Bitcoin at 10 – Money in a World of Tokens

On this very day ten years ago – January 3, 2009 –, the Bitcoin network went live. Bitcoin’s first block, the Genesis Block, includes a short message as a reminder that the world was, at the time, finding itself in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the 1920s. The message refers to the headline of the British newspaper “The Times” of that day:

“Chancellor on Brink of Second Bailout for Banks”

And, in fact, at about the same time as the Bitcoin whitepaper was published (October 31, 2008), the failure of Lehman Brothers as an issuer and underwriter of mortgage-backed securities initiated the largest insolvency proceedings in U.S. history and, subsequently, led to a major economic and political crisis of global dimensions.

Bitcoin’s inventor Satoshi Nakamoto is said to have picked that newspaper headline not only to create an immutable time reference for the genesis of the network but also to make a political statement (his own writings support the claim). As announced a few months prior to this event in the whitepaper, Bitcoin was intended to become a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, thereby eliminating the intermediating middleman – probably the prime source of fragility in today’s financial industry.

Cryptocurrency as money

Now, given the stated goal, the question is essentially whether Bitcoin and its numerous variants have since become what is commonly considered to be sound money. A recent analysis of Bitcoin as money can be found at Alt-M. In his short essay, the economist Larry White summarizes the state of the cryptocurrency as follows:

“Bitcoin should not be regarded as the last word in private money, but should be appreciated as a remarkable technological breakthrough. […] The inbuilt volatility of its purchasing power makes it unlikely to displace the incumbent fiat currencies barring an inflationary explosion.”

It is perhaps unsurprisingly, then, that people have begun to look into building stable coins based on blockchain technology. While there are already various – technically and legally – different types of stable coins, they often make a reference to a fiat currency, such as the US dollar or Swiss franc. In other words, they replicate their strengths and weaknesses: While most fiat currencies are exceptionally well-suited as transaction media, many of them are highly ineffective when it comes to storing value over time.

This is a real issue for poor people with very few or no options to diversify their savings.

Money and politics

The control over money is a powerful tool. That is why money and politics tend to go hand in hand. For slightly more than one hundred years, money has come into existence as fiat, i.e., unbacked currency created by an authority – typically the central bank of a country. Fiat currency might be managed diligently in the interest of the “greater good” (whatever that is supposed to mean). However, the past has been anything but a good track record of sound monetary policy. Therefore, it must have been inevitable for F.A. Hayek to refer to the history of money as an “all too monotonous and depressing […] story [of inflation]” (1976, p. 33-34).

Tokenization may be the answer!

Were it not for the efficiency of money as a medium of exchange, our economic system would revert to a simple barter and gift economy. However, modern monetary systems have become purely instrumental, entirely reduced to a means of creating money out of thin air. We can then ask ourselves: Why not rather link money to economic output than political influence, to real wealth instead of decreed purchasing power?

The implementation of this idea may be facilitated by tokenization:

Bitcoin and Ethereum involve native tokens. Such tokens are digital assets without any connection to real-world assets. Now, by means of tokenization, you can basically link tokens tradeable on the blockchain to any asset, in particular shares and bonds; such tokens that leverage the Bitcoin or Ethereum network as underlying platform are called asset-backed tokens.

Tradeability, however, is only the first step. The true nature of a good being money, as the economist Fritz Machlup put it, lies in its moneyness. “Moneyness” can best be defined as something, inter alia, durableportable, fungible, and scarce. Furthermore, where a market exists, liquid trading of such good becomes viable.

Also, moneyness is a spectrum – some goods are better suited than others to be widely used as a medium of exchange. In other words, while some goods exhibit high degrees of moneyness – historically, this has been the case for precious metals such as gold and silver –, others only have modest levels of moneyness – services and bicycles are in a rather difficult position to gain widespread acceptance as a means of payment.

Tokenization of wealth

“But why use money to make transactions when computers offer the possibility to exchange goods and services for wealth?”

In his book “The End of Alchemy”, published in 2016, Mervyn King describes the transformation of the world of finance, the banking system, and money. The former Governor of the Bank of England, including during the period of the financial crisis, seems to envisage wealth being used as some sort of transaction medium.

What did he possibly mean by that?

