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Jim Bell writes in his Assasination Politics:

Now, there is one more thing that I would hope we could get straight: As I originally "invented" this system, it occurred to me that there could be certain arguments that it needed to be "regulated" somehow; "unworthy" targets shouldn't be killed, etc. The "problem" is, what I've "invented" may (as I now believe it to be) actually a "discovery," in a sense: I now believe this kind of system was always inevitable, merely waiting for the triad of the Internet, digital cash, and good encryption in order to provide the technical underpinnings for the entire system. If that is genuinely the case, then there is no real way to control it, except by free-market principles.

Given the presence of internet, good encryption such as GPG, and Monero / Bitcoin, why hasn't "assasination politics" taken off? Let us understand "assasination politics" the way Jim Bell described it, i.e. betting on someone's date of death, which incentivises assassination. Aren't the advents of smart contract and DAOs conducive factors to "assasination politics"? The DAOs emerged many times in the past when crowdfunding was needed. On the other hand, darknet marketplaces apear when there is a demand for things like drugs. What factors might have limited the empowerment of anarchists fighting back and the development of futarchy / assasination politics over the last decades?

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    The obvious answer is that Jim Bell's predictions were ridiculous and founded on wild speculation. If there is a serious theory here worthy of consideration, the question should explain that rather than assume it.
    – Brian Z
    Oct 9, 2023 at 12:58
  • Msybe assasinating people is more difficult. Oct 9, 2023 at 15:23
  • FWTW somebody is trying though forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/11/18/… Or rather was 10 years ago. I'm not sure what happened to that project. Oct 9, 2023 at 16:03
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    If a politician's opponents keep getting killed would people not suspect them regardless of all the evidence being encrypted?
    – Joe W
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:30
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    Who the heck is Jim Bell anyway, and why are his theories of general political interest? It's a common enough name, so no, a bit more work needs to be done than expecting us to look up his CV and then read his whole blog. Is there any factual basis for supposing that electorates would be sympathetic to political assassinations, i.e. terrorism? Oct 9, 2023 at 21:08

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First, let's be clear that we're talking about non-state-sponsored assassination politics. State-sponsored assignation politics is alive and well, both within many countries and across national borders.

There are several reasons why non-state-sponsored assassination politics hasn't taken off, to wit:

  • Technological advances have simultaneously increased capacities for defense, surveillance, and other elements of spy-craft that has always been deployed against assassination attempts. It may be easier and safer to hire an assassin, but assassins would require far higher levels of sophistication and support to overcome modern obstacles. A lone gunman won't suffice for a high-value political target anymore.
  • Technological advances also mean that media has high reach and responsiveness. Assassinations or other violent attacks produce an immediate and immense backlash against the interests of the people behind the assassination. Assassination is a Pyrrhic victory these days: removing one disliked person energizes thousands of opponents. Martyrs are always troublesome, and media-driven martyrs are a force no one wants to face.
  • Plotting an assassination requires a certain amount of group-think and risky-shift behavior. No one starts at "hey, let's kill 'em"; people work their way up to that in small, private, insulated discussions. But technological advances make small, private, insulated discussion ever more difficult. Everyone has news media and social media in their pockets that brings them outside opinions, and outside opinions diffuse the single-frame, cultish mindset that drives small-group dynamics.

I'll add the somewhat jaded observation that technological advances have also had a cognitive impact. For the most part, people lack the attention span needed for effective plotting. The nations where this kind of assassination politics might be feasible suffer from an 'on demand', immediate gratification mindset that mucks things up. That's why Jan 6 (however you may want to frame it) fizzled. People had a few ideas about what they wanted to 'get', but everyone from the leaders on down acted on impulse, thinking that what they wanted would fall into their laps if they merely kept moving forward. That ain't no way to run a railroad...

