“Bitcoin is freedom” is one of Bitcoin’s (BTC) many epithets. Like “Bitcoin is digital gold,” “Bitcoin is property,” or Bitcoin is absolute digital scarcity, these phrases ricochet around the walls of Bitcoin-themed conference arenas. They’re also memed into eternity on social media.
But one of Bitcoin’s mantras is “Don’t trust, verify.” Rooted in an old Russian proverb, the phrase has come to define the Bitcoin ethos. It suggests that rules, ideas, and concepts should be tested, tried and verified. How far can we take the point that Bitcoin is a tool for freedom?
Can Bitcoin set people free?
This debate came to life at the Pacific Bitcoin conference in Los Angeles, hosted by Bitcoin-only exchange Swan Bitcoin. During a panel discussion titled “Bitcoin is Freedom,” three freedom fighters and thinkers explored ways Bitcoin might not be as emancipating as it is evangelized online.
Craig Warmke, a professor at Northern Illinois University; Yan Pritzker, co-founder and chief technical officer of Swan Bitcoin; and Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation, discussed the nature of magic internet money. Bitcoin does not have a central body and is unlikely to change its rules — or hard fork — any time soon. Crucially, Bitcoin fought off a serious threat to a change in source code during the blocksize war, which, in a sense, crystallized the Bitcoin code for at least the near term.
The relationship between Bitcoin and freedom may vary depending on individual experiences and perspectives. However, it’s taken for granted that Bitcoin is freedom due to its decentralized nature and ability to allow individuals to store and transfer value without intermediaries or government control.
Gladstein cited examples of individuals living in disadvantaged communities around the world. He observed that people who live under dictatorships and very repressive governments could use Bitcoin to achieve their goals and aims regardless of what their government wanted to do or what their government said.
“The reason why Bitcoin is freedom is it gives anybody with internet access — and we can get to that — property rights.”
Warmke expounded the idea, suggesting that much like a Dandelion flower, Bitcoin is spreading and is beautiful, but “Certain people’s preferences about how they think the world should be leads them to want to kill it.” In this context, the censorship-resistant properties of Bitcoin contribute to it being a tool for freedom.
You don't need Bitcoin — until you do
Nonetheless, for people who do not understand or do not wish to understand Bitcoin, it cannot set them free. Pritzker tackled this point head-on when he spoke of his home country Ukraine and the response Bitcoin embodied at the outset of the Ukraine–Russia war.
He explained that the Ukrainians “had never heard of Bitcoin, didn’t care about Bitcoin, didn’t need Bitcoin. They were getting bombed. So, that was not a good time to introduce them to Bitcoin.”
“But it turned out that Bitcoin was a great way for us to get money over there just simply because it was the only thing that functioned on a Saturday in the middle of the night. That was the way that we could get money over to Ukraine and then convert it into local currency and get them to the local currency.”
He also nodded to the “you don’t need Bitcoin until you do” catchphrase. In this instance, people who didn’t understand or care about Bitcoin were suddenly helped by it when they most needed it, improving their freedom level.
Warmke shared that while Bitcoin has excellent properties of money, its low penetration in modern society and the fact that “it’s not easy to use privately” sometimes falls short in real-world situations. Take the Canadian trucker protests, in which money was successfully raised using Bitcoin, but not all of it was delivered:
“Some of it was confiscated. And part of the reason why is even if you might want to lay this at the fault of the people who are giving them Bitcoin or who had the Bitcoin, you blame the user.”
For Bitcoin to serve as an outright tool for economic freedom, people must use it privately, with care and due attention.
Furthermore, there are “nNot yet very many circular economies. And so if you want to actually spin the Bitcoin that you receive, it’s quite hard.” Bitcoin circular economies describe areas such as El Zonte and Bitcoin Beach, El Salvador, where people can use Bitcoin almost exclusively. There is no need to cash out into fiat money. The off-ramps into fiat money could undermine economic freedom as they expose a weakness for state capture.
The three Bitcoin advocates highlighted Bitcoin use cases in emerging markets, where Bitcoin adoption is soaring at arguably faster rates than in the developed world. However, emerging markets need better literacy levels and reliable internet connections. These are significant hurdles to overcome to adopt freedom money, as Bitcoin requires the internet, a rudimentary understanding of math and, typically, English.
Gladstein agreed, explaining: “Bitcoin relies on, as you’ve seen yourself, the other journeys of literacy and internet access.” The Human Rights Foundation’s chief strategy officer explained that the journey to literacy and internet access is on a positive growth trend:
“But the good news is it looks like by the end of the decade of this decade that even in countries like Sudan and Senegal, way more than half of all of the people in those countries will know how to read and they’ll have internet access. So, I think the potential is quite vast to make a difference.”
Plus, technical advances in Bitcoin geared to those living in the developing world are bringing more and more users online without using the internet. For the illiterate, the solution lies with wallet developers to ensure that users can still use Bitcoin.
But what about the price volatility? The price per Bitcoin is down over 70% from its all-time high of $68,789. A loss of such magnitude is paralyzing, not freeing. Warmke invited the audience to lower their time preference and avoid focusing on short-term gains:
“In the long run, this [Bitcoin] is a very, very freedom-enabling thing because it does actually bring people that option to have something of their own.”
Finally, Warmke also joked that his level of personal freedom has decreased since becoming a Bitcoin advocate because he checks the price too much!
Gladstein and Pritzker finished the panel on a sobering note. Gladstein explained that for some people living in authoritarian regimes, Bitcoin “literally means life or death. In some cases, it is literally the only way they can do what they can do.” In this context, Pritzker suggested “to spend more time looking at other countries and what’s happening there. And I think you’re going to see that Bitcoin is enabling freedom in a big way.”