As Swiss companies have recently begun to tokenize their stocks and bonds using blockchain technology, we will likely see in the future the emergence of freely tradeable and thus highly liquid stocks and bonds outside of traditional organized markets, such as a regulated stock exchange. To be fair: in most instances, such private offerings will unlikely succeed as a new means of payment, and, in many cases, this is not their intention anyway.

However, tokenization as a means to facilitate trade of shares and bonds on the blockchain, allows for a very simple solution that may eventually lead to a private means of payment.

How?

A company – let us call it “Private Money Ltd.” – that seeks to reflect the value creation in a given economy (e.g., the Swiss Gross Domestic Product, GDP) can purchase assets of the said economy, such as stocks, commodities, real estate, and company loans. By selecting good “proxy assets” for the underlying economy, Private Money Ltd. may effectively emulate the total economic output produced within a given country’s borders on its balance sheet. Now, holding shares of Private Money Ltd. would allow people to participate in the total wealth creation of a country as if they were purchasing each asset of the company’s balance sheet directly.

The company’s value would ideally grow or contract at the same speed as the economy’s GDP, thereby more or less keeping share price and production growth (or contraction) in balance. Keeping money stock and production growth (or slow-down) in balance is essentially the policy objective of central banks. However, a private company tokenizing its shares would be less prone to special public and private interests, yet still be accountable to their shareholders.

As mentioned above, since such shares would be tokenized, they would become easily accessible to everyone interested. The use of blockchain technology would allow for peer-to-peer exchange (P2P) as if the shares were regular banknotes and coins issued by a nation state. Given sufficient demand for the shares of Private Money Ltd., people could eventually start using them as a private means of exchange.

New forms of money on the horizon

Such a development may seem contrary to Bitcoin’s claim to be a P2P electronic cash system. Indeed, tokenization necessitates a certain degree of centralization. However, cryptocurrencies have, compared to a tokenized balance sheet, one great disadvantage, as they are not backed by anything other than computing power and people’s confidence in its hard coded safeguards. In other words, people typically have only poor expectations as regards Bitcoin’s “fair value”, resulting in a highly volatile price and purchasing power, respectively. A well-diversified asset portfolio is likely superior in terms of stabilizing market expectations in the long run.

Having said that, Bitcoin eventually evolving into money and asset-backed tokens being used as such need not be mutually exclusive.

No tokenization without Bitcoin!

In any case, there would be no tokenization without Bitcoin and Ethereum, no asset-backed tokens without their native predecessors. It is only thanks to Bitcoin’s ingenious monetary network design and Ethereum’s progress in developing sophisticated smart contract-systems that we are now able to talk about the likely emergence of new forms of money.

This is not the only reason (see, e.g., social scalability; censorship resistance and free speech; access to finance for the unbanked), but it is an important one for us to celebrate Bitcoin’s “genesis block” today.

 

Photo source: https://www.reddit.com/r/Bitcoin/comments/7ns2u7/nakamoto_remembers_the_times_03jan2009_chancellor/

Die Meinungsäusserung als Teil der menschlichen Identität

Vorbemerkungen zur Menschenwürde und zur individuellen Identität

Die Menschenwürde ist ein schwer greifbares Konzept, dessen praktischer Wert unter Rechtsphilosophen zudem umstritten ist. Aus ethischer Perspektive wurde und wird die Menschenwürde traditionell entweder theologisch (Mensch als Abbild Gottes), naturrechtlich (aufgrund der Vernunft) oder formalistisch bzw. deontologisch (insbesondere mit Immanuel Kants These, dass der Mensch immer Selbstzweck und niemals bloss Mittel sein dürfe) hergeleitet. Demgegenüber beziehen utilitaristische und kontraktualistische Theorien das Prinzip der Menschenwürde regelmässig nur mittelbar ein.

In praktisch allen Fällen beschreibt die Menschenwürde einen existenziellen Wert, welcher jeder und jedem aufgrund ihrer resp. seiner evolutionsbiologischen Gleichheit zukommt, ohne dies weiter begründen zu müssen. Insofern ist die Menschenwürde die positive Anerkennung des Menschseins an sich und der damit verbundenen Kategorien des Denkens, Sprechens und Handelns – gleichsam die Identität des Einzelnen.

Im vorliegenden Beitrag möchte ich mit dem Konzept der Menschenwürde nicht die sehr umkämpften Debatten angehen, die sich mit dem Anfang und Ende des Lebens beschäftigen, oder damit, ob ein Leben „in Würde“ gewisser staatlicher Sozialleistungen bedarf.

