Why Central Bank Digital Currencies Are a Bad Idea
Why Central Bank Digital Currencies Are a Bad Idea by Tomas Forgac for Mises
Central bank digital currencies (CBDC) are being sold with the narrative of protecting consumers who are increasingly moving to cashless payments. Some say that these cashless payments will rob us of the privacy advantages of cash while exposing us to bank runs, payment network blackouts, and foreign financial adversaries.
Yet while these risks are real, they would be negligible had it not been for the central banking and financial regulators’ interventions into the market. CBDCs make these interventions worse and introduce some new, much bigger ones.
While the stated intention behind CBDCs is to keep the commercial banks in the picture, these digital currencies will bring their end users closer to the central banks. This is because blockchains and blockchain-inspired distributed ledger technologies are built on a single common ledger, which is distributed either in a permissionless or permissioned manner. The permissionless distribution exposes a lot of information about the network participants but in combination with proof-of-work verification makes it very difficult for an adversary to attack and overtake the network and, e.g., change the inflation rate.
A permissioned network with no proof-of-work or similar consensus algorithm not only doesn’t provide the immutability feature, but by having a single permissioned ledger gives potential control to those who grant the network privileges. As a result, the central bank as the ultimate permission issuer would have much stronger control over the monetary system and payment network than it has right now. This gives the central banks three very dangerous capabilities.
The reason why we’ve seen such an elevated business cycle over the past century is the central banking fiat money system. Unnatural expansion of the money supply causes booms, which are unsustainable, and markets try to clear them when they are exposed as such.
Economists of the Austrian school understand that the boom is the real problem and the economic crisis is the necessary and positive cleansing mechanism. Unfortunately, the (neo-)Keynesian response to such an event is to prop the markets up by further monetary interventions.
The problem is that the current design of the banking system requires the intermediary role of commercial banks in issuing credit to businesses. Central banks get frustrated when the commercial banks exercise caution in an economy that hasn’t fully cleared the previous misallocations and hasn’t brought prices of capital goods to more sustainable levels. Needless to say, commercial banks’ cautious approach to consumer credit in a period of growing unemployment doesn’t align well with the central bank’s goals either. During the covid crisis, the governments managed to an extent to get around these hurdles by issuing benefits en masse, but those are complicated by logistics, bureaucracy, or legislation. Since the predominant Keynesian narrative is that spending drives the economy (hint: it doesn’t—capital investments do), the central banks would like to spur more consumer spending by issuing money supply directly to consumers.