Topsy-turvy: Bitcoin and the morality of free exchange

As a young boy in the United States during the 80’s, I knew right from wrong. Thanks to He-Man, Transformers, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I knew that in every situation and in every story, there was a good guy and a bad guy; righteous deeds and evil ones.

But now I see the world a little differently. These days I’m not so sure. To give you a quaint but illustrative example, let me convey the story of my mother and the squirrel.

Years ago, every day a scrawny female squirrel would hang around the back porch and scavenge for berries and seeds. My mother, heart swelling with sympathy, would surreptitiously feed the little squirrel unsalted almonds every day. In time, the larger and healthier squirrels caught on and began to beat up the little squirrel when she stopped by to beg. They became so violent that they eventually tore the screen door on the back porch in their nutty quest for nourishment – this of course was days after the last sighting of our poor unfortunate friend. My mother stopped feeding the squirrels.

But what if she hadn’t? What if the squirrels had behaved a little more civilly? I imagined a cheerful brood of dozens of squirrels, fat, happy, and thriving, that multiplied each year. Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? But what if my mother stopped feeding them then? What if she moved away and left them numbering in the hundreds in our back yard with 90% of their food source cut off? It would have been worse than before, the fighting. And moreover, most of them would probably starve.

How is it that such altruistic deeds can result in such… evil – not just run-of-the mill evil, but real heavy sciuridaocydal evil? It’s as if the world has gone topsy-turvy, where good is bad. But, is the opposite true as well? Is it possible that some bad things, some horrible things, are actually quite good?

The answer is yes, and it never ceases to surprise me how easily one can find the unexpected good in things if they just know where to look. Take the controversial website Silk Road for example. It has been vilified, denounced, and blamed for all sorts of evil. It is so bad in fact, that it’s the first thing that people talk about when they want to discredit Bitcoin: “Bitcoin? Yes, that’s the dark underground currency used by drug dealers on the shady website, Silk Road.”

For Bitcoin detractors, this is enough to sour their palettes for good. For Bitcoin enthusiasts, it’s an embarrassing blemish that they must try to explain away: “But Bitcoin is also used for legitimate purchases… and did I tell you about the elegant solution to the double-spend problem?”

Yet, why are we so quick to judge? What is it that we hate so much about Silk Road? What do we hate so much about drugs. Well, that’s easy. We don’t like the violence, the theft, the subjugation, the extortion… but of course we do enjoy the movies they inspire. 

So let’s take another look at Silk Road. This time searching for the good. I read somewhere that the founders were motivated to create a free exchange of illicit goods with the explicit goal of eliminating two very real threats, a) The threat of physical violence, and b) The threat of receiving low-quality or dangerous products. 

Poof! Just like that, Silk Road eliminated potentially the two most systemic and pervasive dangers that individuals face when purchasing contraband substances. They whittled down the whole gun toting gang scene to a simple free exchange between individuals. Can you imagine how boring that movie would be? Can you imagine watching people browse a website that basically looks like Amazon.com, ordering some weed, getting a package delivered, then getting high in their dorm room? 

After all the analyses, pulling and parsing the causes and effects of Silk Road, one might even come to be overwhelmed by the hidden good inside of it. In a world where people are treated like adults and permitted to spend their money as they choose; to ingest what substances they choose, and take responsibility for their actions – and don’t shoot each other in the street over unpaid drug debts – where can we find the evil?

Perhaps Silk Road’s biggest crime is ruining the future plot material of Hollywood screenwriters.

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