Interview: Bitcoin, blockchains, and economic theory

Dr. Andreas Tiedke, a businessperson, attorney, and author, asked me some questions about Bitcoin for the Mises Institute of Germany ( community. The interview covers some fundamental issues in understanding how bitcoin works as well as observations on current issues. This was conducted first in English, which is below. My German did prove sufficient to read Dr. Tiedke's resulting translation, published here. Well done!
Image: Tony Lozano.

Image: Tony Lozano.

AT: Do you know who Satoshi Nakamoto, the alleged inventor of Bitcoin, is? Do you think it is really Craig Steven Wright?

KG: Satoshi remained anonymous with great care, most likely for good reasons. His invention could be quite disruptive. He may also control a million or more bitcoins (and now a million BCH as well) from the early days of mining to get the network on its feet. This currently has a potential market value of several billion euros. These coins have never been moved. I have seen no evidence that leads me to believe he has changed his mind on anonymity.

AT: There is a legend about an early offer to deliver pizza for 10,000 bitcoins. Do you know whether it is true? The pizza baker must now be a millionaire (about 40 million euros)!

KG: Someone offered 10,000 BTC on a mailing list to anyone who would deliver pizza to him. Someone took him up and ordered pizza from a delivery place near the asker using a credit card, doing so from another country. The pizza buyer received the bitcoins, the asker received the pizza, and the pizza delivery place received only an ordinary credit card payment. Technically then, the pizza served as an intermediary for exchanging bitcoin for the credit card payment, as bitcoin could not be used at that time to buy the pizza directly. Nevertheless, this became a milestone in people’s minds in which Bitcoin interfaced with “the real economy.”

For monetary theory, it is important to understand that for Bitcoin’s first several months of existence—nearly a year—the tradable “bitcoin” units had no market value. It was just a technical experiment. Only later did the tradable units begin to gradually gain a market value.

AT: Some believe that the blockchain has two main disadvantages: First, transactions cannot be anonymous because every transaction is stored. Second, it will become too big in the future, also because every transaction is stored. Do they have a point?

KG: All transactions are anonymous in principle in that they lack any identifying information on persons or organizations. This contrasts with banking systems in which accounts must be associated with identities—except for the old Swiss numbered accounts. There are no accounts in Bitcoin itself, only addresses and transactions. New valid addresses can be generated from scratch anywhere, even using dice.

That said, Bitcoin’s blockchain is public and it is possible to “connect the dots” to uncover identities behind transactions. Each wallet has different privacy characteristics and there are privacy best practices, such as always using a new address for receiving.

An “evolutionary arms race” prevails between privacy features and blockchain analytics. The blockchain provides a permanent record of all that has occurred on it, so analysts can just keep going over all this data at their leisure to find associations. On the other hand, several development projects aim at improving privacy. Payment codes, for example, add a layer that enables payments to be made without revealing the underlying address. For more on the privacy characteristics of current wallets, see the Open Bitcoin Privacy Project.

As to whether a given blockchain would become “too big,” that is a subjective assessment. Too big to whom and for what? Generally, the costs of data storage, processing power, and bandwidth all plummet year after year, and developers are also working hard to revise software such that it makes more efficient use of given resources. These are all important contexts for considering this.

AT: What is bitcoin in your opinion? Is it money or an asset, a capital good?

KG: This is still a challenging issue. The best starting point is to say that bitcoin is something entirely new, never seen before. As we try to understand it using the terminology of economics or law, for example, those concepts themselves have to be questioned in an interactive process. Beyond economics, I also used this approach in a short book addressing the relationship between bitcoin and property rights theory. So my approach is not only “What is bitcoin?” But also: “Do our theoretical concepts need some refining in light of bitcoin?” The alternative is a tendency to pretend to force bitcoin into some existing box into which it does not actually fit.

Another useful principle to apply was one emphasized in the work of Ludwig von Mises—economic concepts have to do with the analysis of human action. So in looking at Bitcoin, I have emphasized that it is critical to distinguish the technical “layer” from the economic one. For example, Bitcoin existed as a technical system for nearly a year before its tradable units gained any market value. And it was nearly two years before it gained any appreciable use in the buying and selling of goods. So clearly these economic valuations emerged on top of what was already there, which was this technical layer. That means people began to figure out that they could begin to make certain economic uses out of this technical thing that was already running. Exchange values and trading venues gradually co-emerged.

I argued here that bitcoin gained market value for use as a medium of exchange, which means an economic good demanded not for its own sake, but to be held and exchanged for other goods or services at some indeterminate later time. Initial uses of the units before it gained any exchange value were extremely thin and require some analysis to even identify: for example, being valued as a collectible item, or as a by-product or symbol of participation in an interesting software project, a researcher plaything, in the earliest days.

Some have come to view bitcoin today as more of an asset. Rather than cash to use for day-to-day transactions, it is more a larger-value vehicle held in reserve. Of course, different people have used it in both ways and the same people also use it in both ways at different times. Both uses are possible so long as it maintains a positive exchange value and some reasonable liquidity. The value of the supply being unchangeable can overcome some degree of other inconveniences.

However, these categories are not exclusive, but on a continuum. A medium of exchange use always takes place across time and involves addressing the inherent risk and uncertainty of the future. The variables under discussion are therefore the relative amounts held, the duration of holding, and the increments of future spending of the medium of exchange. In contrast, the idea of an alleged “store of value” use often used in this debate as if it were a contrast to a medium of exchange use is imprecise and impressionistic. Just as money does not “measure” value, as Mises emphasized, but is rather exchanged for goods at some indefinite future time, “value” cannot be “stored,” as if it were a certain amount of food. This “store of value” idea is more a weak intuitive analogy than a rigorous economic concept. Underneath this illusion, there are only intertemporal exchanges that take place over different time scales and in different amounts.

AT: Why the division of Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash?

KG: The BTC/BCH chain split was one outcome of a disagreement over a protocol limitation on the maximum size of each block added to the chain. I have written about political-economic considerations on the block size limit here, as well as a follow-up series addressing common criticisms starting here.

The “cash” side emphasizes that it is important for people to be able to transact in bitcoin without too much difficulty, and that this usability is an important component of its value. The “digital gold” side emphasizes the idea that such convenience is not especially important compared to a secure vehicle for long-term savings—adding that anyway, promised “layer 2” transacting options should supply these additional practical needs in the future, still denominated in on-chain bitcoin. A widespread belief underlying the conflict is that these are somehow contradictory visions rather than complementary ones.

AT: After the recent sharp rise in the bitcoin exchange rate, some people now warn against further investing in bitcoin and some even say this could be compared to the tulip mania in 17th century Holland. Your thoughts on this?

KG: This is exactly what the same people always say, year after year, and Bitcoin is still going strong, closing in on nine years with basically no downtime. I first came across this argument in spring 2013 in the run-up to about $250, but apparently it had already been expressed in 2011 in the run-up to about $30. It may be fair to argue at times that the bitcoin price is in a bubble phase, but it is another claim entirely to argue that the thing itself is a bubble—and nothing more.

My sense is that this kind of “nothing but a bubble” thinking is often associated with minimal to no understanding of how Bitcoin works on a technical level. In the absence of such understanding, these critics can only envision a vague nothingness in place of Bitcoin’s technical underpinnings. Yet since many clear descriptions are now available for free online from beginner to advanced, such claims seem to indicate a willingness to comment without learning.

