An odd yet more common occurrence happened to me recently — my physical dollars were refused. As I attempted to buy lunch I was informed that the hip establishment I was at only accepted credit cards or other forms of digital payments. As someone who believes strongly in the importance of civil liberties, this movement away from physical currency to digital payment rails run by financial institutions is something I find disconcerting.
To show the absurdity of this reliance on financial institutions let’s imagine for a minute this was applied to transportation. Imagine a world in which car ownership had been replaced with a complete reliance on ride-hailing services like Lyft, Uber, and Via. Then imagine these ride-hailing services applied the same forms of censorship we’ve seen by social media companies or as we saw implemented on the bank accounts of the members of the “trucker protests” in Canada. If you held beliefs that were unpopular, your ability to go to the store or go to the ballot box could be curtailed by a de facto form of censorship. In this world, many would simply self-censor to avoid not being able to do basic things like get to work or go shopping.
As absurd as this scenario seems, this is exactly the type of design we have created for our financial system. Over the last few decades, Americans have eagerly given away independence in the name of convenience.
What you buy and sell says as much about you as what you might say or post online. Handing over this data and power to third parties — such as the government and corporations — presents long-term dangers to civil liberties in our society. Whereas most purchases in eras past were anonymous cash-based transactions, every transaction today is tied to your identity.
Bitcoin offers an antidote to the risks posed by a financial system based on payment rails that are prone to de facto censorship — if you self-custody it, that is. By securing a digital key composed of a list of random words, you can secure assets in your own encrypted and virtual vault.
We are at a fork in the road today, one that has long-term implications. If a culture is built around self-custody and independent payment rails — even if just by a small subset of the population — then the likelihood of basic civil liberties persisting into decades and centuries into the future might be feasible. Without such independent payment rails the tendency toward corporate and governmental control of our choices will increase exponentially.