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  • Methinks in ever-speading democracies people tend to view such assasinations as attacks on themselves and their democratic way of doing things. I agree, people of Jan 6 made the impression of degens that lacked plan. Do you think that people might be afraid of plotting in small online groups because of the existence of honeypots (e.g. they may not trust in WhatsApp's encryption)? The idea of "assasination politics" directed against a particular target may just no be popular enough to gather necessary interest in the same city / neighbourhood for a group to form..
    – John Smith
    Oct 9, 2023 at 15:44
  • @JohnSmith: Well… plots of this sort tend (as a rule) to be full of narcissistic daredevils — people who think they are always a step or two ahead of everyone else, and can weasel out of any trap — so they don't generally think much about honey-pots or pitfalls. That wouldn't put them off the way it might put off you or me. I think your last point is surer: they can't develop the kind of curated control over others they'd need to bring a truly crazy plot to fruition. Oct 9, 2023 at 15:55
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    "A lone gunman won't suffice for a high-value political target anymore." The are very few high value political targets in the U.S. that couldn't be assassinated by a lone gunman who was even moderately canny. Most people would be stunned at how thin of a security detail most high profile politicians and political actors have, and defeating a lone gunman turns out to be an extremely difficult task for anyone who makes regular public appearances or lives a remotely ordinary private life away from their political job, which includes all but a handful of political figures.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 9, 2023 at 18:27
  • @ohwilleke I think the difference is more in the getting away with it afterwards. 100 years ago a decent amount of cash allowed you to live a normal life in public in Los Angeles while you where searched for murder by the New York police. 50 years ago this was already a lot more complicated, today it is almost impossible, even if you throw in a country change.
    – quarague
    Oct 10, 2023 at 9:06
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    I think you're much more likely to see a US politician assassinated for free by a suicidal gunman who has been radicalized over the internet, than a for-profit "rational" assassination of such. I'm slightly surprised we've not seen a politician or relative thereof killed by mistake in a mass shooting yet.
    – pjc50
    Oct 10, 2023 at 9:50
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Getting paid for killing someone might have gotten easier. But getting away after killing someone insofar didn't. Especially high-value targets like POTUS etc. (They even have anti-drone defense etc., in case you wonder. OTOH if you consider the successful [drone] hits on parades of Yemeni or Syrian army/cadets, some assassination-like missions did get easier, but not thanks to digital/crypto cash.)

Actually, there have been a number of attempts to enact such an 'assassination market' over the years, but it looks like they've not managed to overcome the trust issue in the intermediary that's supposed to keep the cryptocurrency in escrow. Because if the assassin is unknown, how can those placing the order be sure they'll do the job and not disappear with the money beforehand? By using some kind of escrow (lacking which, thy assassin might not agree, for fear of not getting paid at all). But how can one trust the escrow not be a scam in such a situation? The escrow itself will want remain anonymous because what they do in this case is illegal. Etc. Maybe there's a technological solution to "trustable but anonymous escrow", but insofar it doesn't look like it's been tried in this kind of application. In almost all cases discussed there, the escrow provider ultimately was a scam, i.e. it took the cryptocurrency without providing any assassination service [themselves or by delegating].... except for one [2019] case in Russia that was mediated over Silk Road. The latter was a somewhat well-known 'dark web' site. But here came the tension between anonymity and trustworthiness: Silk Road became too famous and was taken down. (The story is not entirely clear on this, but I suspect, given the year, this refers to one of the "Silk Road Reloaded" alikes/clones.) Also [although I didn't even know this why I wrote the first para of this answer], the ultimate foil was that:

The killers were caught, not because they had a motive, but because surveillance cameras captured their faces.

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The problem is that cryptocurrency isn't as untraceable as it pretends to be. Within the system, blockchain-based cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are actually the exact opposite of untraceable. Every single transaction is forever enshrined in the blockchain, certified by thousands of nodes. This is bulletproof evidence of which wallet sent how much money to which other wallet and when.

Cryptocurrency proponents will point out that it is not possible to tell which wallet belongs to which natural person. But that's only true until one wants to buy or sell cryptocurrency for legal tender. Then people have to go through the regular banking system. Which will link their real identity to their cryptocurrency wallet.

So cryptocurrency doesn't make it harder to solve crimes by "following the money", it made it easier. Which means that crowdfunding assassinations via cryptocurrency won't take off until the funders can be sure they won't get caught and go to prison for a very long time for financing a political assassination.

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    Some cryptocurrencies like Monero ARE untraceable.
    – Ryan_L
    Oct 9, 2023 at 15:51
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    Aside from the few crypto currencies which do supposedly manage it, this is a spot on answer. Risky Business podcast often says specifically that, that cryptocurrencies are very traceable. In fact, funnily enough, they've stated that, ironically, it is quite frequent to be nabbed 5-10 years after committing a crime, because there is so much digital trail to follow up on. Oct 9, 2023 at 21:11
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    @Ryan_L But are cryptocurrencies more untraceable than currency or gold coins or loose diamonds? If you can put one of those things in a ziploc bag and bury it in a forest, you can send someone GPS coordinates in a simple anonymous communication of various kinds.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:42
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    @ohwilleke You and the hitman will leave footprints in the woods, fingerprints on the bag, traffic cameras will see your cars all along the way, and you never know where there might be a game warden or one of their trail cameras. Further, if you pay in cash, it's all serialized. If the hitman is caught before he can spend all of it, it can be traced back to the bank it was withdrawn from. So unless you've got a major money-laundering operation, paying a hitman with a physical payment isn't foolproof either.
    – Ryan_L
    Oct 10, 2023 at 23:02
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Given the presence of internet, good encryption, and digital cash, why hasn't "assasination politics" taken off?

