Lyn Ulbricht Should Run for President

I recently watched Alex Winter’s documentary Deep Web, an examination of the Silk Road case and a history of both the titular deep web and Bitcoin. The film traces the online drug market and its mysterious founder, Dread Pirate Roberts, all the way up to alleged perpetrator Ross Ulbricht’s life sentence in prison, levied only two weeks ago.

It’s a fascinating and striking  story, with elements that I had never really known. The case is complex, revolving around alleged contract killings and potentially multiple Dread Pirate Robertses, not to mention a trial in which the defense is forbidden from offering a counter-narrative. It’s difficult to walk away from the film, or an examination of the case generally, without the impression that Ross Ulbricht may not be guilty of anything more than what he said he set out to do: set up an anonymous online market to take the violence out of drug transactions. He was an ardent libertarian (of the Austrian and agorist schools), and laid down rules against violence on the site. The case contends that he was the sole perpetrator and founder of the site; he argued that he founded it on his free market principles, then left, passed on the “Dread Pirate Roberts” name to someone else (in true Princess Bride fashion), and was lured back to take the fall. This version of the story alleges that the second DPR was the one who attempted to hire contract killers to take out potential informants; these killers were actually FBI agents, who used the alleged hitman hirings to take down the Dread Pirate. This version of the story makes sense to me. The idea that somebody was so committed to peaceful market principles and radical libertarianism that they would set up a market with rules against using it to hire hitmen or buy child pornography or anything that would harm others would then go so mad with power that he would attempt to murder people in his own organization isn’t impossible, but it certainly rings false. The idea that that same idealistic young guy, who did not have a computer science or systems administration background, might found the site on his principles, and then hand it to someone else, someone else who may have been just in it for the money, or maybe even an informant himself, and that person tried to hire hitmen and pinned it on Ulbricht? That makes more sense to me. That Andy Greenberg, a journalist from Wired and Forbes, interviewed the Dread Pirate Roberts anonymously in 2013, and DPR gave that same story — that he didn’t found the site, that somebody else (presumably Ross Ulbricht) founded it and gave it to him and then left — only adds to the complexity.

The multiple DPRs narrative, despite being the longstanding story of Ulbricht and the Silk Road defense team, was not allowed to be presented in court. The judge ruled that the defense could only respond to the prosecution’s narrative, and not attempt to present their own. Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison.

So what does any of this have to do with presidents? And who is Lyn Ulbricht? She’s his mother. Throughout the film, Lyn Ulbricht explicitly becomes the face of the defense, touring the country, speaking at internet activist events and libertarian meet-ups, to defend her son and his actions. She proves to be a charismatic, likable, and popular speaker, and has vowed to continue her campaign. She is still fighting for the cause and even accepting Bitcoin donations at @Free_Ross. Midway through the film, though, I had a realization:

Lyn Ulbricht should seek the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

She wouldn’t be the first personal activist to use a presidential campaign as a platform for her cause, and combining criminal justice reform, internet freedom, ending the Drug War, and peaceful markets into one singular cause/person is a compelling force for libertarian voters. The film and her interviews prove her to be a passionate and compelling advocate for these causes, and the emotional component of a mother grieving for her son’s future put these libertarian issues into starkly visceral terms in a way that they usually aren’t. Libertarian politics generally feel like they’re for eggheads and white men. Putting somebody forward with such an emotionally devastating story, someone who has a background of being a successful businessperson herself, someone who can put the liberty narrative in a way it’s never been popularly put before, might be huge in the upcoming election. Imagine if the Libertarian Party nominee could look Hillary Clinton in the eye and ask her, mother-to-mother, “What would you do if this were your child?”

Former New Mexico Governor and 2012 Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson has said that he’ll likely run again in 2016. That’s great. I like Gary, I was supportive of his 2012 run — I think he’s a good candidate. I still think Lyn Ulbricht should run. She doesn’t have the electoral history of Johnson, but, even if she lost the nomination, should would make one hell of a vice presidential nominee. Johnson / Ulbricht would be probably the most legitimate ticket the Libertarian Party has ever put forward.

There is an incredible opportunity here, an opportunity to recast libertarianism as the free politics of the internet, as truly being beyond left and right and not just “Republicans but then some.” It would be a waste to not even try.

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Sanders / Paul ’16

So this is something that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now, and this David Weigel piece in Bloomberg Politics has finally prompted me to do so.

I think that there’s a tendency in places, especially places like Reason or Reddit to treat Senators Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul as diametrically opposed opposites in their respective 2016 primaries (Democratic and Republican), which makes a certain amount of truth on the surface. After all, Bernie Sanders is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who wants to nationalize healthcare and expand Social Security, while Rand Paul is a “libertarian-ish” conservative who wants to flatten out taxes and shrink the government. These are obviously impossible to reconcile, right?

Not so. Like Weigel points out, there is actually a fair amount of overlap between the two candidates’ support systems — namely, civil libertarians, antiwar activists, people who fight against bailouts and corporate welfare, and anti-corruption reformers (and probably a few universal basic income supporters, wherever my sweet people may hide). I would argue that not only is this a predictable occurrence, it’s an inevitable and ultimately positive one.

The thing is, Bernie and Rand are not really on opposite sides. They have disagreements, definitely, and not just on the proper role of government: Rand Paul is a pretty hardcore social conservative in ways that other libertarians, like 2012 Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, actively rejects, and this is the kind of thing that holds me at bay; if I had to choose between Rand and Bernie, I choose Bernie in a heartbeat, in a lot of ways because of that. That’s not nothing, but, even counting social issues and the philosophical role of government, they agree on 75%-80% of issues — even less than the average progressive and the average libertarian, I would guess. They’re both civil libertarian reformers, fighting against an overzealous corporatist war state and an entrenched political machine that hates them. They are, in that way, insurgent candidates in their respective parties, and, for that reason, they shouldn’t be treated as opposites. They should be working together.

This is not without precedent. Ralph Nader has floated the idea of a progressive-libertarian alliance, and, in 2008, progressive Democrat Dennis Kucinich said that he would seriously consider choosing libertarian hero (and near-best friend) Ron Paul as his running mate. Progressives and libertarians share differing views on economics (mostly), but they share a common enemy: the corporatist war state.

This needs to be understood and embraced. After all, how often do left and right statists work together to wage wars, to levy unfair taxes, to restrict liberty and trample equality? They do this all the time. Every mainstream bipartisan act of Congress in the modern political era is an instance of statists putting aside their differences to expand the state in one way or another, in a way that will either rile progressives, libertarians, or both. So why not fight back? Why not argue about capital gains taxes after surveillance and war and bailouts have been stopped, after prohibition has been reeled back and our justice system reformed, after the moneychangers get chased out of the temple and the dignity of democracy restored to Congress? Progressives and libertarians agree on significantly more than right and left statists do, so maybe the time is right to capitalize on that.

Contrary to the headline, I’m not really suggesting that Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul run for president together (although an independent ticket of the two of them would lay serious waste to Bush and Clinton in the general election, I think — maybe not enough to win, but enough to make a point). Instead, I think they should be recognized for what they both are: co-heirs to Ron Paul’s revolution, to Nader’s raiders. In their separate parties, they can agitate to make positive change, and should. If their fanbases and campaigns understood how much Bernie can stand with Rand, how much Rand can feel the Bern, then mountains can be moved.

Progressives, libertarians: You don’t disagree on that much. Not where it matters. Not more than you both do with left and right statists. So stand up. Work together. Make things right again.