June 3, 2020
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It was close to inevitable. At any public event over the last five years or so, there’s been a good chance that some passionate convert would show up to declare that, regardless of the question at hand, Bitcoin was the answer.
Here’s that guy, during the protests and rioting happening across American cities right now, photographed by ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman in Austin. (There were other That Guys.)
For those of us who have been involved with Bitcoin the longest, this sort of thing has become a running joke. There are compelling arguments that a decentralized, uncensorable, global financial infrastructure would fix long-running social problems. But, especially for those learning about Bitcoin for the first time, it can be tempting to throw “Bitcoin fixes this” around loosely, to say the least.
So let’s be clear: Bitcoin can’t fix what happened to George Floyd, a father and respected member of his community who was, according to an independent autopsy, asphyxiated by a police officer who knelt directly on the back of his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Bitcoin can’t fix the fact that that officer, Derek Chauvin, was still employed by the Minneapolis PD despite a history of complaints and fatal incidents.
Bitcoin can’t fix the three officers who stood by and did nothing as Floyd pleaded for his life, then went silent. And it can’t fix the militarized, indiscriminate police violence that is currently undermining many Americans’ trust in their friendly neighborhood peacekeeper.
I got a refresher on one major argument for Bitcoin’s ability to fix deep social problems in an April conversation with Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation and, for the last couple of years, a passionate Bitcoin advocate.
Those who see Bitcoin as a tool of reform believe that because Bitcoin is fair, and can’t be manipulated by the powerful, a society that used it would be fair. It’s a compelling argument.
But the events of the past week highlight a key limitation: the massive weight of history. Any simply ‘fair’ system, financial or otherwise, at best preserves the status quo.
In the United States, the status quo is the result of centuries of legally-enshrined oppression of minorities, particularly Native and African Americans. Strictly on the financial side, policies like redlining and discriminatory elements of the New Deal have engineered a massive racial wealth gap. In 2016, the net worth of a typical white U.S. family was ten times the net worth of a typical black family. Perhaps Bitcoin could have mitigated state violence and theft if it had somehow existed two centuries ago, but it can’t reverse those effects.
America’s racial wealth gap reinforces and enables the police abuses being protested by those in the streets as I type this. Undermining people’s financial security leaves them fewer tools to fight back when authorities threaten their lives and freedom.
And no merely technological innovation can do much to stop the pernicious underlying cause of these and other tactics of oppression: racism. That demonic weed is nurtured by words, not code. It has been fed generously by demagogues, charlatans, and even great innovators throughout American history.
As long as that continues, Bitcoin won’t fix what really matters.