The main reason that this doesn't happen is that participants in the political process and business leaders who want to influence politics are more dentological (i.e. they make ethical decisions on a rules based basis) and less utilitarian (i.e. they make decisions considering only the pros and cons of conduct on a probability weighted basis) and less cynical (i.e. caring only about their own self-interests) than we give them credit for being.

There is wide consensus among political players on all sides in democracies that assassination isn't an acceptable political tactic, so this option isn't even "on the table" for consideration from the people who would order hits in developed countries.

There are places, such as societies where organized crime plays a pervasive role (e.g. the so called "narco-states" like Ecuador, Mexico, and not so long ago, Colombia, and much earlier, mafia controlled Southern Italy), or where totalitarian regimes consider this an acceptable tactic (see, e.g., Putin's Russia or China) where assassination or extra-legal execution is common place.

The ability to anonymously retain hit men isn't the limiting factor that is preventing assassination politics in places where assassinations are currently rare (although the recent example, of a non-political hit in a professional dispute that was the cause of lengthy litigation that got subcontracted several times in China before everyone involved was caught illustrates the role these technologies can play in hired killing outside of politics).

It is already overwhelming true, and has been true for a long time, that the political end of removing a politician or judge from the "political field" in developed nations through political violence is far cheaper and easier in raw dollars and technological capacity, than it is to achieve the same ends through lawful legal and political means. A skilled sniper paid tens of thousands of U.S. dollars worth of untraceable cash or precious metals or gemstones can kill an individual target at a distance of many hundreds of yards with only a modest risk of being caught in the act.

Digital cash and crypto-currencies address an issue that hasn't historically been a barrier to political assassinations. There have been lots of ways to untraceably transfer value with plain old paper cash or valuable objects for literally thousands of years. Before there was the Internet, there were anonymous snail mail drops and trustworthy brokers between people who want to carry out hits and people who are willing to carry them out. Codes sufficiently good to not be deciphered by authorities seeking to solve assassinations likewise date back, at least, to the Greco-Roman classical era, if not earlier.

The term "assassin" itself dates to the use of the term to refer to members of the Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims at the time of the Crusades, when the newly established sect ruled part of northern Persia (1094–1256 CE) and sought to kill what they saw as illegitimate European invaders and conquerors (and their perceived allies).

Ultimately, politics is about co-opting the power of government and the law to achieve your ends. Achieving political power through assassination may allow you to win that zero-sum game of short term battles for control of the law making and enforcing apparatus. But in doing so, you undermine the authority and value of being able to control what laws are made by undermining the ability of the state to secure compliance with the law.

So, if you are a politician, or a big business person, your interest in having people obey that laws that you as a member of the establishment can influence to some degree makes the policy of obeying the laws prohibiting political murders more important to you than the gains you could achieve by violating those laws yourself, even if the risk that you will be caught is modest.

If you open the floodgates to widespread use of political assassination as a political tactic, eventually, you may be assassinated. Equally important, the vitality of a strong state with a strong rule of law that you would hope to control would be undermined.

Also, in most democracies, there are relatively few political figures who, if assassinated, wouldn't be replaced by someone advancing similar policies in short order. So, in a lot of political systems, political assassinations of a great many potential targets only provide a modest and short-term benefit, to the person doing so. A political assassination only makes "rational" sense (1) if the person assassinated is firmly entrenched so that they cannot be removed by other means, and if the replacement for that person in the political system would be very different on the issues important to the person commissioning the assassin, or (2) if the purpose of the assassination is more to intimidate promising people supporting some cause you are opposed to from participating in politics entirely, than to remove the particular person assassinated from power.

Who actually uses assassination and other forms of violence as a tactic?

Criminal gangs, Appalachian families in blood feuds with each other, and lower working class men in legal disputes with each other, all of whom are particularly ill-equipped to achieve their desired ends in through the legal system.

The use of assassination as a tactic is tied to weak states, to cultures of honor that arise in weak states, to regimes that have significant numbers of subjects who view them as illegitimate, and to situations where some form of corruption or lack of democracy or current or imminent permanent minority status for the people using that means is perceived as making non-violent means of securing political gain utterly futile.

