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Who Will Build the Roads? You Tell Us.

We don’t live in a libertarian world, so when we talk to people about libertarianism we often have to appeal to their imagination. This is particularly true when it comes to fringe issues like roads, dispute resolution, and security. People could do this. People would have the incentive to do that. We may be convinced, but to most people it’s just a nice sounding theory until they’ve seen some evidence.

Fortunately, the evidence is out there and the stories are pretty interesting too. You might have heard of Mutual Aid societies in the early 20th century that provided cheap healthcare for the poor, or an LSD quality testing organization on Silk Road. But how many of these stories do you know offhand? How quickly can you find a list of legit, well researched examples? How many details do you know? For instance, you may have recently heard about Mike Watts, the small businessman who created his own private toll road in England, but did you know he offered a discount to parents of school children in the area? A useful tidbit for skeptics who are worried about predatory road companies.

What we need is a site where we can put all of these stories in one place. Well, it’s being built, and you can be a part of it. Introducing I Can’t Believe It’s Not Government. There are already a handful of stories started. If we all pitch in, we can add a lot more stories, and fill in all the interesting details.

To further illustrate the value of having such a resource, I wanted to take a look at one example area where real life stories make a difference.

Traffic Regulation

As libertarians we don’t always like to talk about regulation as positive, but like most people, we do want to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. In a sense, we believe in voluntary regulation, and insurance companies are a great source of this sort of phenomenon. It’s often said that consumers are bad at assessing risks and making informed decisions. However, informed risk assessment is the specialty of insurance companies (and arguably with more incentive to do so accurately than the government).

For the protection of homeowners, the government may offer a one-size fits all regulation, banning houses along a coastline that are too likely to be damaged by high tides. Alternately, the government may allow the houses and just bail out the homeowners who get burnt. An insurance company may offer a more custom approach: giving the consumer a simple number, an insurance premium, that effectively allows them to make a decision about risks without having to know anything about the risk profile of that portion of the coast. In this way, home owners are regulated away from dangerous areas, unless they really want to pay for it.

However, this is a fairly blunt form of regulation. The sort of government regulation people often desire is more detailed than that. We need, many will say, a way to regulate the behavior of citizens, telling them, for instance, what driving habits to employ. We might say that insurance companies could do the same thing by tying the policy to certain behavior by the driver. But it’s much more powerful to point out that they already do. Many auto insurance companies these days offer programs that allow consumers to opt in to allowing their driving habits to be monitored. You might even argue that the opt-in aspect allows for a more intricate regulation than what the government could do without a public outrage. Of course as libertarians, given the current relationship companies tend to have with the government, this may not seem like such an attractive prospect. But it still gives us an indication of the sorts of steps insurance companies in a free world would be willing to take to encourage safer habits.

Just as any company pushes to lower the cost of their products and services, insurance companies want to keep their premiums low. One way to keep premiums low is to influence consumer behavior, as described above. Another way is to influence the producers of the products that the consumers are insuring. And again, there is a real-life example of this, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), who is known for crash testing cars and publishing safety ratings for consumers to use.

As libertarians, we shouldn’t necessarily have a problem with road rules on private roads. A skeptical person might be concerned with the possibility of poorly designed or disparate road rules among many small road companies who don’t have the resources to research effectiveness of different traffic rules. Well, perhaps insurance companies would have the incentive to do that research, and could then offer lower premiums for customers who don’t patronize roads that don’t follow their recommendations. Sounds like a nice theory, but we have some evidence here as well. One lesser known activity of the IIHS is to research effective traffic rules.

Other Examples

Traffic regulation is just one area where people tend to expect the government to help. With enough research, we can start to paint a similar picture in other areas.

Disaster relief? Bring up Occupy Sandy, or the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (don’t let the name fool you). Ambulance services in poor neighborhoods? Check out the Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps. What about network neutrality, how can consumers get a choice in ISPs with the natural monopoly of infrastructure? How about circumventing the whole thing entirely with a mesh network like they did in Athens, Greece.

