Mission-driven cryptocurrency requires an active commitment to equity


On Sept. 27, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong sought to center his employees’ work around the company’s core mission: “to bring economic freedom to people all over the world.” Armstrong argues for a narrow interpretation of Coinbase’s mission to build the best possible product because it is “already hugely ambitious” and because companies generally cannot succeed if their goals “include all forms of equality and justice.” 

Armstrong’s perspective is not unique to Coinbase and represents a broader tech industry incarnation of the white-savior complex rooted in the belief of the product’s inherent goodness. This belief is especially noteworthy in crypto, given its diversity problem. Views like Armstrong’s, when coming from a mission-driven cryptocurrency organization, ignore and insult the people and organizations on the ground doing the critical work to financially empower communities. Furthermore, these views overestimate the ability of cryptocurrency to address financial exclusion caused by structural problems as well as technical ones.

Related: The avaricious misanthropy of Brian Armstrong

The technology of cryptocurrency offers solutions and features critical to increasing financial inclusion. Payments can be made in places where cash is at risk of being stolen and where bank accounts are inaccessible. They can also be made anonymously and tied to contracts, all without the need for third parties.

The technical advantages of cryptocurrency, however, do not line up perfectly with the root causes of financial exclusion. So, while companies such as Coinbase do important work proliferating cryptocurrencies, achieving economic freedom requires more, and crypto projects must be honest about their opportunities to improve financial inclusion as they reckon with their own limitations. If they are not interested in economic prosperity and freedom, that is perfectly fine — a company’s end goal is its bottom-line profits after all. But if crypto organizations are to legitimately claim a social mission, they must step out from behind their computer monitors to address the limitations of their technical products. Otherwise, their platitudes for financial prosperity read like an investment bank asserting that it brings economic freedom to the world through increasing market liquidity.

Related: No, blockchain technology cannot solve everything

The limitations of cryptocurrency

While cryptocurrency offers novel ways to create a new financial system, the technology and its proliferation cannot solve the underlying causes of financial exclusion alone. Today, 1.7 billion people do not have access to a bank account, and billions more do not have access to other basic financial services because institutions have long ignored and oppressed these communities. Of the people who do have access to the financial system, many are trapped in a cycle of debt without the means to generate wealth. According to The Boston Globe, the median net worth of…

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