I will start by stating my conclusion: yes, Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) are one of the greatest threats to personal freedom today, perhaps even the greatest. I will explain my conclusion, but first provide a definition of CBDCs, and acknowledge certain advantages.
A CBDC is a digital banknote, issued by a central bank. Instead of holding physical banknotes in your physical wallet, your digital wallet (e.g. smartphone) would hold digital currency units. CBDCs, similar to bitcoin, would also be based on blockchain technology. Whereas bitcoin is the ultimate decentralised payment system, independent of central banks, CBDCs are the ultimate in centralisation, as coins are issued by a central bank. The amount of transactional information flowing into central banks would be staggering!
CBDCs might be here sooner than you think: 114 countries are actively exploring or rolling out CBDCs.
There are several undeniable advantages to CBDCs. It is more efficient than cash – no printing costs and presumably more difficult to forge. CBDCs would give the government greater power to affect economic cycles (e.g. digging us out of an economic recession by zapping helicopter money to everyone’s account. Such money may optionally be programmed with an expiry date – thereby forcing people to spend, so stimulating growth).
Despite a strong economic efficiency argument, the disadvantages are overwhelming. There is a privacy argument – that the government will see your every transaction – and may be tempted to spy on you and prevent tax evasion. But what solidifies my anti-CBDC position is the degree of control given to the government. As mentioned, CBDCs would be programmable by a central authority. Every transaction could be monitored in real time, tracking all activities and movement of individuals. Individuals deemed as threats – or not to the liking of the government could be targeted, especially significant in countries with poor human rights records.
To go even further, CBDCs would make it easy for governments to freeze anyone’s wallet, making it impossible to send or receive money. You may think this will never happen in an “advanced”, democratic society, but it has already happened! And in a country that is supposedly one of the most liberal and democratic countries on earth – Canada. You may recall that there was a trucking strike in 2022 in which thousands of truckers were demonstrating against Covid restrictions – and the government enacted emergency legislation, which enabled the freezing of bank accounts and cancelling of credit cards for hundreds of people who contributed to the “Freedom Convoy” campaign. (Granted, these were bank and credit card accounts, not CBDC accounts – freezing of CBDC accounts would be much easier – as these would be held directly with central banks, rather than the government having to work through third-party private banks). Anyone deemed undesirable could easily be deprived of mainstream financial services.
CBDCs will also make it easier for governments to implement negative interest rates and financial repression. In other words, CBDC will not just make putting money into your account easier (e.g., helicopter money), but would also facilitate taking money out of your account (negative interest rate or wealth tax).
Perhaps the only realistic way that governments across the world can escape national debt spirals is financial repression: ensuring interest rates are lower than inflation for the coming years – pushing interest rates into negative territory if necessary. Although financial repression has been successfully implemented in the past without CBDCs (e.g., in the late 1940s), today debt levels are much higher than at any previous time, and capital is more internationally mobile, hence governments will be sorely tempted to introduce CBDCs. And while they will no doubt try to reassure us that CBDCs will not be abused, once CBDCs are introduced, there is no way to curtail the government’s use of them. Every emergency will justify yet another encroachment.
CBDCs create disintermediation: to the extent that private wallet holders hold accounts directly with central banks – banks are cut out of the loop. In other words, the power that resided with banks will be transferred to central banks, one of the least transparent and accountable organs of government. CBDCs represent a massive power grab by central banks at the expense of the banking sector and individuals.
Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the countries leading the charge on the implementation of CBDCs is China. According to Christopher Waller, a Federal Reserve board member: "…CBDC accounts could give the Federal Reserve access to a vast amount of information regarding the financial transactions and trading patterns of CBDC account holders…The introduction of a CBDC in China, for example, likely will allow the Chinese government to closely monitor the economic activity of its citizens. Should the Federal Reserve create a CBDC for the same reason? I, for one, do not think so."
This will be the most important monetary policy debate of the coming decade. The outcome will fundamentally determine what kind of society we live in.
Les Nemethy is the CEO and founder of Euro-Phoenix Financial Advisors Ltd and a former official at the World Bank.