We’ve started collecting lots of interesting details, but there are a lot of gaps left to be filled in. You might find success stories right here on Bitcoin Not Bombs, who was gracious enough to let me post about this project. Helping the disadvantaged is definitely on the list of things people want the government to do. If there’s enough objective evidence for the success of Sean’s Outpost or Hoodie The Homeless to convince a skeptic, we want to hear about it.

Do you know a story that could push the point home further? Check out the site, you could make a difference.

By the way, you can catch my recent interview on Declare Your Independence with Ernest Hancock, talking about the site. You can also follow along on Twitter and Google Plus. (Facewhat?)

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Dread Pirate Roberts Supporters Thrown for a Moral Loop

The radical libertarian world was just hit with a bombshell revelation the other day. Previously, the defense team of Ross Ulbricht surprised us by admitting that Ross was the originator of Silk Road, however they claim that Ross left the position after only a few months, handing it off to another entity. This “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, the one who ran the site for the the bulk of the time, eventually went on to drag Ross back in to frame him when he felt the heat from the Feds. Well, now the plot thickens; the defense team is naming a name: long time MtGox operator Mark Karpelès, the one who held the reins when it collapsed and who a lot of people are bitter towards. Furthermore, they have evidence to that end, as a federal agent testified that Mark was their original lead before they went after Ross.

This initially seems like a cause for small celebration. Here is a chance that Ross Ulbricht can be free, or at least substantially reduce the sentence he is liable to receive. But let’s slow down for a second because I think we’ve lost a little moral clarity here. It seems that at a certain point, the focus drifted from supporting the alleged heroic operator of the legendary Silk Road marketplace to supporting one Ross Ulbricht. Only allegedly the same thing, as some libertarians are quick to point out. According to the defense team of our hero Ross, the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, operator of Silk Road marketplace, is Mark Karpelès. Well, if we’re in this because we support the Silk Road, shouldn’t our support now turn toward Mark?

There are now only two approaches to take with regard to Mark. Either we can be happy he is taking the heat off of Ross or not happy. Suppose we’re happy. This is, after all, a guy who ran MtGox into the ground, caused many people to lose a lot of bitcoin, and, as some suspect, even ran off with a lot of btc himself. Even if we don’t support people going to jail for facilitating drug sales, we can perhaps be content in this sort of poetic justice. If Ross, the human being, is found not guilty or responsible for being Silk Road’s operator, we still of course can cheer that an innocent man is allowed to be free, or have a reduced sentence for his reduced role. But wait – then we’re conceding that the real heroic Dread Pirate Roberts, operator of the legendary Silk Road marketplace, is in fact not a hero. Suddenly we’re happy to see him behind bars. Remember how defensive we were when Ross was charged with soliciting a murder-for-hire? As our focus has turned toward our sympathy for Ross, the human being, we may have forgotten what we originally supported: The idea of a free market pioneer, morally true, despite and even because of complete disregard for the law.

Okay, so suppose we’re willing to forgive Mark the transgressions from MtGox, and not hold it against him in his capacity as the DPR. Suppose the murder-for-hire charge doesn’t apply to him, either. Or maybe he wasn’t the DPR in the first place. In that case, we still don’t have such a cause to celebrate this latest move from Ross’ defense team. It just transferred most of the heat from one innocent man to another. But it’s even worse than that, because now, Ross, our libertarian folk hero, the one who still started the Silk Road, is in fact a snitch who just fingered an innocent man, possibly the heroic real Dread Pirate Roberts. This is not at all to say that I wouldn’t forgive Ross for doing so, nor that I wouldn’t do the same thing under the circumstances. However it does hurt our cause for having supported him in our ideological capacity, and taint the minor hero status that he’d still earned for starting the site and running it a few months. At the very least it may send a mixed message if we continue to support Ross under this favorable view of Mark.

I suppose the best possible outcome, from a libertarian stance, is that Ross knows Mark had nothing to do with Silk Road and the Feds have nothing on him, but Ross’s defense team still uses him to create enough reasonable doubt to set Ross free. Seems a bit of a long shot, though. But really, this is not a great situation in liberty land.