggression principle, are otherwise odious, unpleasant and/or lacking in social acceptance.

However, where the present author parts company with Wenzel is the suggestion that a) operations such as the black market and entrepreneurship in general fundamentally do not matter very much in the fight for liberty and b) that painstaking education of the populace is likely to be far more productive in this regard. There is also the suggestion, exemplified by the Rothbard quotation, that traditional political parties that are organised to promote liberty are the way forward and have worked in the past. However, it is our contention here that these propositions are likely to be untrue and that, in fact, entrepreneurship will have a far more effective role to play in the practical matter of bringing about a world of liberty while education and political parties may, in fact, have a minimal effect.

Many libertarians probably have it in their head that a free world will one day be achieved through a giant revolution where the inspired masses rise up and force the transition from an imperialist-statist regime to one of liberty. But one has to wonder precisely how this is going to happen. Even if a majority of the world’s population became educated enough about the benefits of liberty, a transition to a world of liberty is one from a state of power to one of an absence of power. Revolutions, however, are fundamentally the replacement of the holders of power. In other words, the power vacuum left by the vanquished rulers is filled quickly by the revolutionary leaders – and we all know how potently power corrupts. It did not take altogether too long, for example, for the post-revolutionary United States to begin centralising power and even so ardent an advocate of liberty as Thomas Jefferson left a questionable record once he became President. A libertarian revolution, the end product of which is a fragmentation and scattering of power from central concentration in governments and states down to the individual, is therefore likely to be largely leaderless and lacking any concentration in terms of personalities, places and also times. Rather, different people, in different places at different times will carry out independent acts to move the world one step closer towards freedom. Libertarianism is, therefore, fundamentally about rejecting the world of political parties, political leaders and electioneering – not seeking to emulate them or join in their game.

Underestimated, therefore, is the possibility that rather than government being overthrown the likeliest route for the achievement of liberty is for government to simply dissolve through circumvention. Given this, the importance of black and regular markets starts to become apparent. For even if the population becomes educated enough to be inspired towards liberty, in order to truly achieve such a world through a de-homogenised process lacking in central control and leadership, small, local and independent circumventions of government authority – as exemplified by the black market where scattered, independent entrepreneurs attempt to meet the people’s needs that happen to be contrary to the proscriptions of the government – are likely to be a key route to in bringing this about. In other words, government simply drowns in a sea of non-compliance with its diktats. Indeed one of the reasons why, for example, the underground drugs industry is so difficult for government to even scratch the surface of, let alone conquer, is because there is not one giant overarching drugs lord sitting on his throne dispensing all of the world’s drugs, ready for the government to take out and thus win the war. Rather, it is because there are a multitude of relatively small, independent suppliers, with their own locations, their own partners and stakeholders, their own methods and techniques, and so on. Taking out any one of them does not necessarily stop the rest, and even if it did what is there to stop someone new from springing up and setting up shop? The seizure of a large drugs shipment, usually celebrated as a grand achievement, barely makes a dent in the ability of the black market entrepreneurs to continue to produce and supply these substances.

However, even this path – that of the black, underground and regular markets providing an outlet for an educated public – is probably not going to be the way in which a world of liberty will be achieved and we can suggest a far more likely, praxeologically supported scenario of what will happen. All governments require at least the tacit support of a majority of the population in order to retain their power. But it does not follow that the breaking of this tacit support necessarily requires the people to become educated about the ethics of private property and the moral odiousness of the state (although one can hardly deny that such an education would be a good thing). Whatever regime exists humans will always think and feel as individuals – they have ends as individuals, they act as individuals and they feel gain or loss as individuals. Their support, or tacit acceptance of government, relies not only on the fact that government is seen to be legitimate but also on the fact that it is perceived to accomplish certain ends for the individual. In particular, protection from crime, and the sustenance and stability of a peaceful order are seen by almost everybody to be the primary function of and justification for government. Like any other means to an end, government will cease to be supported when its costs, real or perceived, outweigh its benefits.

In the first place, as bankrupt governments unload increasing privations and annoyances upon the daily lives of their citizens, it is precisely the shrewd entrepreneurs who will find a market of people who seek to overcome these irritations. We can see this already with innovations such as Bitcoin and 3D printing seeking to overcome the government monopoly over the financial services and firearm restrictions respectively. But the march of technological progress does not even require entrepreneurs to be consciously aware that it is curbing government power. The internet, for example, has practically obliterated the government monopoly over information. The very pinnacle of market circumvention of government would be to shatter its very raison d’être – the monopoly of force and the dispensation of justice – without which it would simply not be able to impose its oppressive and parasitic existence upon the citizenry. What if there was some way of not overcoming or overthrowing government’s force but of simply circumventing it and making it a practical non-entity in people’s lives? As the present author stated in a previous piece, “Making Government Irrelevant,

What if […] an invention would enable any person, at extremely low cost, to protect his or her person and property from all forms of force? I have very little idea as to what this could be – an invisible force field around each object you own, perhaps? This is a matter for the genius of inventors. But imagine the result – in one swoop you would eliminate both the ability of government to tax, steal, imprison, kill, maim and live off the fat of everyone else and you would completely eradicate its reason for existence. For if people can now protect themselves from invasion of their person and property at very low cost, why bother with government? Why would anyone pay taxes for an army or police force when this new, cheap, method prevents the very reason for their existence? Of course, people may continue to pay “taxes” voluntarily for some service that the current administrative set up may be perceived to be providing. But there is nothing wrong with this if that is what people want to do with their own money. The bite of force, however, will be lost and government will be relegated (one might say promoted) to the same level of every other market player – having to offer people a valuable service in return for its voluntarily paid revenue.