Meine These beschäftigt sich alleine mit der Meinungsäusserung als Teil der Menschenwürde und damit unserer individuellen Identität. Die Meinungsäusserung repräsentiert nach der vorliegend vertretenen Auffassung einen inhärent menschlichen Akt, den es als solchen kategorisch zu dulden gilt. Dafür greife ich argumentativ – ausgehend von einer diskursethischen Rechtfertigung der Meinungsäusserungsfreiheit – gleichermassen auf formalistische und utilitaristische Erwägungen zurück.

„Speech“ als politischer Denk-Sprech-Akt

Die Sprache ist das zentrale Werkzeug der menschlichen Kommunikation. Ihre Bedeutung für die Gestaltung des sozialen Kontexts, in dem man sich bewegt, ist immens: Durch den Sprechakt können wir unsere Mitmenschen loben, ermutigen und emotional unterstützen; gleichzeitig erlaubt uns das Sprechen, andere zu kritisieren, zu entmutigen oder psychisch unter Druck zu setzen.

Diese Doppelnatur der Sprache für den sozialen Kontext ist bedeutsam; ihr kommt namentlich eine politische Dimension zu: Wo wir uns nicht im rein privaten Umfeld bewegen, können unsere Äusserungen auf Widerstand stossen. Unter Umständen werden unsere Aussagen als bedauerlich und kleingeistig wahrgenommen, ja möglicherweise wird man uns für den unüberlegten Inhalt kritisieren oder gar unsere Person als solche attackieren.

Aussagen zeigen Wirkung, indem der Inhalt der Botschaft Rückschlüsse auf den Absender erlaubt. Der Empfänger wird darüber entscheiden, ob er weiterhin den sozialen Kontakt mit dem Absender pflegen will. Dies ist richtig, denn wir müssen Verantwortung für unsere Meinungsäusserungen übernehmen. Es soll weh tun, wenn man Dummheiten behauptet, ohne sachliche Argumente dafür vorbringen zu können. Soziale Ächtung war und ist eines der wirksamsten Instrumente überhaupt – psychologisch oft weit effektiver als Rechtsnormen –, das in solchen Fällen für gesellschaftliche Homöostase und damit sozialen Ausgleich sorgt.

Ein wesentlicher Teil des Menschseins ist definiert durch die verbale (und natürlich auch nonverbale) Kommunikation des Einzelnen mit seiner Umwelt. Ferner macht Kommunikation erst Sinn in der Gruppe: So wie der Mensch Teil der Gemeinschaft ist (Aristoteles’ „zoon politikon“), ist der Sprechakt Ausdruck einer kollektiven Zugehörigkeit. Sprechen und Menschsein gehören darum ein und derselben sozio-kulturellen Ebene an.

Ein wesentlicher Teil des Menschseins ist definiert durch die verbale Kommunikation des Einzelnen mit seiner Umwelt.

Einen bestimmten Sprechakt zu verbieten, ist deshalb nicht nur ein leichter Eingriff, sondern einer, der unsere Menschenwürde und damit unsere individuelle Identität tangiert.[1] Diese Auffassung wird nicht nur in den Fällen manifest, in denen eine bestimmte Wortwahl verpönt ist („hate speech“), sondern vor allem unter jenen Umständen, in welchen darüber hinaus „politisch korrektes“ Sprechen gefordert wird („forced speech“). Das Problem liegt in diesem Fall noch tiefer, weil durch die bewusste Steuerung des Sprechaktes die Denkweise der betroffenen Menschen nachhaltig beeinflusst werden kann.

Weil eben eine erzwungene Sprache auch unser Denken nachhaltig verändern kann, sind Denken und Sprechen deutlich enger beieinander, als man auf den ersten Blick zu meinen glaubt. In der Tat ist der Sprechende auch immer ein Denkender; selbst wenn man unbedarft spricht, ist damit ein affektiver (oft stereotyper) Denkprozess verbunden.

“Freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.”

Dieser berühmte Satz stammt aus dem Urteil „Whitney versus California“ von 1927, in welchem Richter Brandeis die Einheit von Denken und Sprechen als ein und denselben politischen Akt betonte.

