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Friday, March 25, 2016

Dear Ross Ulbricht

A Letter on His 32nd Birthday

Dear Ross,

Happy birthday! It’s impossible to say “hope all is well” to a great man unjustly imprisoned by the state, so I’ll just skip the pleasantries.

We’ve not met, but I’ve followed your work for many years. We have a shared interest in human rights, freedom, and the beautiful anarchy of digital spaces. Starting around the same time, we both developed the conviction that this would be our future, and we were impatient for it to get here. One hundred years of a failed administrative state is more than enough.

As the innovator of an online market that operated outside political constraints, and even with the use of private money, you were ahead of your time. And you have experienced what so many other visionaries in history have experienced. Prison is too often the fate of those principled and brave enough to see a future of freedom beyond the regime of the moment. It should not be this way. In so many ways, your life right now is a stand-in for every dreamer in the world who has run afoul of the reactionary spirit of the powers that be.

The way you have been treated, however, changes nothing about the trajectory of history. Freedom will eventually win this struggle, and this is for three reasons. First, innovations cannot be stopped, even by the world’s most powerful governments. Second, technological knowledge today is global, weightless, and as reproducible as ideas themselves, which makes it finally impossible to control. Third, while the state can coerce the body and material property, the human mind cannot ultimately live in a cage.

And this is what strikes me most tragic about your plight. That you have be sentenced to two-plus lifetimes for running a website changes nothing about the long run. You have been treated brutally and denied a fair trial — so too have the greatest heroes from the classical world to modern times — and your plight robs humanity of your creative contributions. Even so, power in this instance will lose. All the resources spent to put you behind bars have been wasted. Someday everyone will understand this, just as people today understand this about Socrates, Galileo, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

I’m not sure if you have followed the great struggle between the U.S. government and Apple, the world’s most valuable company. The CEO Tim Cook has taken a brave and heroic position. He has refused to comply with an FBI demand that the company’s programmers hack their operating system’s encryption to make a back door for the state. Cook says that this would create an inferior product; encryption is necessary to protect data from being pillaged by cyber criminals.

Isn’t it ironic? It is increasingly difficult to distinguish the intentions of cyber criminals from that of the government itself. They are both on the same side in lining up against the interests of the human right to liberty and property. I’m so proud of Apple for resisting. So intense and public was its statement of principle that the FBI even backed down, while trying to save face. They withdrew the lawsuit and claimed they could hack it themselves. Maybe. Regardless, this was a victory for the good guys.

When Edward Snowden first revealed that the NSA, FBI, and so on, were sucking data out of Google’s and Apple’s servers through a back door. We all wondered just how complicit these companies were in all this surveillance. Many people were angry at the private sector for going along, if they were. (I was more sympathetic with Apple and Google; they faced a gag order in any case, and these can be very scary.). Apple’s innovation was their best answer: they would make a system so secure that not even Apple itself would have access. Brilliant!

It’s not even clear to me that that the FBI fully understands what they were demanding of Apple. It’s a form of nationalization really, not altogether different from what socialist despots did in the 20th century, and not different from the nightmare scenarios of intervention you find in Atlas Shrugged. That we are talking about operating systems rather than oil wells and steel factories makes it less obvious but no less significant.

In some ways, this newest battle mirrors the old struggle over PGP in the 1990s. Remember that? The creator, Phil Zimmerman, was called complicit with terrorism and the code itself treated as a weapon that was illegal to export. MIT heroically responded by publishing the entire code in book form. The government relented, and thank goodness. Can you imagine what the digital world would be like today had encryption technology been successfully banned? A million innovations since would never have happened. Even today, without encryption, there would be a privacy apocalypse. And yet that is exactly what the government’s position favors.

So many people in the tech community followed this Apple case closely. What if the company lost in court? Its programmers would have been ordered by the government to wreck their own software. Amazing! Would the code slingers go along? Most people who know this community well seriously doubt it. They would likely pick up and go to work for another company, and take their innovations with them. If need be, they will work outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.