Therefore, people do not necessarily need to overthrow government or come to understand how evil and immoral it is – it simply needs to made irrelevant in their lives. And it is entrepreneurs, either existing in the black or mainstream markets who are the most likely to be the path through which a world of liberty is achieved. It is submitted that, given the innovations in this regard that have been accomplished so far and the difficult government is having in coping with them, this route will be the most successful in building the road to liberty than any attempts to educate the populace towards revolution. Education will, of course, always be important and every libertarian has a duty to read, learn and debate libertarian theory. And certainly no libertarian has any business engaging in entrepreneurial ventures if he is completely lacking in the required talent. But so too should we be prepared to recognise the fact that entrepreneurial invention and ultimately the market, the very thing itself that we as libertarians champion – individual people seeking to peacefully and voluntarily meet their ends through means – is the most likely thing that will bring about the world that we believe is right.

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Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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Making Government Irrelevant

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Much of the pro-Liberty movement, including the present author, seems to focus on the role of education in being the prime driver towards a world free of state violence and coercion. We believe that informing people of the true nature of the state (i.e. no better than a band of thieving thugs) will incite people to embrace freedom and reject government intervention.

However, a great deal more thought needs to be turned to whether, rather than people wilfully and decisively rejecting government, the “revolution” will come about through a seemingly more mundane and passive method – that of simply making anything that government does irrelevant.

We are already bearing witness to several instances of this. The internet, and the increased accessibility to the world wide web through portable devices, renders almost inert any government attempt to control information, the whole Wikileaks saga perhaps being the most profound testament to this. Indeed it is possible to suggest that the average person today has quicker and better access to information than Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton did a mere twenty to thirty years ago. Added to this is the infancy of virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Litecoin demonstrating how it is possible to curb government currency and capital controls and render physical borders irrelevant. In spite of the fact that virtual currency appears to be far from perfect in these early days, one cannot overlook the promise that their idea if not their present execution holds for the future. And in the United States 3D printing seems to be taking the bite out of gun control.

The marvellous thing also is that these mini-revolutions occur without violence and bloodshed – there is no fighting, no overthrow and no killing. Indeed this is not unusual as previous civil strife and conflict has not been about government per se but, rather, over who controls the government. The struggle of the twenty-first century, however, is over getting government out of the way entirely, regardless of who is in charge of it. We should not be surprised, therefore, that there will not be one big and violent revolution to overthrow government for ever but, rather, hundreds of small, decentralised and peaceful revolts that will simply cause government to wither away in helplessness.

This is not to suggest, of course, that government will not fight back in these areas; indeed governments, as they start collapsing from over-borrowing, overspending and eventual bankruptcy, will try ever more desperately to enforce increased controls and pluck all of the remaining feathers from the golden geese of their citizenry. But the more those geese are plucked the more they flap towards an escape and independent individuals have, historically, been better at what we might call the “invention of circumvention” than the government has been at stopping it.

But let us focus on the one area of government that is both its method of function and, according to the beliefs of the average Joe, it’s raison d’être – violence. Government commits its horrendous abuses and enriches its participants through the use of force against others. But is also supposed to protect the common citizen from the use of force by others and this is why government is still regarded as necessary. What if, then, an invention would enable any person, at extremely low cost, to protect his or her person and property from all forms of force? I have very little idea as to what this could be – an invisible force field around each object you own, perhaps? This is a matter for the genius of inventors. But imagine the result – in one swoop you would eliminate both the ability of government to tax, steal, imprison, kill, maim and live off the fat of everyone else and you would completely eradicate its reason for existence. For if people can now protect themselves from invasion of their person and property at very low cost, why bother with government? Why would anyone pay taxes for an army or police force when this new, cheap, method prevents the very reason for their existence? Of course, people may continue to pay “taxes” voluntarily for some service that the current administrative set up may be perceived to be providing. But there is nothing wrong with this if that is what people want to do with their own money. The bite of force, however, will be lost and government will be relegated (one might say promoted) to the same level of every other market player – having to offer people a valuable service in return for its voluntarily paid revenue.

We should, therefore, urge all inventors to dust off their drawing books and get working on such a marvellous invention. It may, quite literally, save the world before it drowns in a sea of statist despotism.

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