Ross Ulbricht and the Courage to Break the Law

On May 29, Ross Ulbricht was given a life sentence.

His lawyers say they will try to appeal. The charges for which Ulbricht will likely spend his life in prison all center around the Silk Road marketplace, which allowed users to peacefully trade illegal drugs over the internet. Though he admitted to originally creating the site, Ulbricht has maintained that he quickly handed it off to others. Rather than dwelling on the details of the case, though, I want to focus on something else – Ross Ulbricht is a hero, worthy of our praise, whose virtues we ought to cultivate in ourselves. He deserves our respect for his courage to break the law.

Ulbricht not only saw a way that he could make the world a better and more just place, he saw a way to do it without first getting the law to agree. Most importantly, he acted on the information he had. By establishing the Silk Road, Ulbricht undoubtedly saved countless lives. With the Silk Road, buyers and sellers of drugs could trade in peace, without having to deal with the artificially dangerous offline drug market. The site’s system of reviews and ratings further allowed buyers to alert others of bad products, ensuring that people got what they paid for.

All this was possible because Ulbricht not only had entrepreneurial alertness, but also the courage to risk imprisonment. He did not waste time with ballot initiatives, campaigns, or lobbying. He went straight to the source, taking direct action by circumventing the law. Yet, this special courage is also why he has been so demonized. The prosecution insisted on a life sentence, apparently believing that the 20-year mandatory minimum was just not enough. The judge agreed, saying

Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.

Ulbricht’s actions made a mockery of the State’s power, along with the standard procedures for questioning that power, and such willful disobedience cannot be tolerated.

At the same time Ulbricht was being hunted, captured, and prosecuted for the “crime” of helping people peacefully sell drugs online, the movement to legalize marijuana was starting to see some of its most substantial victories. The law was finally starting to grant some, albeit very limited, experimentation with not ruining people’s lives for owning plants. This experimentation had to be on the State’s terms, however, including the expected regulatory swamp and the expected rent-seeking predators who know exactly how to swim in that swamp. For Ulbricht to run an experiment of his own, trying laissez-faire instead of monopoly, was totally unacceptable to the State.

If history is any example, Ulbricht may leave a legacy that does him justice. After all, even those who support his treatment are willing to acknowledge his virtue when it’s found in history. We see this in the recent push to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Few, if any, are still willing to publicly deny that Tubman was not only a hero, but a hero because of her courage to break the law. She saw a way to free multitudes of people treated like cattle, and she refused to wait until white America’s laws agreed that slavery was evil before she did it. Now that the laws agree [1], she is universally revered.

Sometimes this transformation from condemnation to commendation can be quick. In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama briefly honored those who fought for justice at Stonewall. This is somewhat startling, given that the events he referred to were riots, in which gay and transgender men and women flatly refused to comply with police orders. They did not submit to the written law, but instead demanded it either respect their existence, or expect their resistance. They not only had the courage to break the law, but to physically defend themselves against those who tried to enforce it. Now, because even the law acknowledges how inhumane it is to arrest someone for wearing insufficiently heteronormative clothing [2], these heroes receive praise in a President’s inaugural address.

What is often so clear in retrospect, though muddled in the present, is a crucial distinction between two types of law: artificial and natural. The former is morally irrelevant and State-made, consisting of written words, brought about by the State’s preferred procedures, which will reliably be enforced by State agents. The latter springs out of morality itself, consisting of the rights and obligations we are already required to respect. If the former ever conflicts with the latter, you should always follow the latter.

The only thing that should ever slow you down is prudence – whether or not you’ll get caught. Sometimes, though, the good is so great that risks must be taken. We should honor those – like Ross Ulbricht, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden – who had the courage to seek justice in spite of what the criminal justice system might do to them.

Hosting filesharing sites that slowly make copyright unenforceable, protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation, dodging the draft (or deserting the military), and countless other violations of artificial law are truly heroic. If you ever find yourself on a jury trying such

a hero, refuse to punish them. Instead, follow the instructions of the Fully Informed Jury Association, and question not only the facts of the case, but the justice of the law itself.

Most of us will never even have the brilliance to have a vision like Ross Ulbricht’s, let alone the skill to put it into practice. If you ever do, though, I hope you share his courage to break the law.

[1] This should not be overstated, given the practice of convict-leasing that immediately followed abolition, as well as other practices that arguably still constitute slavery in a different form.

[2] This also should not be overstated, given the frequency with which transgender women are harassed by police who profile them as sex workers.

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