Bitcoin: A Consideration for Friends

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In 1779, Quaker abolitionist Warner Mifflin wrote and circulated a tract that was both thoughtful and provocative: “Statement Concerning His Refusal to Use and Circulate Continental Currency.” (A copy of this tract can be found today in the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College.)

Mifflin is credited with being the first person in America to unconditionally emancipate his slaves. His principled stance toward monetary policy was similarly radical:

[I held] many serious reflections in my mind, and a Close search into the motive that prevailed with me to refuse that money [Continental Currency] . . . money that it was alleged was made as much for War purposes; I had been also told that I had circulated such money . . . [In] every movement I made to lean towards it, I found scruples in my mind about it; and it would often revive with a degree of clearness, that an advancement of the Testimony To Pure Righteousness was called for, and in an Especial manner at such a Time as this; for the Increase of the Government of the Prince of Peace, against the Spirit of Strife and Contention; and to stand firm in the Support of our ancient Testimony against joining in setting up or pulling down Governments: Both these I believed, I should act against, if I had a hand in Circulating this money. (Warner Mifflin, 1779)

To Mifflin and many Quakers of that day, the circulation of the newly formed Continental Currency among Friends was of deep concern. This money was being issued as paper, rather than coinage, and represented a departure not only in form, but also in purpose, as the new Continental bills were specifically designed to fund the Revolutionary War.

What does this have to do with Bitcoin? It may sound strange to hear it, but the creation and use of Bitcoin is just one more step in an ongoing movement that Quakers originally helped to pioneer. This movement has sought to define what money is, and what it represents. With the advent of cryptocurrency, the xenophobic and warlike characteristics of nation-state monetary systems can once again be brought forth for consideration among Friends.

When modern day Friends use money, they often consider the transactional impacts of the ways the money gets used, but usually not what the money itself represents. Hence, Friends today tend to consider whether money goes to organic, fair-trade, local, ethically-sourced, or environmentally sustainable causes, without giving much weight to what the actual currency (i.e. the U.S. Dollar) represents.

Conversely, Quakers who lived during the eighteenth century had a more holistic approach to money. They took into account not only how their transactional decisions affected others (founding the Free Produce Movement, which ensured that products being sold did not originate through slave labor), but also considered how selecting one form of money over another had far-reaching impacts, extending well beyond their own communities and networks. This heightened awareness likely stemmed from the choices they faced among the many diverse currencies circulating in America at the time. Coins from European countries were widely used (the most common being the silver Spanish Dollar, the predecessor of the U.S. Dollar), as well as various forms of paper money printed by the states, which were typically backed by land, metal, or government debt.

When the Continental Currency was introduced in 1775 to finance the Revolutionary War, Friends – many of whom were already committed war-tax resisters – became keenly aware of how ascribing value to the new currency would aid the war effort. Many scrupulous Quakers refused to accept the new money, feeling that it would be a betrayal of their faith to do so. In response, the Pennsylvanian government and Continental Congress were quick to retaliate, with John Hancock signing an order of Congress “to take the most vigorous and Speedy measures for punishing all such as shall refuse Continental Currency” (Pennsylvania Archives, Volume 5, p. 137, 1853). Nevertheless, many Friends felt led by the Spirit to continue refusing the new paper money, inciting the government to confiscate their property, imprison them, and exile them.

Modern Quakers, by contrast, are very much at ease with accepting and using U.S. Dollars, even though we are well aware that such money is intrinsically linked to war. While such an outlook may be due (in part) to apathy over such concerns, another component is certainly the seeming inescapability from, and ubiquity of, the U.S. Dollar in modern commerce.

Friends today are at an impasse: On the one hand, we write, speak, and protest against violence, war, and systemic oppression; on the other hand, we utilize (and therefore promote) a currency that is intrinsically linked to violence, war, and systemic oppression. Bitcoin offers an alternative.

Bitcoin stands as a harbinger of a new movement that is picking up where eighteenth-century Friends left off. It is asking, once again, the fundamental questions: What should money be, and what should it represent? Members of this movement are arguing that money should no longer be represented by nation-states and bound by national borders (forces that intrinsically divide one people against another), but that money should be represented mathematically instead, bounded only by algorithms, and created in such a manner as to connect each person to a quality that is universal to all.

Bitcoin, although complex in its technical execution, presents to the world a new and simple model for how money can work:

First, very large unguessable numbers are chosen as containers for holding currency.

Then, the currency value stored in one number can be transferred to any other number.

Such transactions occur through a process of digital consensus (arrived at through the execution of transparently designed mathematical algorithms).

When globally networked, every person on Earth has an equal opportunity to send or receive money to or from any other person, without discrimination.

Even though a form of money that is not inherently linked to discrimination or violence is attractive to many people, I continue to encounter reservations among Friends. Some are hesitant because they feel that Bitcoin is too great a technical or commercial hurdle to overcome. It has been my experience, though, that many of the people who feel this way underestimate their own potential. I have seen some initial skeptics take very quickly to the intuitive interfaces that exist for Bitcoin.

For other Friends, the high electricity usage of the Bitcoin network is an environmental concern. While this concern is understandable, it needs to be weighed against the widespread and ongoing environmental destruction that is being rendered through participation with the Federal Reserve System, which has been designed to promote endless consumption of natural resources through inflationary reduction of the U.S. Dollar’s value over time. Bitcoin, by contrast, is designed to be deflationary, and so, it ends up reducing natural resource consumption by promoting savings rather than needless consumption.

Furthermore, the electrical use of Bitcoin is not wasted energy (as some have contended), but its expenditure serves a useful purpose: security of the currency against manipulation. Moving forward, as more power providers switch to renewable sources of energy, the environmental impact of Bitcoin’s electrical consumption will be considered negligible, especially when compared to existing fiat monetary systems, which through their consume-or-lose structures end up wreaking incredible destruction to the environment, in manners that extend well beyond the power grid.

In the twenty-first century, when the world’s people are connected as never before, we should reject money that divides us from those who are perceived as foreign. Why should the creation and regulation of money continue to be held by nation-states that have intrinsic links to militarized violence and systemic oppression? Let us take this opportunity to discern (and perhaps rediscover) a testimony that takes into account which form of money (if any) to use.  ~~~

Len Schulwitz believes that nominal distinctions between attenders and members in the Religious Society of Friends are detrimental to Unity. He attends Phoenix Friends Meeting (IMYM).

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