As for Apple itself, the latest news is that the company will begin to manufacture its own servers rather than ordering them through the regular supply chain. Why? Because they worry that their servers will otherwise be compromised in transit. Can you imagine that it has come to this in the United States, that a company has to forgo the advantages of the division of labor and trade just to maintain the security of its own property? Amazing.

Why does government continue to fight these battles that it is sure to lose eventually, and tolerate such carnage along the way? I suppose that is the great mystery of the ages. It has something to do with the unwillingness of some people to tolerate freedom. Powerful people want to exercise that power and they are gravely offended when principled people say no. They are forever sending messages and making examples of people: do not defy us! And yet the rebels always exist, and thank goodness for that. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as human progress.

I don’t know if you have followed politics in the U.S. over the last year. I’ve ignored politics for most of my adult life, and dangerously threw myself into it this year. What a shock! It’s amazing to see throngs of people cheering and clamoring for their own enslavement, treating would-be oppressors as liberators. It’s true that the rise of both Trump and Sanders are a response to the remarkable failures of the establishment and its attempt to use the state apparatus to forge certain social outcomes they deem important. People today readily recognize that something is profoundly wrong. The system is grafting, violent, corrupt, wasteful, ineffective, and it is driving down American prosperity and injuring the freedom that people feel is their birthright.

However, while the average voter intuits the problem, they don’t clearly discern the source (the state) and thus are they vulnerable to demagogues redirecting their anger in strange directions (to foreigners, wealth inequality, etc.). At this stage of the system’s meltdown, the proposed solutions these candidates offer are worse than the disease. Hate is on the loose and directed everywhere. Those who today approach politics with cool-headed reason are being pushed aside. This puts the cause of freedom in an awkward position of fearing democracy as much as the ruling class itself fears it.

I’m wondering if there is a silver lining here. The best and more poignant attack one can make on despots of the left and right is to draw attention to the ways in which their agendas attack the core of human rights and liberties. Maybe their rise will awaken people to certain fundamental truths. Maybe we’ll see a rediscovery of the body of ideas that have been such a central driving force in your life: of that deep need that exists in all of us to be free from arbitrary force of any sort.

Leonard Read in the 1950s, after he started the Foundation for Economic Education, put a great deal of thought into finding the core of the philosophy that built civilization. He represents an ideal we should all keep in mind. He liked the idea that law should limit itself to intervening only when people face violent attacks on their person or property; otherwise society should leave people alone. His slogan was simple: “anything peaceful.” As time has gone on, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of this simple phrase. We don’t know the results of human liberty. We can imagine the unknown blessings that await us when we let the human mind imagine freely and allow people to test new solutions to human problems. This is precisely why we need the freedom to improve the world.

I recall that when you started your experiment, you were driven mainly by curiosity. What would be the results? Could this actually work? Could a coherent and self-policing commercial community be created in the cloud? You should have received the Nobel Prize for what you demonstrated. You proved that it could happen! Freedom can work where cartel-ism and despotism has failed!

I know that there is no real solace for you even with confidence that you will someday be widely seen as the visionary you are. I can’t even imagine what you must be going through. And yet everyone who has spoken with you says that you are maintaining your spiritual strength. You are teaching, reading, learning, forming friendships, even in the worst possible conditions. All respect, my friend.

It’s extremely difficult for people who have never been in your position to understand the spiritual crisis that comes with being locked away. Those people who love you deeply are on the outside and have no control over how you are treated. Those who do manage your life and determine your fate do not value you for who you are. It would be extremely easy under these conditions to give up, to forget your principles, to consider your values and personality to be irrelevant. There is surely the ongoing temptation to think of yourself as others who control your life think of you.

This must be your major challenge. You have had to look deep within to find strength, remember your purpose in life, and remain mindful of what really matters. In sustaining your spirit and your love of life, liberty, and learning, you are a deep inspiration to all of us.

Again, happy 32nd Birthday! I wish you all the best. I and so many others are thinking of you every day.


Jeffrey Tucker