AT: Some think that blockchain technology will have huge consequences for society in terms of decentralization. They say that this technology will give small, decentralized entities an edge over big centralized organizations. Some even say that the existence of big companies like Google or even states could be threatened by blockchain technology. Do they have a point?

KG: From my perspective, there are two main implications of the first blockchain. First, bitcoin units are a medium of exchange and potential form of money that has arisen from the private sector—actually the informal sector—not from the state. This deflates the old chartalist claim that money can only come from the state, or at least can survive only with the state’s blessing. In contrast, it took states years to even start to notice it.

Second, Bitcoin enables people to transact without third-party intermediation. Let us call it “permissionless transacting.” Every other kind of remote transacting requires some third-party facilitation, often by a bank. But the position of facilitator comes with the ability to refuse to facilitate, whether through corporate policy or because authorities order it. It also comes with the ability to track and create a permanent record of spending, including dates, parties, places, and amounts, destroying privacy.

With Bitcoin, states can certainly take steps to outlaw certain types of transactions, but unlike with banking systems, authorities cannot block transactions to begin with. They can only seek to prosecute criminalized acts after they are committed. In societies that purport to respect due process and the rule of law, this happens to be all that such authorities are supposed to be doing anyway—in contrast to the PreCrime Division in the science-fiction story Minority Report.

As for “decentralized” and “centralized” in Bitcoin discussions, these are first of all computer-science concepts. A network is either designed with a center, such as a conventional server/client system, or without one, in which case the center has been taken out of the design, thus “decentralized.” With Bitcoin, this mainly refers to adopting a peer-to-peer architecture and not having any central currency issuer that could manipulate supply.

I think these computer-science terms have come to be used in a vague mix-up with economics concepts such as monopoly and competition, scale and industry competitiveness. They can generate more confused ideas than useful analyses. Economies of scale in different industries, and other factors influencing relative firm sizes, are not necessarily going to magically transform because there now exists a non-state money lacking a central issuer that can be used without third-party facilitation.

AT: Could you explain what the essence of blockchain technology is? What makes it so great?

KG: I would recommend reading my article on this topic with respect to the technology and methods behind Bitcoin for a fuller picture, both of the scale of the invention and why people have such a hard time understanding it. In essence, Bitcoin combined at least four major elements, most of which were first developed within about the past 40 years. Most people do not understanding any of these elements, or maybe only one or two of them, and then vaguely. These are hash functions, digital signatures, peer-to-peer architecture, and open-source development. So of course people who understand few or none of the parts cannot hope to understand a whole that combined them into something far greater than their sum.

One key thing that a blockchain does is form an unforgeable record of past information, with new information continually being added at the end of the chain. Thus, while new information can be added, that already recorded cannot be erased or revised in the slightest way. This history cannot be rewritten. The fact that the tradable bitcoin units have a market value is also essential to financing the mining network in a decentralized way. The system’s security and the unit’s market value are interdependent.

There has been a movement to define “blockchain” as the “real” innovation of the Bitcoin system, with the bitcoin (monetary unit) part being just sort of one silly initial idea for using a blockchain. According to this view, it is the “many other applications” and different sorts of “tokens” that are really exciting. I think this is completely backwards.

While it is true that a blockchain design might have some useful applications other than digital cash and if these are indeed made to work in practice and gain real users, that would certainly be positive, a blockchain is an extremely cumbersome and expensive thing. This means there ought to be compelling reasons for using a blockchain rather than a simpler, faster, and cheaper design. The blockchain design was created to solve a very specific problem—how to create scarce digital cash with no central issuer. For most applications other than digital cash, however, a blockchain is probably wasteful, unnecessary, and over-hyped—unless proven otherwise through actual use as opposed to marketing pitches.

AT: It is said that the core of blockchain technology is the math behind it. The solution to the so-called “Byzantine Generals Problem”. Could you describe what this problem is and how blockchain technology solved the issue?

KG: The problem is how to get different people in different places to agree on the validity of a given piece of information without relying on communications that could be compromised and falsified at source, in transmission, or both.

The lynchpin of the solution that Satoshi found was in a characteristic of hash functions. A hash is a “one-way function.” Information goes in and one specific hash of that information comes out. However, the hash cannot be used in the other direction to reconstruct any of the original information.

In Bitcoin, miners have to find a hash that is below a certain value. Visibly, it has to begin with a certain number of zeros.


The “difficulty adjustment” changes this threshold. The miners have to increment a random number field and keep looking for resulting hashes until they find one that is below a certain value. It is unimaginably difficult to come up with a valid hash within the difficulty requirement to begin with. It takes billions of trial and error attempts to do so. However, it is trivial to check afterwards whether a given proposed hash is valid for the block.

So solving the hash of the next block (“mining”) is extremely difficult. And the solution cannot be forged or falsified because anyone on the network can quickly verify whether a proposed solution is valid. A valid solution serves as a proof that work must have been done to find it, and is therefore called a “proof of work.” There is no short-cut way to arrive at a valid hash other than doing the hashing work, which means investing in facilities and equipment and consuming electricity to brute force the hash for each specific block candidate.

So returning to the “Byzantine Generals” situation, with proof-of-work, an invalid message can always be revealed as such because it can be checked using the information in the message itself, after it arrives. The message as it arrives contains all the information needed to establish whether it is a valid message or not in relation to the chain it proposes to extend. There is no need to establish whether it was falsified in transmission. It does not matter if it was. It is still either valid or not as it presents itself wherever it arrives.

Another key trick to make this work is that each miner’s valid hash is only valid for that miner because his own reward address is already incorporated into his candidate block before the hash is found. That reward address is part of what is being hashed. Therefore, no others validating a proposed answer can just expropriate it for their own benefit. That particular answer they are examining already builds in the winning miner’s own address for collecting the block reward being sought.

AT: Bitcoin has a limit of 21 million bitcoins that can ever be mined. But in August, the Bitcoin blockchain was split into Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash. So, isn’t the production potential limitless, then, like with central banks? And even out of the Bitcoin blockchain, limitless other digital coins could be created. Couldn’t this threat the value of the Bitcoins?

KG: This is a fascinating topic and I also wrote an article about it here. Essentially, both bitcoin (BTC) and bitcoin cash (BCH) are valid continuations of the previous Bitcoin blockchain, but the two are now permanently separated. They can never interact again as the same chain. It is a little like speciation in the natural world. Though long-separated groups of life forms share a common ancestor in the distant past, they have changed such that when descendants meet again later, they can no longer interbreed—and this is irreversible. In this case, a Bitcoin “speciation” event happened on August 1, 2017 when blocks were found that some versions of the software found valid and other versions did not find valid because of specific differences in the rules those respective versions were enforcing.

As for the claim that this split was inflationary, I will quote from my article on this, because I don’t think I can say it better a second time:

“Zero ‘new bitcoins’ have been created from a monetary-inflation standpoint. Control of any existing bitcoin unit before the split gave rise to corresponding control of one BTC and one BCH unit after the split. Since this reflected the precise and complete pre-existing constellation of unit control with no alteration for each and all former holders of the single-chain BTC, no redistributive Cantillon effects follow.”

Cantillon effects, for those unfamiliar with the term, refer to changes in the distribution of wealth among money holders when new money goes first to some users rather than others. In this case, every existing BTC unit became in the same moment one BTC unit and one BCH unit for each holder.

I have also argued that the fact that combined prices of BTC and BCH rose in the weeks that followed, and dramatically, may suggest net value added for holders. This could be because of a market perception that the various development teams can now proceed more smoothly with their respective scaling visions, and we can see what actually becomes of these efforts in reality, rather than being limited to models, talk, and promises.

