Dr Paul Ennis, a research assistant at the Centre for Innovation, Technology & Organisation at University College Dublin, has written an opinion piece in Coindesk that shows how entities such as the Silk Road are inevitable outcomes for digital currencies when the practitioners follow libertarian principles. His opinion piece also highlights why nation states are so keen to attempt to control the emergence of digital currencies, as well as embrace these currencies in an effort to stay on top of them.
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Exit over voice
The state is to be escaped rather than replaced. In other words, “exit over voice.”
According to economist Albert Hirschman, the two options open to all dissatisfied members of an organization are exit or voice. One can either exit the organization or voice dissatisfaction.
Libertarians are infamous for their preference for exit or, at least, the option of exit and, as journalist Brian Doherty charts, there have been many attempts to escape what they perceive as the ultimate closure of options, the state.
The concept of exit has even led to attempts to establish entirely new countries, known as micro-nations, their failures documented in an obscure libertarian classic “How to Start Your Country.” Arguably the most successful forms of exit have occurred by simply moving out to sea, as encapsulated in our romantic vision of anarchistic pirates, but also in the most successful micro-nation of all time, the Principality of Sealand, an offshore oil platform located not far from the coast of Suffolk, England.
The Dread Pirate Roberts name evokes this pirate outlaw status quite explicitly (Ross Ulbrich, who ran Silk Road under that name, even notes this in discussion with Variety Jones). He had not just prefigured the world his community wanted to see, but had generated a space, a micro-nation located off the coast of the clearnet, where the law (seemingly) no longer applied.
In effect, what Ulbricht achieved was a quite unique marriage of high-minded digital libertarian ideals with the routine process of buying and selling narcotics.
For most participants, their engagement with Silk Road operationalized a sense of freedom to consume their drug of choice in the context of doing no harm to others, aligning participants with the cyber-libertarian philosophy of DPR.
In more formal terms, organizational legitimacy on the Silk Road was ensured by reimagining the “mundane” act of buying and selling narcotics as an act of liberty.
For Ulbricht, the success of Silk Road was precisely in line with the teachings of his most important intellectual influence, Samuel Edward Konkin III. A relatively obscure figure, Konkin developed a strand of libertarianism known as agorism in the early 1970s. In his exceptionally detailed and thorough-going history of American libertarianism, Doherty references Konkin a mere five times and not once in any especially important manner.
Indeed, Konkin seems to have “fallen” out of the tradition, but this is consistent with his rejection of the Libertarian Party as inherently paradoxical, preferring instead to promote black market activism where one might “commit civil disobedience profitably.” It is not clear how Ulbricht first came across Konkin, but perhaps there was something of the kindred spirit to them, both had studied chemistry to an advanced degree.
Konkin proposed a dual course to bringing agorism into being: (1) a theoretical position known as “counter-establishment economics,” or “counter-economics” for short, and (2) the practical dimension of “counter-economic activity.” For Konkin only a small handful understand agorism, in the theoretical sense, but this does not mean that counter-economic activity does not occur.
Konkin was keen to celebrate the unconscious agorists that populate our world: tax-dodgers, black market operators, prostitutes and so on. This is where Konkin can be considered explicitly radical.
The creation of black markets was for Konkin an agorist act where small “pockets” of outlaw culture create markets more efficient than the state can provide. The more efficient these pockets the more people in the white economy will turn to agorism.
Konkin died in 2004, but he had foreseen, as early as the middle of the 1980s, that the internet opened up agorist possibilities. His remarks are worth quoting in full, given his influence upon Ulbricht:
“The internet explosion has led the American State – for now, at any rate – to throw up its tentacles at regulation of the information industry. Every legislative session, however, brings up new attempts to tax and control the World Wide Web. But consider this well: should the counter-economy lick the information problem, it would virtually eliminate the risk it incurs under the State’s threat. That is, if you can advertise your products, reach your consumers and accept payment (a form of information), all outside the detection capabilities of the State, what enforcement of control would be left?'”
This is, to be direct, quite simply what Silk Road was.