Mills „harm principle“

In seinem grossartigen Buch „On Liberty“ (1859) schränkte John Stuart Mill jegliche Freiheitsbeschränkungen des Einzelnen auf die Fälle ein, in welchen eine andere Person zu Schaden kommt. Bis heute sind der Umfang und die Bedeutung dieses als „harm principle“ bezeichneten Konzepts unter politischen Philosophen umstritten:

“That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Aus liberaler Sicht stellt sich die Frage, wo man – will man Mills „harm principle“ folgen – die Trennlinie zwischen erlaubter und verbotener Meinungsäusserung ziehen will. Diese Aufgabe gehört zu den schwierigsten in einer offenen und freien Gesellschaft, und sie ist meines Erachtens im Zweifelsfall zugunsten uneingeschränkter Meinungsäusserung auszulegen („in dubio pro libertate“).

Denken, Sprechen und Handeln: ein einziges Spektrum?

Denken, Sprechen und Handeln erscheinen prima facie als völlig voneinander losgelöste Prozesse. Wie wir oben gesehen haben, können wir jedoch an dieser Feststellung mit Blick auf die politische Dimension des Denk-Sprech-Aktes nicht festhalten.

Demgegenüber sind Sprechen und Handeln kategorial unterschiedliche Dinge. Eine Person in ihrem religiösen Glauben oder in ihren ideologischen Überzeugungen zu verletzen – US-amerikanische Juristen nennen dies den „erkennbaren Schaden“, der in einer liberalen Gesellschaft hinzunehmen ist –, ist nicht dasselbe, wie wenn ich ihr zum Zeichen meines inhaltlichen Einwandes ins Gesicht schlage. Dort, wo physische Eingriffe eine mehrheitlich symbolische Note besitzen, wie das Anspucken oder der im arabischen Raum verbreitete Wurf eines Schuhs, findet eine komplexe Vermischung der beiden Kategorien statt.

Ferner kann ein bestimmter Sprechakt durchaus die emotionale und psychologische Schmerzgrenze erreichen, die mit derjenigen physischer Eingriffe zumindest vergleichbar ist. Dies wird deutlich anhand der Propaganda der NSDAP, welche dem Zweck der sprachgesteuerten Erniedrigung von bestimmten Gruppenangehörigen, wie etwa Juden, politischen Opponenten, Homosexuellen oder Angehörigen von Fahrenden, diente. Dasselbe kann man über die verbale Machtdemonstration des Hutu-Regimes gegenüber der Tutsi-Minderheit in Ruanda sagen, welche 1994 im Genozid endete.

Offensichtlich: Worte können subjektiv verletzend sein. Dies wird kaum einer bestreiten wollen, hat doch wohl schon jede und jeder diese Realität am eigenen Leib erfahren müssen. Dennoch möchte ich nicht die Auffassung vertreten, so wie es einige in Anlehnung an Ludwig Wittgenstein tun,[2] dass Worte und Handlungen je nach Kontext derselben Kategorie angehören können, dass also die Unterscheidung zwischen „free speech“ und „hate speech“ letztendlich subjektiv beliebig ist.

Nur im Fall der eigentlichen Handlung wird die physische Integrität des betroffenen Individuums direkt verletzt; im Fall des herabwürdigenden Sprechens wird man meines Erachtens höchstens ausnahmsweise argumentieren dürfen, dass die Intensität des Sprechaktes diejenige der unmittelbaren physischen Misshandlung erreicht. Diese seltenen Fälle sind allerdings so systematisch in ihrer Natur, dass sie historisch wohl fast ausschliesslich durch totalitäre staatliche oder parastaatliche Institutionen ausgeübt worden sind.

Die hier vertretene Position teilt demgegenüber dem Staat die Rolle des Zuschauers zu, was opportunistische und fremdinteressengeleitete Versuche zur Sprachsteuerung und Zensur erschwert.

Von einer reaktionären „Flat earth“-Mentalität

Eine offene Einstellung gegenüber Andersdenkenden und -sprechenden verkörpert Fortschrittsfreundlichkeit und Skepsis gegenüber „konservierten“ Machtstrukturen. Die Meinungsfreiheit – interpretiert im Sinne des „harm principle“ – ist, wenn auch nicht immer Rezept für den sozialen Frieden, doch ein solches des sozialen Fortschritts. Der Supreme Court-Richter William O. Douglas sprach darum von einem eigentlichen „market place of ideas“:

“Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.”