Of course, anyone could split a chain at any time and continue it with certain modified rules, but it is an entirely different matter for such a chain to gain any economic value, and particularly any investment of scarce SHA256 mining power. The most likely outcome is just that no one mines a fork and it does not continue: extinction.

Yet both BTC and BCH chains have survived to the present time. BCH has maintained a market price that has ranged from $200–900, and is currently about $350. In quite recent memory, that was considered a high price for the pre-split BTC. This outcome was not at all a given.

An infinite number of new chain splits without any real economic justification or real-world support from miners should just result in an infinite amount of nothing happening, as each one dies off quickly or never really gets started. For daughter chains that do survive—in this case BTC and BCH both have—this survival itself may imply some perceived net value added for holders of the pre-split coin. The two are now competitors, along with all the other cryptocurrenices. This chain split was quite distinct from the crop of many hundreds of other cryptocurrencies, which are new chains started with their own rule-sets and fresh structures of coin ownership.

AT: Bitcoin detractors contend that the volume of Bitcoin trade is limited and the technology could not manage the number of transactions that take place with fiat money every day. What do you think?

KG: The volume of bitcoin transacting on the BTC chain has come to be artificially limited relative to demand by a 1MB block size limit that has been in place since 2010. BCH was one effort to address this by raising the protocol block size limit to 8MB. That is a level that is once again well above current regular demand, as it was for the limit’s entire previous history until recent years. Another effort to address transaction volume entails building cryptographic systems that enable trading that is “off-chain,” but purportedly preserves the quality of permissionless transacting denominated in bitcoin.

I do not see any contradiction between these models, as I have explained here, but since many involved do seem to treat these more as competing than complementary approaches—and have made a competitive sport of belittling and insulting those whose views differ on this matter—this has contributed to the chain split, possible future chain splits, and the overall level of political-style contention.

My own take is that on-chain and various existing and proposed off-chain options should be treated as dynamically limiting competitors in a relationship of synergy and competition. If an off-chain option actually offers superior characteristics in terms of cost and speed, it will naturally draw some business off the main chain, reducing on-chain traffic (and fees). This could enable certain types of traffic off chain that would not have taken place on chain.

At the same time, the off-chain options themselves require some on-chain transactions, for example, to open and close payment channels or to create a unit link with a sidechain. If such options come into wide use, they could in turn lift on-chain traffic themselves. So the factors operate in both directions and in unpredictable ways. On- and off-chain options can both create business for each other and take business away from each other in a complex and unpredictable interaction. The presence of both expands the sphere of end-user choices. In this kind of situation, on-chain and off-chain options ought to be free to compete with each other in practice, as opposed to “competing” within models and promising-contests.

I view the block size limit as it now stands as artificially favoring off-chain solutions in the context of this natural competition for traffic. Promoting the continuation of an industrywide ceiling on the provision of on-chain transaction-inclusion services has lifted the price of on-chain transacting well beyond what it otherwise would have been at this early stage of Bitcoin’s development. Numerous Bitcoin businesses have left the BTC chain due to this, at least for now.

Meanwhile, most of the promised off-chain second-layer ideas are not actually available for users yet. Nor is there any guarantee how much users will adopt these when they do arrive. These solutions work remarkably well in the minds of the people building and promoting them and in the imaginations of others who look forward to their arrival. However, such beliefs can never replace an actual market adoption test. Nevertheless, on-chain capacity has already been left restricted today relative to growing demand before promised alternative transacting solutions have a) arrived and b) actually been adopted by users.

One result has been a ballooning of the market value of other cryptocurrencies. As the retention of the current block size limit on the BTC chain has pushed actually working Bitcoin business models away, BTC has fallen from about 85–90% of the total valuation of all cryptocurrencies to 45–50%. This is so despite BTC’s overwhelming first-mover advantages in network effect and active developer talent. First-mover advantage is quite powerful, but it is not all-powerful.

AT: An article in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuricher Zeitung covers a conference of economists in Vienna where Bitcoin critics met. Several arguments against the future of Bitcoin were made, amongst others from Adi Shamir, who is said to be one of the co-developers of the cryptographic basics on which Bitcoin technology was built. He states that there are not enough Bitcoins because the number is limited to 21 million. To my knowledge, Bitcoin is dividable nearly endlessly. And, as Murray Rothbard said, that once money has been established in the market, every quantity is “optimal." There is no social profit in increasing the money supply. What are your thoughts?

KG: As you point out, there are two separate issues, divisibility and inflation. First of all, the actual unit used within Bitcoin software is called a satoshi, and the maximum number of those is 2.1 quadrillion (2,100,000,000,000,000). That is 280,000 units per person on Earth at the current global population of 7.5 billion. A “bitcoin” is just an arbitrary accounting unit of 100,000,000 satoshis, and one that the Bitcoin system itself does not even recognize. Wallets and exchanges use the convention of a “bitcoin” only for intuitive convenience.

Off-chain systems such as payment channels could already increment even smaller amounts. It would also be possible to alter the Bitcoin software so that it directly recognizes units smaller than a satoshi, though there is no guarantee this would ever be done.

Other than these issues of divisibility, most people complaining about limited supply are just inflationists and I wrote about them here. The opposite of inflation is deflation, which for most practical purposes means that the monetary unit is gaining value rather than losing it. Although the total bitcoin stock will continue to expand for quite some time, its rate of expansion steadily declines, eventually reaching zero. Nevertheless, it can still be viewed as deflationary in the sense of having a rising purchasing power over time. The great Jörg Guido Hülsmann described why such rising value is so significant for society in Deflation and Liberty:

“Deflation…abolishes the advantage that inflation-based debt finance enjoys, at the margin, over savings-based equity finance. And it therefore decentralizes financial decision-making and makes banks, firms, and individuals more prudent and self-reliant than they would have been under inflation. Most importantly, deflation eradicates the re-channeling of incomes that result from the monopoly privileges of central banks. It thus destroys the economic basis of the false elites and obliges them to become true elites rather quickly, or abdicate and make way for new entrepreneurs and other social leaders…
Deflation is at least potentially a great liberating force. It not only brings the inflated monetary system back to rock bottom, it brings the entire society back in touch with the real world, because it destroys the economic basis of the social engineers, spin doctors, and brain washers. (pp. 40–41).”

Here is that word “decentralize” again, this time in an explicitly economic rather than computer-science context. Deflation “decentralizes financial decision making” means that people who spend their own saved money instead of spending borrowed money (or state handouts) have more autonomy and independence. This is because they do not have to seek the approval of creditors or VCs (or welfare bureaucrats) with regard to whether they get funding and how they use the funds. Yet this distinction also applies to any size of entity that is in a position to invest its own money instead of someone else’s, to act using savings rather than debt. A rising-value unit encourages savings while falling-value units—such as all fiat currencies—encourage debt and unhealthy dependence.

Bitcoin has arrived as the first rising-value medium of exchange seen in a long time. Inflation- and debt-addicted and dependent governments would certainly never have created such a thing.

Bitcoin as a rival digital commodity good: A supplementary comment

Japanese commodity money before the eight century. Source: Wikimedia Commons, PHGCOM.One of the challenges of interpreting bitcoin has been whether it can be classified under certain existing conceptual rubrics such as “money” or “commodity” for purposes of economic analysis. Could it be some strange new kind of “commodity money”? Most people immediately and intuitively dismiss this as a possibility because it is not a physical “thing,” which they feel is a defining characteristic of commodity-ness.

