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Sean Speer: Why conservatives are so keen on cryptocurrencies

Commentary

Why are Conservatives increasingly interested in cryptocurrencies? 

It might seem like an odd fit at first blush. Conservatism, after all, is something of a backward-looking persuasion. It starts from a premise that traditional ideas and institutions should, as a general rule, be protected and sustained. They’ve come through a process of trial and error over the course of history and therefore deserve our deference and respect.

This call for epistemological humility can sometimes manifest itself in an aversion to novelty and even progress. Michael Oakeshott famously described it as: 

“… to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

The point here is that the conservative instinct tells us that most new ideas are false or wrong precisely because they haven’t been subjected to the rigours of practical wisdom. Conservatism, in this sense, is the political expression of the famous line from Will and Ariel Durant: “Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional response which they propose to replace.”

That might seem like an odd philosophical basis from which to embrace something as far-out as digital money. Yet there are limits to mere abstractions about conservative ideas and the conservative persuasion. Samuel Huntington tells us that conservatism must be understood in a specific situational context. It’s a contingent perspective that reflects particularistic circumstances. A Saudi Arabian conservative is different from a European conservative who’s different from a North American conservative. What they seek to conserve necessarily reflects their unique culture and intellectual inheritances. 

North American conservatism has long distinguished itself by its unique combination of a deference to tradition and a commitment to change. In his famous essay, “Why I am not a conservative,” Friedrich Hayek attributed this mix of posterity and progress to the fact that what North American conservatives are essentially seeking to conserve is a classical liberal tradition. That is to say, the North American conservative is, at some fundamental level, a liberal. His or her conservatism is dedicated to the preservation of the continent’s liberal ideas, institutions, and values.

It’s worth emphasizing this point: North American conservatism is somewhat oxymoronically committed to preserving a cultural and political liberalism which itself is fertile soil for growth, dynamism, and innovation. It’s a conservative tradition committed to a set of ideas, institutions, and values that are inherently pro-progress.  

David Brooks spoke to this unique amalgam of ideas and intuitions in a 2018 podcast episode with Tyler Cowen. When asked about his own conservative worldview, he answered the following: 

Well, I’m an American conservative. My two heroes are Edmund Burke — and Edmund Burke’s core conservative ethos is epistemological modesty, the belief that the world is really complicated, and therefore the change should be constant but incremental… My other hero is Alexander Hamilton… His conservatism was very different. It’s about dynamism, energy, transformational change. And so a European self-conservatism doesn’t work here. You have to have that dynamic, recreated, self-transformational element.

This applies to Canada too. As Ben Woodfinden and I outline in a forthcoming essay on Sir John A. Macdonald’s own conservatism, the country’s first prime minister personified this unique mix of backward- and forward-looking ideas. He was at once a dispositional conservative as represented in his personal preferences and tastes and something of a futurist with an ambitious vision of the frontier that was manifested in his nation-building agenda. As we write:

“For his part, Macdonald saw entrepreneurial freedom, limited but energetic federal power, and national greatness as inextricably linked. These instincts for national development were actually quite Hamiltonian. Like the father of the American commercial revolution, Macdonald came to represent a business liberalism which was suffused with a Toryism concerned with a ‘virtuous and ordered liberty.’”

I share this abridged story of the North American conservative tradition because it’s important to understand the compatibility of conservative ideas and technological progress in general and conservatism and cryptocurrencies in particular. The conservative persuasion in North America should be generally viewed as sympatico with frontier-like ideas, inventions, and technologies. 

These conceptual points bring us back to the more practical question at hand: why are conservatives increasingly pro-crypto? 

The first point is to establish that they are indeed showing growing interest in digital currencies. There are various examples, including, for instance, MP Michelle Rempel-Garner’s recently-tabled legislation that would have the government consult on a framework to encourage the growth of crypto assets in Canada. 

Some have dismissed these developments as merely related to the recent trucker protests in Ottawa. But this critique fails to reckon with the broader movement of conservative intellectuals and politicians that has come to support bitcoin and other forms of crypto-currencies in recent years. 

The highest-profile proponents aren’t themselves politicians. The two biggest are probably Elon Musk and Peter Thiel who are investors and entrepreneurs with significant influence on society and culture in general and the world of libertarianism in particular. 

