Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are often touted by their proponents to be the first truly liberating technology of the 21st сentury. For the first time in modern history, there is a form of money that is entirely uncorrelated to any asset class or government. Cryptocurrency requires no permission to use, and can ‘travel’ the globe in minutes. These are very powerful features and have many people excited over cryptocurrency investment and its potential effect on their financial freedom.
The Case of the Unbanked
Many of us in the so-called “developed world” already enjoy a pretty good level of financial freedom compared to the rest of the globe. We have access to the banking options that many of the planet’s citizens can only dream of. We can wander into any bank in our country of residence and set up an account, which will give us reasonable access to the world economy. Some restrictions will still apply (more on those later) but for the most part we can engage in a plethora of different banking activities – from international (and ludicrously expensive) transfers, to borrowing money, and many other options.
But what if you don’t have the necessary documentation to go and set up an account? Or, what if you do, but the nearest branch is a 20-mile walk from your house? This is the reality for literally billions of people around the world. Their financial freedom is restricted by the lack of banking infrastructure, as well as the bank’s requirements to identify the customer properly before using their services. People are forced to use cash, which although preferable for some applications, severely limits the range of economic activity the individual can engage in.
Cryptocurrency offers something different. If you can access the internet (and many hundreds of millions of these unbanked citizens can), you can download a Bitcoin or other digital asset wallet. This can then be used in conjunction with peer-to-peer marketplaces to trade cryptocurrency without using a bank account at all.
This opens a whole new range of possibilities for those living without bank accounts. They can receive digital payments for the goods and services they create, they can send remittances without spending an absolute fortune on the fees, and they can access the supposed perks of a bank account – namely security – without having to trust a given institution.
Before the invention of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, it was very difficult for an individual to protest the economic policies of the jurisdiction they live in. However, digital assets offer such an option. If you don’t agree with the way your national government is handling the nation’s finances, you can store your wealth elsewhere. This has already afforded much greater financial freedom than previously possible in certain parts of the world.
Andreas Antonopoulos, a Bitcoin evangelist, often recounts the battle he had with his own mother to convince her to put part of her life savings in Bitcoin prior to the Greek financial crisis a few years ago. By doing so, she was able to preserve much of her wealth whilst many of her peers struggled immensely. Likewise, in Venezuela, we are starting to see cryptocurrency adoption through economic necessity brought about by the hyper-inflated national currency there. It’s still very early days and such a radical transformation will likely take many test cases along with the further development of the crypto protocols themselves. However, digital currencies have the potential to serve as a clear boon for financial freedom.
In fact, just recently, the Mayor of the US city of Chicago has stated that he sees cryptocurrency adoption as an inevitability based on current geopolitical turmoil. Such an option of a non-correlated asset class presents the potential for a very interesting financial future and its eventual impact on society can only be speculated about for now.
The Long Game
The impact of cryptocurrency on the developing world would be felt almost immediately upon adoption. That’s why there is a growing movement across nations to introduce such communities to Bitcoin and other digital assets.
Of course, even as a citizen of the developed world with superior banking infrastructure and access to most of the planet, there is still a lot that cryptocurrency could do to promote greater financial freedom. Small payments across borders would become financially viable without incurring the level of fees that prohibit them today. Additionally, if you store your private keys to your wallet correctly, any value of cryptocurrency can be walked across borders without detection. Since Bitcoin is state-agnostic, you could securely take your life savings anywhere in the world without government intervention.
Businesses that need to send huge sums of money to offices around the world would also be able to operate much more freely and efficiently using cryptocurrency. This would greatly benefit how capital is allocated and could help investors navigate often convoluted regulation to invest in the developing world. Thus, this would bring greater financial freedom to the firm itself and the communities surrounding its new offices.
However, all of this is a long way off and there are many obstacles that must be overcome to see this kind of financial freedom. The wider cryptocurrency experiment is still in its very early days. If Bitcoin and altcoins grow in adoption sufficiently to worry regulators, they could try to clampdown on digital asset use. Given their nature, the efficacy of such measures remains to be seen, however.