Assassination and other forms of political violence are tactics people use when there seems to be no other viable option to achieve their needs which they perceive as intensely urgent, or when the targets of the assassination are so dehumanized that the rule against assassination no longer seems to apply to them.

Another way to think about it is that political violence is a form of asymmetric warfare that occurs when people reach a point of declaring war to achieve their ends. The decision to cross this threshold is justified in much the same way that decisions to declare war generally are justified.

The same factors that drive the decision to use political assassination as a tactic or not, also drive the openness, for example, of the American far-right, to using the rhetoric of political violence, something that is on the rise in the U.S. These advocates perceive that they are on the brink of losing cultural and political hegemony to people with values whom they view as completely unacceptable in a non-negotiable manner, and that neither the political institutions in the U.S. nor its courts provide them with a way to preserve a way of life that they seek to maintain, so they are willing to consider violent alternatives to the non-violent political and legal process to continue to remain in power.

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  • You explained very well why "assasination politics" is not a popular way of doing politics by polititians. But Jim Bell wrote mostly of assasinations of polititians ordered by the people who are not politicians, e.g. anarchists fighting back. Another example he adduced is assasination of a car-thief by a victim of car-theft (or order by such a victim). What are the reasons why such use case hasn't taken off?
    – John Smith
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:16
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    @JohnSmith Anarchists "fighting back" are the kind of people who try to assassinate politicians, but in normal circumstances there aren't many of them because anarchism is a very unpopular ideology (some sort of insurgent as part of a larger movement is far more common). 99.9%+ of people, in general, are dentological and accept the basic legitimacy of the system. Assassination of car thieves does happen and we call it vigilante justice. One such incident happened in Denver, Colorado just this year. denverite.com/2023/02/25/…
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:23
  • @JohnSmith "why such use case hasn't taken off?" Private vigilante action arguably has increased a bit for tech reasons, but the technologies identified by Jim Bell have were never the ones important for either assassination or vigilante action. Crypo isn't and never has been revolutionary as its backers claim because it didn't solve a real problem. The Internet made only incremental change from existing technology and so only produced incremental societal change. Good enough to get the job done encryption is very old; new advances in it only matter to NSA class adversaries.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:29
  • "99.9%+ of people, in general, are dentological and accept the basic legitimacy of the system. " Let us asume that 0.01% of people are anarchists weighing fighting back. Why hasn't their fighting back taken off? What barriers to the adoption of such gambling do you see today? Is it the trust that is required in order to pay someone for the assasination?
    – John Smith
    Oct 9, 2023 at 20:53
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    @JohnSmith Anarchists are not good team players. And there have been some anarchist environmental terrorism acts. And, people intellectual enough to adhere to such a cerebral political philosophy rarely have the fire in their belly sufficient to kill someone.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 9, 2023 at 20:57
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The big issue I see is that, while strong encryption and privacy-focused cryptocurrencies are necessary for "assassination politics" to flourish, they aren't sufficient. There's many other steps in the "Hiring an assassin" algorithm, most of which are still quite vulnerable to being thwarted by security services.

For example, how do assassins and their customers find each other? You can't exactly advertise it; an assassin seeing a contract posted on the dark web will think it's a trap by the CIA or whoever. Likewise a politician who finds a gun-for-hire on the dark web has the same fear. Hell, it might just be a scam; the "hit-man" just takes the money and runs. So sure, these parties can talk and exchange money in secret, but they have no way to prove to each other they are who they say they are.

Another issue is the actual attempt. Better encryption and private currencies don't make it any easier to actually get the job done and get away with it.

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I believe that there's very scarce demand for assassinations at the presented price point.

There are a lot of examples of whom many would like to see dead, but it is distributed between a huge number of bystanders. They have no realistic way of coordinating and are unmotivated to pay a significant sum.

There are examples where a specific person will benefit from a demise of their adversary, but they are also much more rare than expected since it's usually a role that is bothering you, and even more capable person may assume it in place of an unlucky fellow who got killed. Succession is rarely guaranteed, especially in case of emergency, so killing your direct superior is risky since it will often make your standing worse even if you are not caught.