Mills Standpunkt sollte ferner vor dem Hintergrund eines weiteren normativen Konzepts interpretiert werden: der ethischen Maxime einer grundsätzlich offenen Geisteshaltung. Es ist diese prinzipielle Toleranz, welche ihren Ursprung in der liberalen Aufklärung hat. Anders als die selektive, gefühlsbetonte und rein subjektive Toleranz, welche zwar in freundlichen Kleidern daherkommt – und zugegeben, an deren Eckpunkten ich mich aus praktischen Gründen im Alltag ebenfalls zu orientieren versuche –, die aber letztlich der freien Gesellschaft einen Bärendienst erweist, indem sie Andersdenkende und -sprechende paradoxerweise gerade wieder ausschliesst.

Prinzipielle Toleranz ist freilich keine leichte Aufgabe; sie erfordert ununterbrochene Aufmerksamkeit und Selbstreflexion, ohne indes zu einer Haltung des Werterelativismus führen zu müssen. Sie ist ferner ein Akt gegen jede Form von Zensur. Umgekehrt führt konformistisches „virtue signalling“, das für den Absender der Mitteilung völlig risikofrei ist, zu gesellschaftlichem und intellektuellem Stillstand. Oder anders ausgedrückt, die (angeblichen) Progressiven von heute sind wahrscheinlich die Konservativen von morgen!

Verteidigung aus Prinzip

Um mit Friedrich A. Hayek zu sprechen, die Meinungsfreiheit ist eine Errungenschaft, die man nicht bloss aus Überlegungen der Zweckmässigkeit schützen soll, sondern man muss für ihren Bestand aus Prinzip einstehen. Um Missverständnisse zu vermeiden, dies bedeutet gerade nicht, dass wir nicht aus Anstand – ja vor allem weil tugendhaftes Handeln etwas Gutes und Schönes ist – die Gefühle anderer ernstnehmen sollten.

Eine lateinische Redewendung mag hier dienlich sein:

“Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.”[3]

Dort aber, wo wir Missstände zu erkennen glauben, müssen wir geradeaus sprechen. Wir müssen darum aus Prinzip für die Meinungsäusserungsfreiheit unserer politischen Kontrahenten eintreten, damit sie sich trotz ihrer politischen Verwirrtheit und ihrer teils schädlichen Gedanken öffentlich artikulieren können. Wie erwähnt, dies bedeutet indes nicht, dass die „prinzipielle Toleranz“ als das Feigenblatt intoleranter oder schädlicher Auffassungen dienen soll; ihre Maxime wirkt lediglich prozedural, indem sie anderen ermöglicht, deren Meinungen in die öffentliche Sphäre hineinzutragen.

Dem Inhalt der Botschaft gegenüber müssen wir darum zumindest skeptisch, oft sogar selbst intolerant sein. Um Karl Poppers eindrückliches Diktum zu verwenden: die gänzlich unduldsamen Menschen verdienen auf inhaltlicher Ebene kein „Müh“ Toleranz, denn wenn wir mit ihnen auf rationaler Ebene nicht mehr „verhandeln“ können, riskieren wir, jede noch existierende Toleranz vollständig zu verlieren (sog. „Toleranz-Paradox“).[4]

Schliesslich besitzt die Meinungsfreiheit auch einen inhärent positiven Auftrag an jeden Einzelnen, nämlich dass wir offen für Neues, für andere Meinungen, sein sollten. Bescheidenheit ist eine der grossen liberalen Tugenden. Anderen ohne intellektuelle Überheblichkeit zuzuhören, ist eine Eigenschaft, die sich historisch selten an einem Ort und zu irgendeinem Zeitpunkt als falsch erwiesen hat. Immerhin: es könnte ja ein Fünkchen Wahrheit in der Meinungsäusserung unserer Mitmenschen stecken.

Und selbst wenn wir im Einzelfall nicht von unseren Mitmenschen lernen konnten, so wissen wir nun doch weit mehr über sie, ihre Ansichten und Ideen. Wir lernen dadurch, unsere Standpunkte effektiver und damit verständlicher zu kommunizieren – eine ungemein wichtige Eigenschaft in einem politischen „market place of ideas“.

