Monthly Archives: October 2013

Silk Road’s Closure – The Latest Depressing Chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ Epic

Recently, the powers that be flexed their muscles and shut down the online black market the ‘Silk Road’. Its alleged founder Ross William Ulbricht aka the online pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested earlier this month and faces some hefty charges against his name including drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking and money laundering. Silk Road has been around for over two years but it has only really been getting mainstream news attention for the past month or so. Following this spike in interest, Silk Road and the technology associated is getting a bad rep and an unfairly negative image due to misinformation and fear mongering. As well as this, its closure marks another depressing chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ epic that keeps getting longer and keeps making less sense as it goes along.

Silk Road was most notorious for being a marketplace for those wanting to do their illegal narcotics shopping from the safety and comfort of their own home instead of having to venture to the wrong side of the tracks. It was the black-market-Amazon; you could get what you wanted when you wanted it, delivered straight to your door. It featured an eBay style interface of buyers and sellers with their own individual feedback ratings, so that you could be rest assured whatever narcotics you purchased would be better and safer than whatever that guy that always wears a North Face jacket and apparently never sleeps was selling in your local area.

Items listed on Silk Road were not limited to just drugs and included books, clothes, computer equipment, collectables, fireworks and forged documents but the vast majority of items were of the illegal nature. As it was illegal goods that most people searching down the Silk Road were after, the website was hidden away as part of the ‘deep web’ with the only way to access it being through anonymous browsing clients and the only way to purchase items being crypto-currency.

Media attention has broadly mentioned two legal technologies that are crucial for anyone’s journey down the Silk Road – Tor and Bitcoins. Tor is software that enables online anonymity by relaying online net traffic so that it is hidden away from the Internet’s many all-seeing eyes. Bitcoins are an open-source, peer-to-peer electronic currency purchased using traditional currencies and is free from a central issuing authority and transactions bypass financial institutions. The media’s spin on these innovations has largely been negative, with headlines along the lines of ‘look at all the real bad things this technology is being used for!’ – this smear is unfair and ill-informed. Tor and Bitcoins have more uses beyond shady transactions and they benefit millions around the world and the number of people using them both continues to grow.

The majority of the world doesn’t live in a position of freedom or privilege and Tor helps level the playing field. It allows users to communicate freely when in the web space of restrictive regimes, it can evade monitoring by those using 1984 as a guidebook and as well spread information to citizens that are otherwise restricted. The other key ingredient to the Silk Road experience is Bitcoins, an ever-growing crypto-currency. Bitcoins are popular as they are free from third-party mediators and domestic economic problems, which means that costs are kept down and transactions are easier to do and are more secure. They are being used to pay for all sorts of goods and services online with more retailers signing up to them by the day.

Aside from the misinformation about the technologies involved, the closing of Silk Road is just another chapter in the epic tome of the failed war on drugs – a costly war that has raged for over 40 years and has perpetuated many social ills that it apparently aims to prevent. There is a growing consensus around the world from medical experts, politicians and former legislators that the war on drugs is as useful as pissing into the wind. The deep web is vaster than the ocean floor and already other black markets are up and running, taking Silk Road’s place and evidencing the failings of current drug legislation. Drug dealing is a dangerous world because of its illegality; Silk Road created an environment that removed a lot of the potential high-risk perilous situations and scenarios associated with the drugs trade. The middleman was taken out, so was the shady back alley and the potentially hazardous batch. With Silk Road there was no threat of violence and little chance of being ripped off – when the US government shut down Silk Road it forced users back onto the streets and in to the criminal underworld.

Voices against current drugs legislation are growing louder and change could be soon around the corner; the closure of Silk Road is definitely something that more voices should shout louder about.

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Cameron’s Confused Conservatism: The Marriage Tax Break

During the 2010 election campaign, David Cameron made a big deal out of bashing nanny statism. He proudly stood in front of posters emblazoned with statements such “Big Society, Not Big Government” and proclaimed how “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” At the same time he also reassured the electorate he was bringing back compassionate Conservatism – he would no longer be a prisoner of an ideological past and would instead promote a more socially tolerant and inclusive governing party. As well as defining himself whilst in opposition, Cameron also made it his moral duty to bully Gordon Brown over his incompetence in governance and promised a plug on the constant stream off legislation that said much, but achieved little.

Three years in to his time as Prime Minister on these three areas Cameron has had a mixed bag of policy successes and failures, his report card reads – overall he must try a lot harder. This week’s commitment to give married couples a tax break is the latest policy that highlights Dave’s shortcomings in these areas which he has pinned his colours to – it’s nanny state moralising, it’s not inclusive and it is not going to achieve a lot.

Whilst on the surface, a tax cut looks like Cameron rolling back the state, starving the beast or whichever Ayn Rand metaphor you prefer – but in reality, the measly saving for couples of £3 a week is not worth the moral statism and social paternalism that comes with it. Implementing this policy is going to come with layers of legislation to work out who is and isn’t eligible and will make individual’s marital status the business of the tax office. As well it is hardly a policy to be championed by someone who is sceptical of the state setting society’s values – remember it is supposed to be Big Society not Big Government.

The principles behind the marriage tax allowance make it exclusive and discriminatory, hardly compassionate. It discriminates against couples that don’t register their relationships with the state and it also distinguishes relationships that do not fit in to the traditional pigeonhole as undesirable. It is a slap in the face to all single parents that went through a divorce for their child’s benefit and it is ignorant to the complexity of modern relationships. It also assumes that a married family unit will produce the best outcomes for a child when in reality a child needs stability and support, not a blueprinted perfect family model.

The stated eventual goal of the marriage tax allowance is to stop the decline in the proportion of married families in the UK and to improve child outcomes. It is hard to see how the policy could incentivise marriage or halt divorce; the saving on offer is so pathetically small. The justification that it would improve child outcomes is shaky as well, Dr Patrick Nolan the Chief Economist at Reform states “The strongest evidence shows that the most important things in ensuring children get the best start in life are having a parent in work and family income. Proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system would not help reduce the number of jobless households or child poverty.”

So whilst he has stated he is an opponent of big state bureaucracy and a promoter of compassionate government, the married tax allowance is the latest in a long string of policies that conflicts with Cameron’s supposed values that he espouses.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, the saving could come in handy but not for its intended reasons. The average marriage in the UK lasts for about 12 years and the marriage tax break over that time would save a couple around £2400. This should get both parties a decent solicitor and also cover the court costs and other miscellaneous fees involved with getting a divorce – perfect.

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