Resort to a word such as “token” seems a convenient escape valve from this situation. However, this could also be misleading. A token in a “token money” context derives its value from having a fixed exchange rate against something else—a 100 pennies for a dollar, a plastic chip for a euro, etc. Bitcoin, in contrast, is traded directly as itself, with utterly no sign of any fixed exchange or substitution rates (see my Bitcoin, price denomination and fixed-rate fiat conversions” 22 July 2013).

My newest paper, “Commodity, scarcity, and monetary value theory in light of Bitcoin” in The Journal of Prices & Markets (Winter 2015) explores some of these issues in detail from a formal conceptual standpoint to check such immediate and intuitive responses. The paper takes the time to define and then apply core economic-theory concepts, including goods, scarcity, and rivalry, as well as classical lists of “commodity money” characteristics, to understanding bitcoin in terms of monetary theory.

True, commodities are usually tightly associated with materiality. However, an economic-theory sense of commodity ought to be differentiable from a physical-descriptive sense. Economics begins with the study of choice and action, as distinct from issues addressed in physical sciences. It may be that the presence of materialness in commodities has just been assumed due to the nature of the available historical examples.

For a supplemental “reality check” beyond the obscure economics library, I thought to simply go and read the Wikipedia article on “Commodity.” This should be reasonably unlikely to represent any arcane or partisan definitions from one school of economics rather than another, and should first of all represent a general-purpose range of typical current understandings of the term.

I extracted some economic-theory elements from the entry, omitting illustrative examples. The examples are mostly material items, but this is to be expected due to the overwhelmingly pre-bitcoin scope of economic history so far. Indeed, part of my argument is that bitcoin may be the first rival digital commodity good (defined in the paper), which would mean precisely that it is unprecedented, a new type of example. Between the few excerpts below, I relate these presumably mainstream characterizations of commodity-ness to bitcoin.

Extracts from Wikipedia entry on “Commodity”

The exact definition of the term commodity is specifically used to describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. A commodity has full or partial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them. As the saying goes, “From the taste of wheat it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist.”

No one generally considers which mining pool mined the block that a bitcoin originated in when deciding whether to accept payment. 50 Cent, for example, is unlikely to refuse bitcoin payments for his albums from anyone using coins mined by pools other than 50 BTC.

In the original and simplified sense, commodities were things of value, of uniform quality, that were produced in large quantities by many different producers; the items from each different producer were considered equivalent.

Multiple producers: All the various Bitcoin miners produce interchangeable new coins.

One of the characteristics of a commodity good is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Well-established physical commodities have actively traded spot and derivative markets.

There are numerous bitcoin spot markets and even some derivatives markets.

Commoditization occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation across its supply base. As such, goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities, such as generic pharmaceuticals and DRAM chips. There is a spectrum of commoditization, rather than a binary distinction of “commodity versus differentiable product”. Few products have complete undifferentiability.

Coin tracking is sometimes cited as a risk for weakening the completeness of bitcoin fungibility, so while fungibility largely holds, there is some risk of entering onto a “spectrum of commoditization” in which some differentiation could creep in under certain circumstances.

Overall, I thought the entry was surprisingly clear in defining commodity in terms of economic rather than material concepts. While most of the examples of commodity were material, the economic meaning was conceptually independent of materiality. As should be expected, the discussion was about economic issues such as quality differentiation, pricing, market organization, and trading patterns—not chemistry. If we are using a term in economic analysis, a strictly economic definition should be most suitable.


Sidechained bitcoin substitutes: A monetary commentary


A 22 October 2014 white paper on cryptocurrency sidechains formalizes and advances the innovative sidechain concept and examines pros and cons in terms of both technical and economic factors. The current reply focuses on likely general factors in market valuations of bitcoin-pegged units on sidechains. This is an important topic for clarification as people begin to imagine and work to develop practical uses for sidechains. Assuming that the two-way peg will necessarily assure a matching, or even consistently discounted, market price relative to bitcoin could prove unrealistic. A scenario of independent floating market prices among sidecoins could prevail, with implications for the scope and types of sidechain applications.

Download the seven-page PDF of “Sidechained bitcoin substitutes: A monetary commentary.”


“Bitcoin 2014 Panel: Economic Theory of Bitcoin” with time-based outline

It was an honor to be among the participants in this panel on 17 May 2014 at the Bitcoin Foundation Conference in Amsterdam. We addressed several issues that tend to recur in discussions of economic theory and bitcoin. The main topics were the regression theorem and bitcoin; bitcoin and the role of units of account and pricing; multiple value standards and the economics of altcoins relative to bitcoin; fractional-reserve banking, lending, and direct versus other-party control; and deflation and fixed versus elastic money supplies. I have added a time-based outline after the embedded video below to facilitate noting and locating particular topics.

Moderator: Jon Matonis (Executive Director, Bitcoin Foundation)

Speakers: Konrad Graf (Author & Investment Research Translator), Robert Sams (Founder, Cryptonomics), Peter Surda (Economist,, Robin Teigland (Associate Professor, Stockholm School of Economics)

1) Introductions, opening comments, and overview

00:00–03:05 Matonis: Introduction of panelists

03:05–07:57 Brief openings by each panelist

07:57–09:06 Economics profession and bitcoin

09:06–11:41 Matonis: Overview of topics

2) Regression theorem and bitcoin

11:41–12:12 Matonis: Introduction of topic

12:12–18:32 Surda: Liquidity, organized markets

18:32–23:16 Graf: Technical versus economic; theory versus history layers

23:16–23:50 Sams: Doubts this is relevant to bitcoin

3) Unit of account, price display, and price intuition

23:50–25:02 Matonis: Introduction of topic

25:02–27:00 Teigland: Depends on who; networks, sub-communities, generation change

27:00–27:23 Matonis: Can bitcoin overcome the existing network effect?

27:23–28:01 Surda: Uncharted area, dollar likely to remain unless deep negative event for it

4) Multiple value standards, room for 300 crytocurrencies

28:01–28:49 Matonis: Introduction of topic

28:49–31:01 Sams: Need distinct specializations; mining costs limit

31:01–32:48 Graf: Strong tendency toward one unit; only other very strong factors could counter

5) Fractional-reserve banking and bitcoin

32:48–33:41 Matonis: Introduction of topic

33:41–38:08 Surda: Money substitutes, transaction costs, price differentials, “reserve” standards

38:08–39:57 Teigland: Other non-traditional financing systems, crowdfunding, P2P lending

39:57–41:34 Sams: FRB based on an illusion, one that cannot be created with bitcoin

41:34–44:12 Graf: Bitcoin allows opt-out from all “trusted” 3rd, 4th, 5th parties. Vote with your mouse.

44:12–46:47 Sams: Who owns what? a pervasive issue; first bitcoin lending likely dollar denominated

6) Deflation, only 21 million units, number of decimal points

46:47–48:37 Matonis: Introduction of topic

48:37–49:46 Teigland: People adapt over time to situations

49:46–53:38 Sams: Deflation arguments misplaced; overheld, underused; other crypto money supplies possible

53:38–55:36 Surda: No need to change the quantity of money, but more to investigate

55:36–58:29 Graf: “Rising-value currency;” any quantity of money will do for society as a whole

58:29–59:26 Sams: Elastic supply could help stabilize exchange rate relative to fixed supply

59:26–59:46 Surda: Unit of account function depends on liquidity not volatility

7) Q&A

59:46–60:55 Q1: Banks allowed to create money; unfair playing field?