Fine

Als zur Vernunft begabtes Wesen ist der Mensch fähig, edel, hilfreich und gut zu handeln, um mit Goethe zu sprechen – und wir sollten tatsächlich versuchen, dies so zu tun, wollen wir uns nicht einer gewissen Tugendethik und/oder Regeln des Anstandes verschliessen. Der Mensch ist aber vor allem eines, nämlich dazu verdammt, überkommene Strukturen und Werte zu hinterfragen. Jeglicher Versuch, diesen „Ur-Instinkt“ zu unterbinden, muss letzten Endes zur Unterdrückung eines Teilaspekts des Menschseins führen – und damit unweigerlich die Menschenwürde im oben verstandenen Sinne und damit unsere individuelle Identität tangieren.

 

 

[1] Siehe William Ruger, Free Speech Is Central to Our Dignity as Humans, 3. Juni 2016, http://time.com/4355651/free-speech-human-dignity/

[2] Siehe etwa Kevin Litman-Navarro, Wittgenstein on Whether Speech Is Violence, 30. August 2017, https://daily.jstor.org/wittgenstein-whether-speech-violence/

[3] Übers.: Hart in der Sache, aber weich im Umgang [mit unseren Mitmenschen].

[4] Siehe https://www.welt.de/print-welt/article154640/Karl-Popper-ueber-Toleranz.html

A Story About the Humble Gardener

Confucius reportedly said that true wisdom is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. In negative terms, a lack of wisdom exists where people consider themselves all-knowing experts, or as Hayek famously put it in his Nobel Prize speech in 1974: «The Pretence of Knowledge». He concluded his lecture with a warning:

«If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. […]

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.»

You find self-proclaimed experts everywhere today. It is a matter of a quick Google search and you will have access to would-be expertise in a myriad of different fields. However, there is good scientific reason to believe that expert knowledge is much scarcer than we dare to think.

Instead of claiming (and wanting) to be an «expert» in everything, we should humble ourselves. While still being aware of the fact that we may find new knowledge about reality, we should be cognizant of the more likely outcome that we will fail in doing so. We humans are imperfect beings, both compared with the infinite space of the universe and with regard to our less than perfect intellectual faculties.

Exercising modesty and effacing ourselves – not expecting that beautiful flowers will regularly spring up from parched soil, and conversely, not assuming that fragile flowers can (and will) ever be old and mighty trees –, that’s true wisdom. So, let’s be humble gardeners in our own dealings, and beyond that!

Why Liberals Should Be More Optimistic

Optimists think that the course of events will be positive, for them personally or for society in general. Realists, on the other hand, think that the course of events might turn out to be positive; they concede, however, that they can’t really know since reality consists of complex phenomena. Optimism and realism are sometimes used as contradictory concepts. That doesn’t necessarily follow though.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality. On the one hand, they hope that a particular situation will turn out well; they even provide policy recommendations in order to facilitate the process. On the other hand, liberal thinkers are skeptical of what men, in particular politicians and bureaucrats, are capable of achieving. They have a realistic perception about the nature of humans and their capabilities.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality.

Personally, I’ve always perceived liberalism as a philosophy advocating a realistic optimism. For instance, we can look back to the big controversy about socialist planning in the 1920s (the “socialist calculation debate“). Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek and later Murray N. Rothbard argued that a planned economy must inevitably fail at some point because its planners lack the knowledge necessary to determine economic in- and outputs. Mises and Hayek were proven right with their predictions when the Soviet system collapsed economically and politically in the early 1990s. They were pessimistic about the Soviet economy, but both Mises and Hayek felt optimistic about their own policy proposals regarding the market economy.

Many people nowadays think that capitalism and the free enterprise system have failed, given widespread poverty, the waste of resources, corruption, and so on. However, contrary to common belief, figures show that the world has become a fundamentally better place (please click on the picture to increase its size):

Liberals (read libertarians) can (and should) be more optimistic given the continuing overall trend which constantly confirms that people have become healthier, live in freer societies, and are better educated than in the 19th century (let alone earlier periods of mankind).

At the same time, we have been warned that we should remain skeptical towards supposed panaceas and prophecies coming from the ones that think they will change the world single-handedly; the ones that feel confident that they possess the recipes to solve all the ills of mankind; and those claiming that their proposed solutions are without alternative. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Hayek invoked us not to be imprudent or foolish when it comes to people that pretend to know everything (“The Pretence of Knowledge”). His statement emphasizes that we should exercise restraint in our own dealings, but also remain extremely cautious about what politics can actually accomplish for the good of society.