They’ve both come to be associated with the growing cultural and political movement around crypto-currencies through a combination of their personal investments, public commentaries, and large online followings. The former has frequently talked about how he owns crypto-currencies, including Dogecoin, which he has been instrumental in popularizing. The latter has described bitcoin as the one asset that I most strongly believe in.” 

The appeal of crypto-currencies to Musk and Thiel isn’t merely about the financial upside. There’s also an ideological dimension. Digital money’s decentralized nature conjures up possibilities of new, more libertarian economic and political arrangements. Thiel has even argued that if we want to think about contemporary technologies in ideological terms, artificial intelligence can be thought of as communist and crypto-currencies are libertarian. 

It’s no surprise that in the face of sustained pandemic restrictions, libertarian ideas seem to be resonating more and more these days. In this context, Musk and Thiel have emerged as major figures among a cohort of millennial or Generation Z followers who are drawn to their contrarian rebuke of the stuffy conformity of modern life. Ross Douthat has thus described the rise of “folk libertarianism”—or what others have called “Barstool conservatism”—as one of the key socio-political developments of the pandemic age. 

This movement is less steeped in the tomes of libertarian thought and instead more reflective of contemporary cultural and political trends, including the rise of cancel culture, identity politics, and perceptions of government bossiness. Its followers are more Dave Portnoy than Ludwig von Mises. 

As a cultural and political movement, it’s highly active online, a bit coarse and politically incorrect, and mostly engaged in politics from the periphery using GIFs and memes rather than direct action. It reflects a series of intuitions about individual responsibility, personal expression, a commitment to technology and progress, and an aversion to so-called “wokeism.” Recently, The Hub contributor Ben Woodfinden summed up this worldview and its followers as “crypto bros.” He’s not wrong. 

The key point here though is that there are cultural and intellectual factors behind North American conservatives’s growing interest in new and novel monetary innovations. It’s broadly consistent with continental conservatism’s interest in frontier ideas and technologies as well as the growing appetite for non-mainstream, decentralized models of economic and political organization in the face of perceived top-down conformity. But it also possibly holds out the potential to bring new and different voters—particularly members of Canada’s sizeable non-voter constituency—into the Conservative fold. Crypto has therefore become an ideological and political rallying cry for North American conservatives. 

It’s not to say that there are serious issues with crypto-currencies. The recent volatility raises legitimate questions about whether this is a sustainable market development or merely a hyper-online fad. One gets the sense that the true story is somewhere in the middle. 

But as Matt Spoke recently argued in an essay for The Hub, there may be a case for a country like Canada to make a “huge bet” that the future of crypto is more sustainable than it is faddish. There’s reason to believe that the presumptive, next Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, broadly agrees with this perspective. 

To the extent that he does, it shouldn’t be viewed as inherently incompatible with the conservative tradition. North American conservatism has since its origins reflected an intellectual and political persuasion with both a backward- and forward-looking impulse. A careful yet curious view on crypto-currencies is well-rooted in this long-standing tradition. 

Sean Speer: The post-Soviet struggle for Russia’s soul is far from over

Commentary

About five years ago, I came into possession of dozens of issues of National Review magazine dating back to the early 1960s.

The collection has since traveled with me through three or four moves including one cross-border relocation. The magazines are heavy and expensive to transport but I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. They serve as a journalistic museum of the history of the modern conservative movement and the broader history of the modern world.

I find them a particularly useful reference for the period from roughly 1985 to 1995 which on one hand is not quite history and therefore has yet to be subjected to extensive historical analysis and on the other hand is not part of my own political experience and awareness. It’s a bit of a black box for my understanding of contemporary politics across the globe.

Yet this approximate 10-year period was in hindsight a historical linchpin for so much of modern politics in Canada and elsewhere. The end of the Cold War and the formative geopolitical choices made in its aftermath, the Persian Gulf War and its lasting consequences for the Middle East, the rise of globalization and the neoliberalism of the Clinton Administration which laid the intellectual groundwork for China’s accession into the World Trade Organization, the failures of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord and their constitutional and political fallout, the emergence of the Reform Party and the splintering of the Canadian Right, and on and on and on.

It’s not hyperbole to say that roughly 35 years later, we’re living in the world that this short decade wrought. My National Review collection can help to contextualize and better understand the modern outgrowths of these historical moments through the lens of the magazine and its stable of brilliant thinkers and writers.

