Most proponents of Bitcoin are at least a little libertarian-ish, and it’s not hard to see why. Bitcoin is hard to use, profoundly volatile, and not as widely accepted as cash or credit cards. Many of these things will get better in the future, but that doesn’t change the situation right now. In some limited circumstances (sending small amounts of money to strangers, as in Reddit’s CoinTip, or when sending remittances across national borders), there is a legitimate independent case to be made for it, but by and large cryptocurrencies have been a much tougher sell for people who trust the Federal Reserve and believe in the Keynesian notion that controlled inflation builds strong economies.
That’s why civil asset forfeiture is so important. Because, even if you believe in and trust the federal government completely, the existence of these laws means that you also have to trust your local police, even under the pressure of some extreme perverse incentives. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let’s let John Oliver explain (if you aren’t watching his show, you should be).
To sum up:
- A legal loophole called “civil asset forfeiture” allows state and federal police to seize money and property without charging you with (much less convincing you of) any crime.
- In these cases, guilt is presumed, and you have to prove innocence to get your property back, often by wading through Kafkaesque bureaucratic tar pits.
- Local police departments are often allowed to keep any such seized property, and there are often no restrictions on how that money is spent.
- These laws are abused, flamboyantly and constantly, to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
If this sounds like a civil rights nightmare to you, congratulations – you’re up to speed. Bitcoin offers powerful protection from this problem: the police can’t force you to turn over passwords to your wallet without actually prosecuting you, and Bitcoin can’t be physically seized during a routine traffic stop (as opposed to literally any fiat currency). Your Bitcoin can be moved freely across the United States without having to worry about it being literally stolen with no legal basis.
That might seem like cold comfort given the current volatility, and I broadly agree: given the state of the market right now, storing large fractions of your savings in Bitcoin isn’t a good idea. However, the situation does provide a great example of why something like Bitcoin (ideally a more stable, convenient, and widely accepted version of Bitcoin) is necessary. Using cash requires a lot of trust in a lot of people, and many of them simply do not deserve it. Cryptocurrency offers the chance to move some of that trust into the mathematics of cryptography, and that has value, regardless of your political inclinations.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to fix Civil Asset Forfeiture: The ACLU is pushing for reform, and, as usual, they’re the good guys here. If we can get reform, that’ll be great and will help protect a lot of people who desperately need it. However, when Bitcoin comes of age and starts to fulfill its promises, it has the potential to protect us, not just from CAF, but also from whatever future petty tyranny governments around the world come up with.