Bitcoin Is Free and Fair but Not Progressive

A number of Democratic politicians have taken aim at the cryptocurrency when they might support it.

AccessTimeIconDec 14, 2021 at 8:25 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconDec 14, 2021 at 8:25 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconDec 14, 2021 at 8:25 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Strictly speaking, Bitcoin is for everyone. I like to think about this decentralized network as a type of public commons – it’s an open ledger that anyone can append, anyone can access, anyone can take part in. (I do.) It’s bigger than any single individual, corporation or government. To this extent, Bitcoin is one of the fairest – perhaps the most fair – monetary networks today.

But progressive, Bitcoin is not. Released into the wild during the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Bitcoin is an experiment with non-state money. It’s a political project, one that enshrines the values of private property and open markets.

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In recent months, a host of progressive-leaning pols and regs in the United States have raised their concerns about Bitcoin and crypto broadly. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for one, said a world staring down ecological crisis has no room for this carbon-intensive computer network. Especially one that is primarily used by “shadowy super-coders,” she said.

Bitcoiners have made sport out of responding to these erroneous and fatuous remarks – which, to be fair, also come from across the political aisle. There are more than a few Bitcoin superfans who lean progressive and try to make the case that the network ought to be a plank in democratic policy making.

Often, their reasons are sound. The neutral Bitcoin network stands distinct from the traditional financial sector, littered as it is with a history of redlining, usury and unethical behavior. If financial access is a progressive concern, then Bitcoin could play a role.

There’s also the view that miners, who use a lot of power in a process that both creates new BTC and secures the network, could incentivize green energy development in their search for the cheapest and most reliable power sources (to some extent this is already happening).

And, to be sure, there are plenty of Democratic politicians who see hope in crypto. Rep. Antonio Torres (D-N.Y.), a representative from The Bronx borough of New York City, recently asked if crypto could lower the cost of remittances for his constituents – many of which are migrants or new Americans.

But I think the attempt to rebrand Bitcoin as progressive muddies the waters. There’s no need to obfuscate what Bitcoin is, a project that stands against the state. It supports the establishment of open, global markets that are hard to regulate by design. It puts the onus of ownership on individuals. It may “bank the unbanked,” to the extent that a bitcoin wallet is a bank account, but that’s a risky proposition.

There’s a long history of progressivism in the U.S., a political ideology that seeks to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism and often calls on the federal government to play a role in managing the economy. Progressives brought us the five-day workweek and other strong labor protections. They’ve often been staunch advocates for press freedoms.

Today, progressives are an ascendant political force. Their platform advocates for greater government spending to extend the welfare state, more attuned oversight on business and stronger consumer protections. It’s a cultural force. Some of the most successful podcasts and books align with this movement. Bernie Sanders, a lifelong democratic socialist, was a broadly popular candidate in 2016 and 2020 (he would’ve had my vote).

As mentioned, there are many areas where Bitcoin aligns with progressive goals – especially anywhere where personal liberty and expression come into play. But I think fundamentally it stands in contradiction. If anything, Bitcoin furthers the neoliberal agenda, which moved to turn over government resources to public-private partnerships or management by market actors beginning in the later half of the 20th century.

It’s common to hear that Bitcoin’s technology is apolitical, but it’s not. In the first Bitcoin block ever mined, its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, encoded a headline about government bailouts of banks. A Bitcoin system would limit the power of governments to respond to crises, to provide for its citizens.

None of this is to say that Bitcoin isn’t a powerful tool. And to some extent, bitcoin’s success is because it has broad appeal beyond partisan politics. But it’s important to get clear about what Bitcoin truly is, what it can actually achieve politically, because people and politicians need to come to it on their own terms.

There is nothing wrong with saying Bitcoin encodes libertarian ideals, found initial (and ongoing) support among anarcho-capitalists and is something of a Milton Friedman wet dream. Just be honest. To some extent, I think progressive bitcoiners bend over backwards to rebrand the cryptocurrency to fit their chosen identities to prevent cognitive dissonance.

If Bitcoin solved the climate crisis, it would be through successful, freer markets – not progressive planning. If Bitcoin expands access to basic financial services, it could never solve economic inequality – you cannot redistribute early Bitcoiners’ massive holdings without destroying the system’s technologically protected property rights. If Bitcoin prevents war by diminishing the power of the state, it will also dismantle the progressive welfare state.

I like Bitcoin because it protects and furthers liberal ideals of open and fair access in the digital age, but I admit how deeply regressive and reactionary the system also is. Bitcoin should be celebrated, but as it actual exists.

It’s often said that Bitcoin may not have all the answers but gets people to ask the right questions. That could have resonance for political identities. If progressives want Bitcoin to be a political cause, they should consider voting for a different party.

(Kevin Ross/CoinDesk)
(Kevin Ross/CoinDesk)
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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.