60:55–62:28 A1: Sams: 100% reserve banking; taking away private money creation privilege

62:28–62:56 A1b: Teigland: Local alternatives, experimentation

62:56–63:19 Q2: Isn’t buying and holding bitcoins already an investment in all of bitcoin?

63:19–64:06 A2: Sams: To some extent, but could be more with different money supply rule

64:06–65:00 Q3: Fixed rate of supply ignores recent lessons of monetary theory

65:00–65:27 A3: Matonis: Already addressed; Surda: May need to unlearn some of those lessons :-)

Legal and economic perspectives in the action-based analysis of Bitcoin

Well before getting “distracted” by the theoretical interpretation of Bitcoin for most of 2013 and probably well beyond, one of my central projects, still ongoing, has been to explicitly apply the action-based methodology of Ludwig von Mises and Hans-Hermann Hoppe to the philosophy of law. This is a project that had already been greatly advanced by the work of Stephan Kinsella, in my view, and I have tried to make this approach even more explicit and systematic, naming it action-based jurisprudence. This has led to some additional clarifications, foremost, what I consider a clearer differentiation between the respective natures and roles of legal theory and ethics, as well as clearer divisions between legal theory, legal practice, and (forthcoming) criminology.

I recently came across some interesting comments that reminded me of how this background influenced the way I approached understanding Bitcoin right from the beginning. Jorge Casanova in a thread in Spanish, referenced my 2011 paper, “Action-Based Jurisprudence” (links to that and related work here) and makes some good points, tying this to larger themes. The key insight is that phenomena under investigation are wholes and it is our own methods that illuminate different aspects of them (rather than the aspects being as separable as they might casually appear from attempting to reference only one field). He also cites, as I did, the example of money, which cannot be understood well without applying both economic and legal concepts (whether done explicitly or unconsciously):

[Google translated]: “There is a nature of money as a whole, with economic and legal implications, but inseparable from each other since the phenomenon (the money, or the bank if any) is absolutely inseparable from its legal and economic nature as a whole.”

A couple of years after writing that first action-based jurisprudence paper, I have just recently used legal status as the basis for proposing a new approach to monetary typology that can account for Bitcoin, which appeared for the first time in the video “Bitcoin Decrypted” Part III (December 2013). In this model, the most relevant thing about the category of “commodity money” is that it is a market good that requires no particular legal status that differs from that of any other good. Other types of monetary objects often rely on some form of legal status to prop them up, and this usually entails some degree of artificial legal privilege.

Another important factor in “commodity” is that a commodity good is one that is interchangeable with other units and is basically as easy to either buy or sell at the going market price. This is distinguished from other items, foremost specialty items, for which the relative positions of buyers and sellers differs widely. For most—non-commodity—goods, it is easy to go to a store and buy something, but much harder to turn around and sell it again. New cars, for example, famously take on a substantial price discount as soon as they are “driven off the lot.” On a commodity market, however, the relative positions of buyers and sellers are much closer in terms of the relationship between price spreads and relative ability to have transactions executed in a timely way.

In contrast to these two factors (a legal one and an economic one), it seems to have become more typically understood that the important thing about “commodity” in monetary thought is its apparent reference to the tangibility or materiality of historical commodity monies. However, I argue that this is turning out to be an incidental historical characteristic, rather than a theoretically fundamental one (See On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution” (PDF, 3 November 2013 revised edition).

It is interesting to note in this connection that tangibility is a type of physical characteristic. As such, it requires neither economic theory nor legal theory to define it. It can be defined in terms of the natural sciences, referencing certain physically measurable properties, or their absence.

Legal status, in contrast, must be understood on the back of some kind of legal theory, while degree of liquidity/marketability/saleability is an economic-theory conception. In sum, these two factors, legal status and liquidity, both properly belong to the (“praxeological” or action-based) social sciences, whereas questions of tangibility or materiality (or the identification of one metal as contrasted with another) are first of all natural-science questions. In the same sense, the identification of cryptographic properties such as those of cryptocurrencies is first of all a mathematical and cryptographic issue, likewise not a social-science issue, per se (only secondarily, in that acting people are reflecting such elements in their actions and value scales).


What follows is the original comment in Spanish for those who can read it or run it through an online translation widget, which seems to create something at least vaguely comprehensible in the case of Spanish to English (as opposed to the hilarity that ensues from Japanese to English machine translation):

No hay tal cosa como la economía por un lado y el derecho (o en un sentido más amplio el entorno institucional) por el otro. De hecho, resulta muy ilustrativo el sensacional trabajo de Konrad S Graf titulado “Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics and Legal Practice” publicado en Libertarian Papers (Vol. 3, 2011)… y cuya primera parte me parece uno de los más brillantes razonamientos sobre teoría legal praxeológica que he leído hasta la fecha. En resumidas cuentas, Graf señala que la praxeología se divide en tres “niveles” (raíz, tronco y ramas, usando la metáfora de un árbol) y que las dos ramas fundamentales (cada una con varios elementos) son la teoría económica y la teoría legal, y señala además que hay determinados fenómenos (el primero de los cuales es el dinero y banca) que no pueden entenderse sin aplicar simultáneamente las implicaciones de ambas ramas, la económica y la legal. No es posible, al tratar el fenómeno monetario hablar de una naturaleza económica del dinero y de una naturaleza legal (o institucional) del mismo, ni tan siquiera en términos analíticos y teóricos. Existe una naturaleza del dinero como un todo, con implicaciones económicas y legales, pero indisociables entre sí pues el fenómeno (el dinero, o la banca en su caso) es absolutamente inseparable de su naturaleza jurídico-económica como un todo. Desde el momento mismo en que la praxeología no es solamente ciencia económica, sino que es ciencia de la acción humana en general (y a partir de los trabajos que venimos desarrollando personas como Josema C España y un servidor, estamos cada vez más cerca de hablar de todo un paradigma de filosofía primera incluso, lo que va aún más allá del método de una serie de ciencias en particular) no es posible disociar un elemento puramente económico del más general elemento de acción humana.

"On the origins of Bitcoin," my new work on Bitcoin and monetary theory

Linked below is a new work I have just written on Bitcoin and monetary theory. It addresses in a more systematic way than I have before issues relating to the interpretation of the origins of Bitcoin in terms of the monetary regression theorem and the application of some central integral-theory principles to monetary theory.

Bitcoin has arisen as an entirely new and unexpected market phenomenon deserving of fresh treatments. Its arrival also provides opportunities to dig deeper into theoretical fundamentals themselves. While this work can be viewed as part of a much larger project in progress, I also have the sense that it can stand alone.

The title, On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution, acknowledges the inspiration of the classic 1892 work, On the origins of money by Carl Menger, a landmark in the development of the market-evolution account of the origins of media of exchange and money. This “Austrian school” or “Vienna school” approach contrasts with what I dub the state-creatationism theory of the origin of money. It also contrasts with the tempting but unsatisfactory view that money is merely a “social illusion.”

In a nod to the software world out of which Bitcoin has arisen, I call it a first public beta, meaning that, while refinements are always possible and likely, I think the central intended functionality has been implemented. Revised versions and formats may follow.


Link updated from 23.10.2103 version to revised and expanded 03.11.2013 version

Download PDF:On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution (03.11.2013)

Bitcoin and social theory reflections: A review essay between Amsterdam and Atlanta

The German word Nachklang denotes what resonates after a sound has passed. It is the tune that still plays in one’s head after external sounds have faded. I have been listening to what stays with me in the few days after attending the Bitcoin Europe conference in Amsterdam September 26–28, prior to setting out toward the Crypto-Currency Conference in Atlanta, October 4–5.

