Calling out Bitcoin is the right thing to do
The most wonderful day of the capitalist year: Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting may not be "Woodstock for Capitalists" in 2021 due to the pandemic, but at least Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett were on stage together this past Saturday.
■ Every such meeting is a worthwhile experience; it's not that Buffett and Munger are perfect, but they are wise. They've accumulated wisdom through observation and practice alike, and -- importantly -- openly confess their mistakes. At the 2014 meeting, Munger professed, "If we hadn't been so good at removing our ignorance step by step, we would be a fraction of ourselves today [...] We're very good at ignorance-removal, and fortunately for us, we have a lot more ignorance to remove." It's that kind of humility that undergirds the wisdom -- constantly seeking to understand the boundaries of their knowledge and to push that frontier outward.
■ And then there is the benefit of having that wisdom applied to value judgments. Hearing Charlie Munger decry speculation in moral terms is always refreshing. When he says that Bitcoin is "contrary to the interests of civilization", he's not saying so because he's jealous; the man is wealthy far beyond his own needs. Nor is he afraid of "missing out" on the rise of the investment; he's 97 years old. If he's criticizing something for being harmful to civilization, that's strictly what he means.
■ The world could use a great deal more of Munger's market moralism -- not just from him, but from many corners. Aside from the practice of teaching "business ethics" in college, we rarely see public figures apply moral thought to the marketplace. The problem with isolating "business ethics" as a discrete field is that it effectively dis-integrates the person. To put the qualifier "business" out front is to say "There are ethics for your life, and then there are different rules that apply if you do something in the workplace."
■ This is not to say that there aren't unique ethical questions that arise in the world of business; there certainly are, and they deserve careful examination. But, by and large, an untrained person from outside the world of business should generally be able to ascertain what is right and wrong, because business is merely an arena in which humans interact with other humans. The Greek agora wasn't reserved exclusively for buying and selling. Divorcing our modern notion of a holistically ethical life from what we do when money becomes involved is a categorical error.
■ Now, it may be necessary to teach business ethics because there are people who enter the world of business with no personal ethics to speak of. But for the vast majority of people and cases, "business ethics" should just be "ethics". Integrity comes from being whole. You can't really carve up who you are or the standards you observe based upon whether you're in the boardroom, on the tennis court, in the grocery store, or playing a card game with friends. A person who is a liar, cheat, or slouch in one area probably shouldn't be intrinsically trusted in others.
■ Yet, aside from exceptional individuals like Charlie Munger, we don't have a lot of people who make deep value judgments out loud in the world of commerce. Sure, there is money to be made from speculation on things like Bitcoin. But is it a good profit? Does it enhance human life? Is it expanding human dignity by getting more useful goods and services to places where there are needed? Or is it profit derived from consuming a vast amount of electricity in order to duplicate the work of fiat currencies? Bubbles are not generally productive, and some wisdom consists of recognizing when speculation has a grip on a market.
■ We are (and should be) free to do a lot of things unfettered by the intervention of the state; just because something can or might do harm doesn't mean it has to be prohibited. But just because something is a legal transaction doesn't mean it is a good one, either. We need role models and exemplars who are willing to say just that.