Before beating a hasty retreat, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went where no world leader has gone before. Last month, he became the first Western leader to wield the financial system as a push-button weapon of government enforcement against opinions and behaviors that he found politically distasteful or inconvenient. This is an entirely new form of power, which much of the world has not even begun to reckon with—but which may well define our politics in the years to come.
The unification of finance and technology has allowed for new forms of trade, commerce, and business. The ability to make purchases worldwide, bank from home, do taxes on your couch, and get faster approval for financial instruments like mortgages makes our lives easier. But all of this comes with a catch: The same technology that delivers instant banking and worldwide access to things we like also creates the possibility for abuse of power the likes of which we have never seen.
In order to understand the problem that faces us now, we first need to understand two concepts: real-world friction and financial centralization.
To grasp the idea of real-world friction, let’s take the example of arresting, convicting, and jailing a citizen in a democracy. In order to make an arrest, a police officer must be hired and given the authority to make the arrest. He must locate the individual he needs to arrest. He must identify that individual. He must physically perform the arrest by placing handcuffs on the individual, and take him to a holding facility where he must read the arrestee his rights. As you can imagine, finding people and taking them to jail is a time-consuming, tedious, and difficult process.
Additionally, in order to prosecute the arrested person and carry out a judicial punishment, there must be a trial. The arrested person is entitled to a lawyer. It is required that evidence is provided and often that other people must testify. The accused is also entitled to a defense, and a verdict must be reached in his case. If the person is convicted, he must be taken to a jail cell. In short, a series of difficult steps must be taken in the real, physical world in order to arrest, convict, and jail someone.
The same applies in the market. It used to be that if I wanted to buy a product, I needed to have access to a mode of transportation, get to a store, and give the right amount of physical currency to the store owner in order to receive my physical item—all of which creates real-world friction.
Contrast that experience with the current mode of financial transactions, in which I can press a few buttons on my phone, and in some cases the item will show up on my doorstep in less than an hour. The former case has a lot of real world friction; the second has almost none.
The second concept has to do with the way that digital financial interconnectedness creates the possibility of centralizing financial power in a way that was previously unthinkable, or practically unworkable. Sixty years ago, for the most part, almost all Americans went about their day-to-day lives making all of their financial transactions through analog instruments like cash, checks, and later, credit cards.
Cash is a decentralized instrument. While governments have always had the ability to print money and exercise power over monetary policy, they were for the most part unable to monitor what people did with their money. In a world prior to digitized banking, tracking what people were doing with their money was very difficult. If someone chose to operate using cash, it was nearly impossible to determine exactly what they were doing with it. This is one reason why criminal enterprises still tend to use cash. In a cash world, a person can spend their money however they wish, as long as they’re using cash—and unless a business records each and every transaction along with the identity of the person making the purchase, it is often impossible to prove that someone made a purchase of a particular item at a particular store.
One might respond that, “Even in an analog world, the government can still freeze assets.” But it’s not so simple. In an analog world, it can be incredibly time-intensive to figure out how many bank accounts a particular person has. There are thousands of banks in the United States alone. In a world prior to digital searching, it would be very difficult even for the government to find a person’s bank accounts and freeze their assets without a rather large investment of time by numerous people with specialized skills. To merit such treatment, the target would have to be someone very special—a drug kingpin, or an exceptionally crooked politician who stole money on a vast scale.
In the world we live in now, an increasing number of financial transactions are done digitally. We get email approval for mortgages, we have apps on our phones that deliver our financial information in real time, we make purchases using interbank networks, we buy products online, and we place orders over the internet with PayPal and other e-transfers. Each of these transactions leaves a digital trail of information that can be saved and stored easily and forever. With ever more processing power, the ability of large institutions to organize this data and make it searchable is becoming easier, making it possible for third parties and institutions to track what everyone does with their money. It’s no longer necessary to spend large amounts of time and manpower pouring over paper receipts to figure out how a business or individual spent their money.
Moreover, the world’s various financial institutions are becoming increasingly interconnected and enmeshed. They use similar technologies, are connected to similar networks, have data sharing agreements of various kinds, and more often now, financial institutions use common digital infrastructure. The decentralization that was the norm in a cash society has eroded. The financial world is quickly becoming centralized as the major players become ever more interconnected.
The loss of real-world friction coupled with the increasing centralization of the financial system has opened up possibilities for new forms of coercion, control, and power—particularly when governments and the private sector decide to cooperate. Which brings us to the case of the Canadian prime minister.
The loss of real-world friction coupled with the increasing centralization of the financial system has opened up possibilities for new forms of coercion.
To express opposition to certain COVID policies in Canada, a group of truckers decided to hold large, nonviolent public protests that began at the end of January. As part of these protests, they decided to block a number of roads and bridges, many of which were important for commerce and trade. Semitrucks are very large, very heavy, and require specialized equipment to tow in the event a driver refuses to move his or her vehicle. In this case, the government was either unwilling or unable to get the specialized equipment required to move the semis in a timely manner. So the Canadian federal government decided to exercise financial pressure in order to convince the truckers to move. In doing so, Trudeau and his government exercised a form of power unprecedented for a democracy.
The Trudeau government declared a state of emergency, and using its emergency powers began to freeze the bank accounts of anyone they had reason to believe was blocking roads and bridges—including not just the truckers and other protesters themselves, but those who financially supported them. Rather than having to go through the very difficult task of physically moving semitrucks, and fining, ticketing, or charging those who blocked bridges and roads, the government gave a simple order—and with a few keystrokes, people associated with the protest were almost completely locked out of Canada’s financial system. Everything from paying mortgages, to buying gas, to getting a cup of coffee at a drive-thru became impossible for those that the government had deemed to be a problem.
What happens when a government is no longer required to do the very difficult, friction-filled work of finding people, writing tickets, arresting them, charging them, granting them due process, obtaining convictions, and jailing the guilty? When the government can bring a person’s practical participation in society to a standstill with the push of a button, it becomes silly to even talk about individual rights or due process. In the face of this new kind of push-button power, exercised at the whim of the governing party with zero legal oversight, individuals can simply be deleted from the system—even if, technically speaking, they are never charged with or convicted of a crime.
In the case of government action, this is bad enough—but at least in the case of elected officials, the people will still have their say, and the government will be held accountable for abuses of power in the next round of elections, as Trudeau may have feared when he revoked the government’s emergency powers at the end of February.
A deeper concern is what happens when private institutions like corporations, universities, and media exercise the same power without even the pretense of accountability. If the large financial institutions want to, they can act as gatekeepers to society and would be held accountable only by the market, to which they also hold the keys. Given that institutions are heavily dependent on each other, if the institutions that hold important positions in the global financial web decide to freeze someone out, they can do so with the push of a button. Worse yet, we can imagine a scenario in which a system of freeze-outs could be automated based on people’s credit scores, purchasing histories, political donation patterns, key words in social media postings, carbon footprints, or political activism. It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which a citizen of a democracy wakes up one day to find themselves unable to participate in the digital economy, where almost all financial transactions take place, due to an automated system which flags them as being undesirable in some way.
Corporations and government have always exercised tremendous power, of course. Government has a monopoly on the use of force, using the policing powers to enforce laws. Corporations have always exercised enormous power via market share, advertising, lobbying, and other financial instruments. But never before have they been able to lock ordinary citizens out of social participation with the flip of a switch.
This push-button tyranny is real, and it represents a greater abuse of power than any that has been exercised before within the boundaries of liberal democratic government. It is new, it is breathtaking, and it is very dangerous.
Michael Young is a visiting fellow at the Center for Renewing America. Follow him on Twitter @wokal_distance.