Many conferences have a “keynote address.” I think Bitcoin Europe had more of a keynote moment on the final day that reflected the heart of the whole affair. This came when Bitcoin Magazine editor and software developer Mihai Alisie punctuated his moving presentation with, “Bitcoin is here to serve humanity, not to rule it.”

Now that resonates.

Takeaway themes included 1) the need to keep developing more intuitive client software, 2) the desperate need to help improve the global remittance market, which Bitcoin is technically capable of revolutionizing rather quickly, and 3) the need to implement multiple-signature transactions in client software. While that last item may seem obscure, we will return below to its potentially immense long-term implications.

The conference was heavy on entrepreneurs and programmers, often combined into the same persons. Bitcoinj developer and smart contracts enthusiast Mike Hearn could usually be spotted in the lobby talking with someone while looking over a screenful of code on his laptop. Massive effort, energy, and ingenuity is in play, with untold separate projects underway. One person after another I talked to, or who was presenting, was working on some project to develop new wallets, improve existing wallets, develop new exchanges, develop new ways to do exchanging, offer new ways to do remittances and loans, incubate startups, and generally make payments easier and more accessible and secure for wider audiences. That most definitely includes all those underserved, mis-served, or not served at all by the world’s existing constellation of financial institutions.

The tragedy of international remittances

A key concept was that Bitcoin is likely to start meeting needs and expanding most quickly right where existing “points of pain” are most intense. Sure, Bitcoin is better for online payments than credit cards in almost every way, but the epitome of a global point of pain is international remittances.

Immigrants working in wealthier countries trying to send some of their hard-earned wealth back home to relatives in poorer countries face truly dismal options. For every dollar, euro, or yen earned, some portion ends up making its way back home, but conventional remittance services charge shockingly high fees, trimming large percentages off of the fruits of labors undertaken mainly for families elsewhere.

One could call this a scandal, but the scandal is not so much the practices of the visible companies that do manage to provide this service at all, but the Byzantine regulatory mesh behind the scenes that makes it so difficult to do so efficiently. This regulatory overgrowth chokes off this market to the authentically open competition that could lead to lower costs and improved services rather quickly.

Into this fray, Bitcoin technically already enables international remittances with basically no charge for those few (for now) who are able to use it directly at both ends. “Send value anywhere in the world instantly in any amount and essentially for free” is a bold claim. No company can make it, but the decentralized Bitcoin network can and does deliver on it already.

Still, companies still have many roles yet to fill by leveraging the Bitcoin network and connecting people to it in ways they are not yet able to do for themselves. For almost all those who want to do international remittances today, some additional services are required. A remittance provider leveraging Bitcoin in the back office for transfers, while providing cash or local bank integration at one or both ends could offer the same or better service as Western Union’s or MoneyGram’s current offerings at vastly lower fees.

End users need not even necessarily know anything about Bitcoin or realize that it is involved in aspects of international transfers between local offices. They only need recognize that a much higher percentage of their purchasing power actually makes it back home, faster.

To illustrate, Daumantas Dvilinskas, CEO of TransferGo, based in Lithuania, talked about how his company is working to provide faster and less expensive international transfers. He quipped, “It takes three days to send money from the UK to Lithuania. People went to the moon in three days.” I live-tweeted this and Twitter user Jacob Norup Pedersen added, “it takes two weeks from Denmark to Morocco.”

The ecosystem metaphor

In reflecting on the sheer number of business ideas and variations being developed—even just those visible at this conference—I had the image of an exploding Cambrian ecosystem with a large number of candidates for longer-term survival. Many seem promising. In the end, only a few will multiply and advance toward wider adoption. Knowing which ones will be which is an extraordinary challenge. Complicating this further, the “DNA” from one project can easily hop to another in this primordial open-source soup, remixing again and again until successful combinations are found and then built on further. An abundance of candidate code segments and strategies is right there in the open to be borrowed. It is only the process of doing, trying, and offering that will end up delivering the many new conveniences that even today’s skeptics will most likely be taking for granted in daily life in the near future.

BitPay CEO Toni Gallippi, whom I met for the first time on the last day, was on hand representing what a wildly successful Bitcoin business can already look like, having gone from a thousand merchant accounts to 10,000 in the past year. Not coincidentally, his presentation and informal comments off-stage were positive and constructive and showed how his company makes life easier for both merchants and buyers compared to conventional payment options.

This goes right down to the details. Even the Bitcoin to fiat-money exchange rate that pops up when a customer pays a merchant through BitPay is likely to be more favorable than the rate they would get by selling Bitcoin on an exchange for cash. This is due to the company’s use of a custom bid and ask book that integrates live data from across the major exchanges.[1]

Regulation is a much broader social problem

The conference was a microcosm of the true market spirit. On balance, this crowd seemed to view existing regulatory structures—always beloved of industry incumbents as a way to protect themselves against disruptive start-ups at the general expense of consumers—as fairly pointless obstacles, unfavorable environmental features that would-be surviving organisms must simply be able to deal with.

Bitcoin core developer Jeff Garzik, who joined the “Borderless Solutions” panel on the final day, commented that Bitcoin just is a borderless solution by nature. The only need for “borderless solutions” per se, is for particular Bitcoin-related entrepreneurs to try to function amid the various and mixed obstacles left in place by legacy nation-state barriers.

Still, the official presence at the conference went a long way toward confirming an impression I have had for some time. Most governmental officials around the world want to figure out how to perform their various jobs, which mostly consist of applying existing legislation and administrative codes to rapidly evolving market phenomena. They are not generally out to make up additional onerous regulations just for the sake of being troublesome.

There is no need for them to do so. This is because shelves of thick volumes of legislation, administrative code, and case interpretation are already available to guide the obstruction of hapless innovators. Such things already exist and are not being conjured up anew just to harass Bitcoin enthusiasts. Ambiguity about which regulations are to apply in particular cases is also already part of the structural problematic of the legislative law approach itself. Whether this approach is just or helpful to society is a much larger topic (hint: I think it is clearly neither just nor helpful to society). Bitcoin just provides some fresh (and perhaps embarrassing) contrasts with existing systems and practices that work especially poorly.

Wieske Ebben, from the Dutch central bank, joined the panel on regulation. She (being among the approximately 2% of conference attendees who were female) clarified several times that one of the bank’s central concerns in its role as national financial regulator is to make sure new payment systems are trustworthy in the interest of consumers.

Although somewhat at the expense of Ms. Ebben, who seemed a little taken aback, Berlin’s iconic Bitcoin-kiez promoter Jörg Platzer drew a round of applause with a comment made from the seat next to her on the panel. He pointed out that word on the street has it that the public does not now consider central banks and large commercial banks themselves as icons and worthy arbiters of trustworthiness in society.

Yet this understandable focus on assuring trustworthiness is potentially quite a positive sign in light of the reality of Bitcoin (as opposed to the typical media hype). As Toni Gallippi pointed out later, many Bitcoin users believe it is among the most trustworthy and secure payment systems ever devised.

First of all, Bitcoin is immune to certain inherent weaknesses in credit cards that give rise to massive ongoing fraud and identity theft (even after decades of expensive efforts to combat such problems). A Bitcoin payment is pushed by the user, not pulled by the receiver using sensitive information. Receiver-pull methods require the transmission of sensitive financial data, making such data vulnerable to interception or hacking right out of company databases. With Bitcoin, only a cryptographically signed transaction is sent, and, unlike with credit cards, this contains no data that can be used to create additional fraudulent transactions later. With Bitcoin, identity theft cannot be used as a basis for spending other people’s money.