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  • Why haven't any Decentralized Autononous Organizations or Darknet Marketplaces emerged then in order to assist with coordination? The first emerged many times when crowdfunding was needed and the last apear when there is a demand for things like drugs.
    – John Smith
    Oct 10, 2023 at 2:45
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    @JohnSmith Distributed anonymous coordination for guaranteed untraceable assassination is a complex problem and one with relatively minor market attached to it.
    – alamar
    Oct 10, 2023 at 9:45
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    Libertarians may find it hard to believe, but there really isn't that much demand for crowdsourced murder.
    – pjc50
    Oct 10, 2023 at 9:54
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  • High barrier of entry. You can dabble in selling weed, shoplifting or drunk driving. Then you can change your mind and go straight. But once you start killing people, you're on the run the rest of your life. It's a big commitment that's hard to back out of, which probably discourages a lot of people.
  • Obvious suspects. Everybody likes to imagine wild movie scenarios but the truth is that not everyone has the skills, resources and motivation to be a hitman. It's not that hard to find most of the people in this minority, and then surveil them until you catch them in the act. Now if assassination was as widespread as Ubereats for example, maybe this would not be the case, but currently that is not so.
  • Suppressed market. It is even easier to track people who run the markets. And the more successful they are, the easier it gets. The government wisely reasons that you can greatly reduce murder by neutralizing the market for murder. So they don't let market makers get away with "I'm just a middle man, I didn't kill nobody". They pile on the conspiracy charges.

By themselves, these things are not fatal. Many markets, illegal or not, flourish in the presence of one of these. But the combination of all three greatly impedes assassination markets.

I can see how in very dysfunctional states with high crime and abysmal rule of law, you would expect such a market to grow. In a way, they do. However, with those you have another problem: If the rule of law is so poor, you can just go and kill the person yourself. Most people are not that hard to kill, the hard part is evading the law. The few people who are hard to kill will also be hard to kill for assassins, so only the top hitmen will take those jobs. But in such a crime ridden place, probably the top hitmen will already be on staff of one of the existing crime bosses, rather than being free agents.

Notably, in the Wild West, there was an assassination market, albeit state controlled. The government did not suppress the market, and in fact invested in it. Most people knew how to track and kill. And it was possible to turn your back on that life (to some extent). Thus there were many bounty hunters killing for money.

Another one was feudal Japan, where it was not common to kill for money, but killing was certainly a popular profession. It's notable that many tended to prefer being samurai of a household, rather than free-roaming ronin: It's safer to be part of a group. The movie Yojimbo does a great job of illustrating this, and incidentally it is a direct ancestor of "Westerns".

It's notable that in both cases, technology and anonymity are not significant factors. Rather, it is a combination of:

  • Can people easily go in and out of the killing profession, to accommodate changes in their lifestyle?
  • Are the killers a small community that law enforcement can easily round up?
  • Are middlemen of the market itself being targeted, or tolerated and even encouraged?

Also, on the flipside, very wealthy or influential people die all the time in odd circumstances. We live in a time of such inequality, that surely those at the very top of our society are able to operate above the law if they wish. Who's to say there is not already such a market for hits, and us peasants are simply blind to it?

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Like all wacky libertarian thought, they merely presuppose that such payment infrastructure would exist and that the majority would continue to tolerate it.

Simply switching off the national electrical infrastructure would put paid to internet, digital cash, and all sophisticated encryption. Bang goes your assassination network.

You think those conspiracy theorists are bad attacking 5G towers? You just wait until they hear the electricity pylons and telephone exchanges really are being used by a secret underworld of rich murderers and assassins-for-hire.

Moreover, the state will act with full force to penalise those who devise such schemes, probably long before there is autonomous grassroots destruction.

The state sets up and controls all the economic the infrastructure on which it would all rest. They have their own guns and armed men to coerce anyone involved in the maintenance of infrastructure or the manufacture of computer equipment to rig it all up to prevent these kinds of behaviours being feasible.

Secret payment schemes? They'll just criminalise it's very existence if it doesn't suit the state's agenda. Anonymous telecoms? They control the telecoms infrastructure - they'll simply bar it being used in any way that isn't traceable, and criminalise anyone involved in attempting otherwise. They can do all this quite openly and with the approval of the vast majority of people, if not the approval of murderous libertarians.

"Assassination politics" doesn't take off because it requires economic infrastructure which is extremely sophisticated and fragile, and which would be immediately disabled or destroyed if such politics began to prevail.

States do assassinate in small doses, but they don't achieve this through secret contracts and untraceable funding. They achieve it very much in the open, through the legitimacy of salaried "special forces" and spy organisations and that sort of thing. Completely the opposite of libertarian fantasy.

There even have been facilities like EncroChat where criminals solicited murders. It turns out the state was listening in all along and practically running the thing - stool pigeons were urged to evangelise the facility in the underworld, to great success for law enforcement.

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