To conclude this short essay, I’d like to quote Karl Popper. He was that kind of optimistic thinker with an insistent sense of reality:

“The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, 1994

The Right to Be Let Alone in a World of Cultural Diversity

The right to be let alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in “Olmstead v. United States”, is commonly associated with the right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional “[…] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […]” critically separates the spheres of life and wards off many dangers from the government. However, in a society so culturally diverse as ours, the right to be let alone takes on much greater significance than just separating the spheres between the individual and the state.

Bridges are not built overnight

A recent poll shows that Americans are divided on the role of culture in their society. Coming from Europe, the U.S. is undoubtedly a much more culturally diverse nation than most European countries, if not all. Unlike Switzerland, for example, Americans cannot rely on ethnic kinship for a shared identity. The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants. The more surprising are the results of that poll showing that conservative and social-democratic opinions diverge in terms of fundamental cultural values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society.

Culture is a delicate issue. F.A. Hayek argued that culture matters and that it shouldn’t be denied in the political processes of a constitutional democracy, unless one wants to question the stability of a society. However, culture isn’t a rigid phenomenon either. The basic values of a society can change, and quite obviously, have done so significantly. Slavery, for example, once a shared value among many Americans and Europeans, was abolished in a justified fight against unjust values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society. This doesn’t mean, though, that people native to a country have to give up on their own values. Quite naturally, the burden of responsibility must rest on those who immigrate to a foreign culture. However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone is willing to assimilate entirely. And this is where the crux begins.

The “great society”, not government is the solution

Many bureaucrats think that seamless integration is simply a question of the right laws and forceful state mediation between two cultures. They assume that by designing sophisticated programs immigrants will necessarily start feeling as members of society. This is wrong, though. Hayek made clear that culture doesn’t work that way:

“[…] the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them.”

(F. A. Hayek, in: W. W. Bartley, III (ed.), The Fatal Conceit, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Chicago 1988, 6)

To put it in a nutshell, culture is omnipresent, it possesses a formative role in life like no other informal social institution. Cultural values are deeply embedded in social relations, parenting, education, and so forth, which is why we should never expect perfect assimilation from top-down integration programs, as sophisticated as they may be.

However, the market, unlike any other institution, has the power to create peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures. It creates opportunities for those who are willing to integrate and to accept the traditions of the local population. Even more importantly, the market discourages people from thinking in entitlements. The culture of dependency, created by the welfare state, has not only made millions of individuals depending but has also evoked antipathy for foreigners and their diverse values with which they arrive at our borders. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform impressively showed, once the state has created the feeling of being left behind, politics quickly becomes an outlet for racial slurs and cultural defamation.

A government siding with one group of its population is highly problematic. In doing so, it does not only sow a lot of mistrust and resentment among those people with conflicting opinions but also conveys the belief that government is able to solve the problem, if necessary using force.

What remains for us to do then?

What then are the ideal conditions for the peaceful coexistence of people of a different cultural background? The German classical liberal economist and philosopher, Roland Baader, once said that there exists only one human right, the right to be let alone (“Das einzig wahre Menschenrecht ist das Recht, in Ruhe gelassen zu werden […]”). This is in fact how every human tribe started off before becoming part of a more involved society. Well, some groups, like the Amish people in the U.S. and Canada, believe in the fulfilled existence of remaining unaffected by unfamiliar values till this day.

Oftentimes, however, foregoing the opportunities of cooperation will cost those people dear. In his book “Living Economics”, Peter Boettke shows that there exist myriad institutions that allow people to engage actively with each other, while living peacefully side by side. It is these “organic” institutions of self-governance that have proven themselves valuable throughout the world and that have supported people in coming together and starting exchanging not only goods but eventually ideas and their cultural heritage.

However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

In a very biological sense, the right to be let alone gives us the time needed to prepare ourselves for the world outside of our “cultural backyard”. It is true that we will always have to accept that some people are not willing to become part of a more heterogenous society. As I said, this is their very right. And sometimes, we’ll even have to defend the principles of an open society against violent aggressors. However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

Published by The Libertarian Institute