Moreover, Bitcoin cannot be counterfeited, a problem that continues to plague physical cash, despite a centuries-long technical battle between official money printers and counterfeit money printers, a battle that has led up to the most advanced modern papers, inks, plates, and embedded features on one side—and ongoing successful counterfeiting on the other. And as for the real traditionalists, it should be noted that metallic coins and bars, especially gold ones, were ever plagued by reductions and dilutions to weight or purity from both criminals and kings. In contrast, Bitcoin cannot be clipped, sweated, embedded with tungsten, or mixed with just a tad more copper or silver with each new minting.

Niels Ploeger, from the Amsterdam police department, was also on the regulatory panel and attended much of the rest of the conference as well. He explained that he was tasked with researching and better understanding Bitcoin to provide insights that could be useful in informing criminal investigation procedures.

One key point for investigators is that Bitcoin leaves a permanent and unforgeable record of all transactions, with amounts, accounts and time stamps down to the second. This should, in principle, be much more useful and easier to track than cash in the course of specific criminal investigations. Each bitcoin unit has a permanent, public trail behind it. Even if it does go through a mixing service at some point, this fact too can be surmised to some degree, along with the timing of the mixing.

It is true that particular addresses are not directly linked to particular human or organizational identities within the Bitcoin block chain. This is a critical feature, as the presence of such linkages on a public ledger would obviously eliminate the possibility of any user privacy for anyone for any purpose (btw, destroying all privacy is ever the dream of totalitarians).

Still, for those legitimately investigating specific crimes, block chain clues combined with other evidence can lead investigators to insights unavailable from cash. In addition, conventional banking and accounting systems, despite untold piles of regulatory paperwork, should also not simply be assumed to be immune from all manner of forgeries, frauds, and misrepresentations. Comparing one real system against the imagined perfections sometimes tacitly assumed of incumbent systems should be studiously avoided.

A point raised at another time during the conference was that for Bitcoin to succeed in an enterprise context, it will be important for organizations to be able to keep sensitive information private (for example, from competitors) and to make other information publicly verifiable (raising confidence that, for example, reserves or bonding funds are actually present in a specified account). This means that the entire range of user-defined privacy options Bitcoin offers, from 1) high anonymity (possible but somewhat difficult to actually achieve in practice) to 2) pseudonymity (traceable with some specific investigative effort; the most common case) to 3) globally public auditability (for charities or public agencies, for example), are all important, just in different applications.

A quick interlude on privacy, anonymity, and today’s DPR arrest

Just as I was about to finalize this essay, the arrest of Silk Road operator Dread Pirate Roberts was announced. While the complaint seems generally reasonable-looking in terms of the chain of evidence presented, it repeats the usual dubious claim that Bitcoin “was designed to be anonymous.” It was actually designed, which is a matter of public record, to enable people to transact securely, relatively free of fraud or censorship, at any distance, and without the need to rely on (and pay) third parties that may or may not be trustworthy (see Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System (2008) by Sataoshi Nakamoto).

It should be noted that assessment of the complaint’s merits on its own terms, which must, given its nature as a positive law document, tacitly assume that the existing state of laws is as it should be, must be separated from normative views on the logic or net value of drug criminalization. For example, relevant to such assessment would be evidence that prohibition laws have a dramatic, consistent, and well-documented role in increasing violence in society, including precisely that sort of blackmail and retaliatory violence also alluded to in the complaint, violence that is typical of the operations of any market that is forced underground, such as the gang activity during alcohol prohibition in an earlier phase of US history.

Despite repeating the usual false claim that Bitcoin is inherently anonymous, the complaint then surprisingly goes into several details, each of which contradicts this claim. It discusses the public nature of the block chain and cites detailed sales data obtained from examining specific addresses. It then explains all the additional measures that the site’s operator put into place—beyond simply specifying Bitcoin as a payment method—to try to make the transactions anonymous (which they already would have been to begin with if the misleading claim of inherent anonymity were true). In the event, the arrest was made largely on non-monetary lines of evidence, specifically items such as server trails and linkages among user names.

With all the repeated media-hype that the “main use” of Bitcoin is for illicit purchases (also a highly dubious and factually unsupported claim), it should be interesting to see how much the exchange value of Bitcoin reacts over the coming weeks and months—beyond the obvious short-term panic selling followed by opportunistic buying on the dip—to the shut down of the oft-referenced black marketplace.

To serve and to secure

The overwhelming spirit I sensed at the Bitcoin Europe conference was one of service to those who can benefit from these innovations next. Now that the relevant classes of geeks and early entrepreneurs get it, how can these new possibilities be brought rapidly to everyone else, starting with some of those who could benefit most?

While several speakers reiterated the lingering difficulties of “mom and dad” or “grandma” understanding and using Bitcoin, Willem van Rooyen of SC2BTC, who is working to integrate Bitcoin into eSports (high-skill online gaming matches as spectator entertainment), reported that his target customer demographic has no difficulty at all understanding and starting to use Bitcoin with existing solutions.

Yet the question remains: How can services be made that are easier for more people to benefit from and that will be more resilient and secure with minimal reliance on user savvy?

In this spirit, early entrepreneurs are working, each from slightly different angles, to bring the current and potential benefits of Bitcoin to more and more users around the world. They will do this no matter what obstacles may or may not be placed in their paths, because this is their dream, their vision, their mission, and their rightful role.

Bitcoin as foundation layer for new possibilities

I noticed a strong confluence between my most recent reading and some of the services and technologies featured at the conference. I have been researching and thinking about legal and economic theory and how they relate for some 25 years. It was in this context that I first began to take note of Bitcoin in mid-February of this year. Since then, I have been learning the essentials of the relevant principles in computer science and cryptography as fast as possible in order to make sense of Bitcoin by combining social theory and technical theory in appropriate ways. When it comes to Bitcoin, taking a strongly multi-disciplinary approach is not optional.

Bitcoin was a major breakthrough in the advancement of several much broader sets of ideas. It has created an infrastructure layer that can now greatly facilitate further developments based on those feed-in concepts. These include smart contracts, triple-entry bookkeeping, and additional applications for decentralized unforgeable ledgers such as securely recording titles to other kinds of property.

Michael Goldstein got me started recently going back and reading key works by Nick Szabo that substantially predate Bitcoin, but also contributed greatly to the intellectual milieu out of which it emerged. Michael, along with Daniel Krawisz, will be going into these concepts on October 5 in Atlanta on the “Cryptography and Contracts” panel, and I am greatly looking forward to hearing and discussing more.

As it was, next up in my queue prior to Bitcoin Europe was the seminal article, “Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks” (1997), which I assigned myself for the relevant flights. At the conference, then, it was striking when several different developers pleaded on stage for more end-user wallet software makers to add support for multi-signature transactions. The convergence is that it is just such transactions, already supported in the Bitcoin protocol, that can make possible not only increased layers of security, but also the next evolutions in smart contracting, including escrow and assurance contracts and the likes of decentralized peer-to-peer loans and verifiable-balance safe-keeping services.

Bitcoin’s functions as information-age payment method and unit of trade may only be the beginning. Deep transformations may also come in the fundamental ways that contracts and agreements come to be implemented, recorded, and performed.