This week I found myself flipping through an issue from September 1991 with the cover headline, “Vladimir Ilyich Who?: Reflections on the Russian Revolution.” It includes articles and essays from an extraordinary group of contributors including Bill Buckley, Robert Conquest, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, on the so-called “August Revolution” in the Soviet Union.

Younger readers will be forgiven for not being familiar with this historical episode. It refers to a mid-August 1991 attempt by communist hard-liners to wrestle control of the Soviet state from the then-president and general secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup leaders consisted of top military and civilian officials who formed what became known as the State Committee on the State of Emergency. The catalyst for their attempt was opposition to Gorbachev’s market reforms, the loss of Eastern European states such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and his efforts to build new relationships in the West.

A truncated version of the story consists of Gorbachev being held in house arrest at his vacation villa in Crimea, followed by a declaration of a state of emergency by coup leader Gennady Yanayev, and plans to similarly arrest Russian president Boris Yeltsin as part of an overall effort to halt the Gorbachev-Yeltsin vision of economic and political reform. Within a few days, however, the coup (which has been described by historian Dan Stone as the “last gasp of those who were astonished at and felt betrayed by the precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe”) was over and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was instead hastened. That followed a mere four months later.

The contributors to National Review’s September 23, 1991 issue could already see the writing on the wall. The issue’s lead editorial anticipated the forthcoming unipolar world in which there was “no doubt the United States is the only superpower” and that we would in effect be living in “an American world.”

The magazine’s editors recognized that it would be a “somewhat chaotic world.” Freedom, as they put it, “is a kind of chaotic thing.” It would be up to statesmen therefore to establish the conditions for global peace, security, and prosperity. Their tone, in the other words, was triumphalist but also clear-eyed.

An article by Leon Aron, then a scholar at the Heritage Foundation and today a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, similarly speculated about a post-communist Soviet Union that faced real challenges including internal violence, economic disruption, and even possible nuclear threats, but ultimately bought into the idea that Yeltsin could lead the country through “a very complicated transition to democracy and a market economy.”

An essay by then-Reader’s Digest contributor, David Satter, conveyed a similar assessment of what might come next. As he put it: “The country could descend into chaos; it could even fall victim to another coup. But whatever happens it will not return to ‘Gorbachevism,’ the attempt to free consciousness while preserving the society’s totalitarian institutions intact.”

The question of course was: what came next?

A beautiful piece of writing by Solzhenitsyn observed that the Soviet story was one in which the country had “forfeited the entire twentieth century” due to a combination of bad ideas, policies, and leadership. Yet he was circumspect about the prospects of the post-August revolution. He warned of the risk of “repeat[ing] the chaos” of 1917 and made the case that “democracy must be built from the bottom up, gradually, patiently, and in a way designed to last rather than being proclaimed thunderously from above in its full-fledged form.”

Solzhenitsyn’s admonition regrettably went unheeded in the immediate aftermath of the August revolution in 1991. His prescience about the challenges of post-communist democratization was notable. As he wrote at the time: “From a flourishing condition we have been hurled back to a state of semi-barbarity, and we are sitting amid the wreckage.”

In hindsight, it seems clear that it was out of this wreckage that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s worldview took shape. His personal lesson from the August revolution was ultimately about power and strength. One gets the sense that this formative experience (when Putin himself was about the same age relative to the current distance from these events) permanently influenced his conception of politics and the world. The intellectual basis of his recent invasion of Ukraine finds a big part of its foundation in this brief yet transformational episode.

Let me wrap up with the issue’s essay by Buckley. Although it reflected some of the same cautions about the instability and risks that might follow, it was a bit more triumphant. After all, he had founded the magazine more than 35 years earlier in large part as a reaction to Soviet communism and its threat to economic, political, and religious freedom. He could be forgiven therefore for concluding with something of a personal reflection:

“… every month, every year, the writers in National Review did what they could to press hope, and to maintain the moral perspective. We are justly proud that one of our readers became the leader of the Free World, who exercised the critical voice in the critical deliberations of the Eighties.

And, on bended knee, we give thanks to Providence for the transfiguration of Russia, thanks from those of us who lived to see it, and thanks to those, departed, who helped us to understand why it was right to struggle to sustain the cause of Western civilization.”

Recent weeks have served to remind us that this struggle is far from over. These lessons of history can help to guide us through the darkness of the present chaos. But it’s ultimately up to us to press hope and maintain the moral perspective.