Bitcoin And The Advancement of Universal Human Rights
Bitcoin and its landmark achievement of universal property rights is a significant contribution to the history of human rights and a step towards greater prosperity.
Bitcoin is a Humanist Technology
Bitcoin follows in the tradition of Humanism which is the application of our most credible methods of increasing knowledge, founding shared values, and advancing civilization. The primary means are reason, science, skeptical inquiry, intellectual honesty, open discourse and cooperation.
Through such efforts as designing institutions of democratic governance; developing and deploying vaccinations; orchestrating concerted worldwide efforts for environmental conservation; and establishing global human rights, we have proven ourselves well-capable of bringing about large increases in human prosperity.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.” (1)
Article #17 states:
1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his [or her] property.
Unfortunately, unanimous agreement by nations representing the interests of people everywhere that certain rights are sacrosanct, does not guarantee those rights will be protected. Everyday and in all countries, fundamental human rights are violated by individual or state-level violence, unjust asset seizure, or corrupt systems of law.
Bitcoin is 21st century gold — scarce and highly secure but shed of gold’s encumbrances. Being digital, it has greater portability and transferability. An individual with only an internet connection can create a “wallet” with a self-generated and memorized password. Bitcoins are a type of property. If there is a market for that property (and there is) it becomes a storage of not just those digital coins, but of wealth. It enables greater financial security and autonomy, individual empowerment, and borderless inclusion. By its ever growing user base, its value is internationally recognized and not beholden to any government’s changing monetary policy or threat of unjust seizure.
Many institutions including the U.S. IRS (2), and law courts of the U.S. (3), Dutch (4), and Chinese (5), have undergirded the colloquial parlance of bitcoins as property. There are complexities as to what type of property classification bitcoins belong to, but as English solicitor and US attorney, Preston Byrne, explains: “Ownership disputes are resolved at a higher conceptual level than inquiring about the “nature of a bitcoin itself” — when I deposit coins at an exchange it ought to be pretty clear from the exchange’s terms of service that if I have a balance on the exchange, I can ask the exchange to spend an amount equal to that balance back to me on request and, if they fail to do so, I can ask a court to force the exchange to render specific performance or pay damages. A dispute of that kind, of which there have been many, doesn’t ask at what point title transferred and what the fundamental nature of that title is, because it doesn’t have to. It looks instead at the contractual obligations between the counterparties and whether those obligations were satisfactorily performed.” (6) A crucial distinction and chief attribute of Bitcoin is that although the property rights are eventually likely to be commonplace protected in fair judiciaries around the world, in addition, those rights are independently enforced by a global user base routinely coming to consensus as to the state of who owns what. This is, as Hasu has explained, a type of social contract where the laws governing the property rights are written into the protocol and tacitly agreed on by those who use it.
If we take property rights to be fundamental to human prosperity and a technology now available helps safeguard them like never before, humankind paces another step in the direction of progress.
A government faithfully serving the interests of its citizens should not be in conflict with a technology that champions their rights. In fact, it frees up a small but certain amount of government resources. Bitcoin is not subversive as it need not tear anything of benefit to civilization down. Rather, it strides alongside humanistic movements and technological advances that enable greater autonomy, security, inclusion, and interaction. Bitcoin works best in conjunction with an honest government, traditional property rights, and contract laws. Though an individual using Bitcoin does not need authorities to confirm that she does in fact own them (just as a farmer doesn’t look to jurisprudence for a newly born calf), if at the threat of violence she relinquishes her password to an assailant, as with the theft of traditional property, she may turn to local law enforcement for justice.
What’s a Bitcoin Worth?
Bitcoin’s value is inversely proportional to the perceived current and future integrity of wealth preservation: if a bank were to fail; if an attempt was made for an unjust seizure of assets; if an asylum seeker fleeing persecution needs his savings out of the country; if irresponsible monetary policies or corruption devalues a currency; or if people in a well-functioning democracy simply want to safeguard a fraction of their savings in a hedge against an uncertain future, these are times when Bitcoin glows in the dark.
If the adoption of Bitcoin increases, eventually, so will price. If, for long enough that trend continues, it may be widely agreed that Bitcoin is a sub-classification of property called ‘money’. Those that saw its value early will be rewarded. But the value and usefulness of Bitcoin is not dependent on that scenario. Today, it is solving problems.
The female literacy rate in Afghanistan is 17% (7), and an ingrained cultural misogyny means women often lack basic human rights (8). Roya Mahboob, a female entrepreneur co-founded the nonprofit Digital Citizen Fund which has enrolled 9,000 Afghan women and girls in education programs and has “helped 100 women start their own businesses” (9). Mahboob also cofounded Women’s Annex — a company that empowers Afghan women to write blogs and generate an income through advertising. “Following the realization that the vast majority of women employed by Women’s Annex’s did not own bank accounts, Mahboob turned to bitcoin to transcend Afghanistan’s patriarchal financial institutions. Women’s Annex has led to a significant increase in female adoption of Bitcoin in Afghanistan, which in turn allowed many women to access unprecedented levels of financial autonomy.”
There is a long list of examples where economic sanction, war, persecution, governmental corruption or irresponsible monetary policy has eroded the value of a nation’s currency. In 2018, Turkey (10) and Argentina (11) have an inflation rate above 25%, and Venezuela is running away to over 1,000,000% (12). The Venezuelan government has been monitoring the IP addresses of citizens logging into their bank accounts and is preventing access to those abroad including family members attempting to send money home (13). Some people have chosen to wire funds with Western Union to neighboring country Columbia where the awaiting family has walked across the border to receive it. Today on a 20$ transfer, Western Union charges 4.99$ (14). The same transaction in Bitcoin is priced at 4 cents (15) — no interstate walk required. All three countries show burgeoning adoption rates of Bitcoin with Venezuela having one of the highest per-capita in the world (16).
Humankind advances when its highest achievements reach as many people as possible. When vaccinations are deployed to areas previously without; when more people have access to education and jobs; when basic human rights are protected over greater reaches of the world, we progress. Those advances are dependent on the amount of global connection and interaction of people everywhere.
Could a democratically maintained and nonviolently enforced, borderless system which fortifies a shared belief that security of property is a fundamental human right, make our greater welfare more or less likely? With the other members that share its class under the banner of Humanism, such as democratic governance and free speech, Bitcoin makes security of property and wealth a bit more likely, injustice a bit less, prosperity increases and humankind advances.
Samuel Haig, Afghan Entrepreneur Empowers Women Through Bitcoin
Alex Gladstein, CSO Human Rights Foundation. What Bitcoin Did Podcast #56
Estimated Bitcoin fees (Historically these fees have at times been much higher. They may increase again. However, there are projects being developed on that front.)
I’m indebted to the work of those cited above.
There are many ways Bitcoin as a technology and social movement can fail and just one way it can succeed. Using Bitcoin should only come after much study and considerations of the risks. This is a good place to start.
There are many publications worth reading on the topic of Bitcoin as property and property rights including:
Hugo Nguyen, How Cryptography Redefines Private Property
Eric Chason, How Bitcoin Functions as Property Law
Joshua L. Boehm and J. Dax Hansen, Treatment of Bitcoin Under U.S. Property Law
Header photo courtesy of Janey