A better society depends upon personal responsibility more than anything else. Without personal responsibility, we cannot expect anything other than what we’ve already got.
Bitcoin is not a political manifesto. And it’s certainly not a self-help book. It’s a computer protocol designed to perform a specific function. But Bitcoin does offer commentary on our current situation, because it did not emerge within a vacuum. It emerged as a result of the global mess we currently find ourselves in. If all was well in the world, Bitcoin likely wouldn’t exist, because it wouldn’t need to. Instead, Bitcoin exists precisely because everything is not well.
The world faces serious problems. Because societies begin as constructs of the human mind (albeit very complex ones), the problems we face today are ultimately rooted in our thinking. For those willing to look, Bitcoin points to a simple but inconvenient solution: What matters most in the pursuit of a better world is personal responsibility. Everything else is secondary.
Human beings are social creatures. We’ve organized ourselves in communities since time immemorial and it’s undeniable that we can achieve more when we cooperate rather than go at it alone. The effects of solitary confinement prove beyond any doubt that we need other people around us to remain functional. Something as simple as friendship, family and parenthood illustrates just how often (and without a second thought) we put the well-being of others first. That being said, if we cannot take responsibility for ourselves, we’re the ones in need of help.
If we extrapolate that idea from the microcosm of a family to the macrocosm of entire societies, what sort of world can we expect when millions of government officials (governing billions of people) are unable to take responsibility for their own lives? Addiction, depression, schizophrenia and everything else that ordinary people struggle with are problems also faced (but not easily acknowledged) by even the most powerful people. In many ways, we live in a world where the blind are leading the blind.
I do not believe that Bitcoin is the solution here. The solution is personal responsibility. Bitcoin simply points in that direction, just like a Google Maps listing for a mechanic isn’t going to fix my broken car until I find the actual repair shop. Bitcoin solves a very specific problem. It provides us with a better form of money. I’m not trying to define Bitcoin in absolute terms, instead I’m simply pointing out that its simplicity is a good thing. We shouldn’t over complicate it and attribute to it things that aren’t directly connected to it.
But it is useful to consider Bitcoin’s commentary on society to see how it might change society as a result of what it’s proved. Pete Rizzo’s recent article on the last days of Satoshi illustrates just how unique Bitcoin is in terms of its leaderless nature, by highlighting the fact that its move toward leaderlessness happened organically, rather than being preordained by its creator. I struggle to think of any other complex structure that’s as widely distributed as the Bitcoin network and yet entirely voluntary in terms of its governance. Let alone a structure that’s accrued over a trillion dollars in value.
Bitcoin has already changed the way we think about and use money. But indirectly it will change so much more than just that, because it proves that decentralized self-governance is possible across a global network. Not only that but decentralized governance holds many significant advantages (and very few disadvantages) over centralized alternatives. Bitcoin points to a possible future of decentralized societal governance that is superior in fairness, transparency, efficiency and resilience.
The ideal of democracy is a noble cause, no doubt, but the decay of liberal western democratic societies, with spiraling debt levels and increasingly polarized proletariats, combined with the rise to power of more authoritarian states like China, points to the fact that our natural concern for others descends into flailing pedagogy unless it’s built upon a strong foundation of personal responsibility. The intensified spread of more extremist forms of socialism in countries where the idea of freedom for the individual has served as a cornerstone of society, but is now increasingly considered only as an afterthought, illustrates this well. People are no longer free to choose how to behave, instead we’re told how to behave — and not for our own sake but for the sake of everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong. I very much support the idea of helping those in need. Over the last decade, I’ve dedicated a massive amount of my own personal time, energy and resources toward building a nonprofit social development initiative in my community. The mission still lies very close to my heart, but what that experience has given me is that I’ve witnessed first hand, again and again, that one simply cannot help a person that’s uninterested in helping themselves. No amount of effort from outside will change anything unless a person takes ownership of whatever problems they face.
As intuitively obvious as this may seem, I’ve watched in frustration as the government in my country seeks to solve all problems on behalf of everyone, taking everything away from individual ownership and moving it toward state ownership. Despite their questionable track record and despite the fact that only 6% of the population in South Africa carries 97% of its tax burden.
The current president is following through on his policy of land redistribution based on expropriation without compensation. This is despite the fact that it goes against the South African constitution and the fact that the same policies failed miserably in neighboring Zimbabwe, whose government warned ours not to go down the same road. Redistributing land isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially not if it’s done to appease an angry population by diverting attention away from government failures. In the case of Zimbabwe, this policy led directly to one of the highest hyperinflationary periods in history, with the national currency being completely abandoned after inflation peaked at an unbelievable 89.7 sextillion percent year-on-year in mid-November 2009.
In theory, these socialist policies are based on noble ideals. I do believe that we should take care of one another. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have made the immense personal sacrifice needed to build and sustain a decade-long social development initiative. However, I believe it’s far more efficient and effective for individuals (and not governments) to assume that responsibility. Anyone who digs just a little bit deeper will find that very seldomly and in very few countries do these policies have the intended consequences and, time and again, it leads not only to chronic mismanagement and record debt levels but also to populism driven by intolerance and sentiments of entitlement. Politicians eager to shift the blame for past failures can easily play into this and exploit the human tendency to avoid change at all costs, knowing full well that people will jump at the opportunity to get something in return for doing very little, while happily ignoring the failures behind the hand that feeds them.
There is a solution. But the solution isn’t Bitcoin. Not in and of itself. There is no societal panacea. In my experience, the solution is individual and personal responsibility. That’s an incredibly inconvenient truth for people who have become as dependent on government for their survival as governments have become dependent on the people’s dependency for its own survival. The crux of the inconvenience lies within the fact that some people learn personal responsibility and some don’t.
For those that don’t, there’s very little that can be done, other than trusting that life itself will eventually lead them to a situation where they have no other choice, a moment which many never come. Not until they’re on their deathbed and must face the fact that no one else can take that final step on their behalf.
Bitcoin doesn’t fix that. What Bitcoin does is point toward the solution. It’s there for those that are prepared to look: Given the proper tools, people can govern themselves. When they do it, it can (counterintuitively for most) deliver better results. Bitcoin proves that we don’t need to comply for the sake of compliance if a voluntary governance structure works better.
Everybody knows you cannot build a house starting with the roof. What then makes us believe that society can be built that way? If, as I suspect, it’s because most people assume that self-governance will result in chaos, then there’s never been a more incisive question posed in response to that assumption: What does a completely decentralized and leaderless network, worth more than a trillion dollars, say about that near-universal assumption? And make no mistake, it is an assumption. There has never been a truly free, self-governing society in recorded history. While the idea is nothing new, a concrete example of what that might look like did not exist until Bitcoin came around.
This is a guest post by Hermann Vivier. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC, Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.