As Szabo showed, the first phases of taking traditional accounting, fiscal controls, and contracting into the digital world mostly just copied traditional paper systems and digitized and networked them. That change had both advantages (speed and accuracy) and disadvantages (privacy and security) compared to the original paper-based systems. However, new technologies could also lead to new methods that were not possible at all on paper, but are enabled for the first time ever by advances in cryptography and related developments.

To get a better image for this distinction, imagine that when powered flight was first developed, pilots had only flown routes right above existing roads. This is better and faster than surface travel, but still not great. It is only when they start to do something that only the new technology allows at all—flying straight from point A to point B, that the more interesting possibilities actually begin to emerge.

Computerized accounting has, in this view, been using the new airplane simply to move much more quickly along above the same old surface routes. In contrast, brand new options built on decentralized financial cryptography, unforgeable hashed transaction chains, triple-entry accounting, and multi-signature and other smart contracting modalities—bigger idea sets that predated and contributed to the invention of Bitcoin—look a lot more like the beginnings of leaving the old surface routes and starting to fly as birds do.

The role of social theorists

It was a pleasure at this conference to finally meet Peter Šurda, a long-time Bitcoin researcher also influenced by the Austrian school approach to economics that began taking its modern forms at the University of Vienna in the 1870s. When I started researching Bitcoin, his was among the first names that began rising toward the top of the discussion forum soup as I began to think about the monetary nature of Bitcoin. He quickly made it into my initial “knows what he is talking about” short-list. Even better, it was a bit of a relief and encouragement to me working in early March to notice that he had independently arrived at some interpretations of the relationship between Bitcoin and traditional monetary classifications that were quite similar to the ones I was initially entertaining.

Peter also told a story about our meeting in his quick post of highlights from the conference. One of my favorite short books on monetary theory is The Ethics of Money Production (2008) by Jörg Guido Hülsmann. When I asked Peter if he had read it, he said, “yes, twice.” I laughed and said that I had also read it twice. What an unusual moment! The global population of people who have done this and attended a Bitcoin conference must still be rather small indeed.[2]

Another time, Peter and I were (half) joking about the proper role of economists in the cryptocurrency revolution. He said the first response of many economists to Bitcoin seems to be denial: Bitcoin is not real and it will fail shortly, just like other hair-brained funny-money schemes throughout history. We have seen plenty of that denial phase, mainly from people who do not seem to have investigated the technology all that much.

My informal empirical generalization is that knowledge of Bitcoin and fascination with or enthusiasm about Bitcoin tend to correlate strongly, as do technical ignorance of the subject and easy categorical dismissal. Notice that we expect matters to be exactly opposite to this when it comes to unsound schemes. In such cases, the more one investigates, the less there is to like, whereas most of the enthusiasts seem to have been swayed by hyped surface appearances, and may even be unwilling to actually look more deeply.

Opposite to denial, the main role of economists, and legal and other social theorists more generally, should be to carefully observe what is happening in the real world and seek to provide systematic theoretical interpretations. It is the entrepreneurs who rule (in service of consumers, who really rule through their buying choices). It is the economists who should be running along either behind or at best next to these real actors and trying to figure out what is happening in a theoretical or more systematic way, adding some insights when and if they can.

This is especially so when an economy is in the midst of an epoch-scale revolution (as in agricultural, industrial, informational). The Spanish late scholastics, observing economic transformations in trade and money, became among the first to start writing insightfully about specifically economic-theory and monetary-theory concepts some 500 years ago. Later, first-hand observers of, and participants in, the industrial revolution—most famously Smith, and more promisingly Say, Turgot, Bastiat, and others—began to make further advances (or sometimes regresses, but still) on top of their observations of new developments.

Economists do have their rightful places. This was evident during the conference, thankfully only a few times, when specialists in other fields edged over into the proper territory of economic theory and the average quality of their causal claims then declined precipitously compared to when they were discussing, say, business, contemporary positive law, or software. This is not a call to leave everything to specialists, but a call for everyone to take steps to advance and improve their own literacy in real economics. As Ludwig von Mises wrote near the end of his landmark Human Action: A Treatise on Economics ([1949] 1998, 875):

Economics cannot remain an esoteric branch of knowledge accessible only to small groups of scholars and specialists. Economics deals with society’s fundamental problems; it concerns everyone and belongs to all. It is the main and proper study of every citizen.

Let theorists theorize and doers do

The world is upside-down to the extent that so-called economists occupy positions of administrative power and influence over their fellows to “guide economies,” a euphemism for micromanaging and telling entrepreneurs and consumers what to do and what not to do. The result is the mixed(-up) economy world we inhabit, a world that is perhaps most mixed up of all when it comes to conventional financial systems.

The world becomes reoriented when economists are positioned as observers and theoreticians, helping people understand how it is that the uniquely human capabilities of voluntary social cooperation and mutual service make society possible. Economists can help clarify the puzzle of the world in unique ways. They should observe and bring clarity to what is otherwise a mysterious chaos of real-world progress as it unfolds at the hands of consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Economics is supposed to be a science, not a presumptive license to micromanage and direct those who are busy doing the actual work.

For those who do chose to specialize in economics and other aspects of social theory, today offers some amazing opportunities to occupy front-row seats to epoch-scale transformations of the technologies of market exchange. Previous epochal economic revolutions happened over centuries and decades, recognizable mostly only in retrospect. This one appears to be happening over a few years, with increments measured in months, weeks, and even days.

At Bitcoin Europe, the entrepreneurs and developers were the stars. This is the world as it should be. In roles as theorists, a few of us were observing in awe, wonder, and curiosity, following a major social evolution live as it unfolds. In that particular role (playing other roles in addition might double as good research), we operate first from curiosity—to understand for ourselves—and only then to see if we can help make it easier for others to do the same.

Atlanta promises to offer a slightly different mix, still with discussions of entrepreneurship and concrete innovations, but with a little more direct material on economic and contract theory in addition. Some of the original visions that helped give rise to Bitcoin have much more unrealized promise to bring for the benefit of us all.

For all the signs put up in gloomy dismay at the course of the conventional financial world, which effectively say, “the end is near,” we who track promising new innovations need to keep putting up other signs, in different places, that add a counterpoint: “the beginning is here.”


[1] For a recent theoretical discussion on the respective roles of unit of pricing and medium of payment, see my 14 September 2013 article: “Bitcoin as medium of exchange now and unit of account later: The inverse of Koning’s medieval coins.”

[2] For those interested, my article, “The sound of one Bitcoin: Tangibility, scarcity, and a ‘hard-money’ checklist” (19 March 2013), makes a step-by-step theoretical case as to why a hard-money position is fully compatible with a strange new currency that has no physical existence! If that seems impossibly counter-intuitive, you might understand why I spent about 9,000 words taking an initial shot at doing this. I have made a few refinements since then, not yet published, but the fundamentals remain the same.

The labor, leisure, and happiness game: Psychology, praxeology, and ethics

[Revised for improved clarity and readability on 30 July 2018].

Philosophers, economists, and psychologists have sought to define the ultimate goal or “end” of human action. Is there something that can characterize, in general, what it is that people seek by acting?

Aristotelians, Objectivists, and other philosophical schools speak of ends in a moral “ought” context. That is the most common context in which such things have been spoken of throughout history. Schools of psychology have proposed central underlying motivations behind human behavior. These vary: power, sex, growth, insight, needs hierarchies, etc. Religious traditions each offer somewhat different accounts of the ultimate role or destiny of humankind, which has been divinely placed.

Against this backdrop, the arrival of Misesian action theory was revolutionary. It defined ends in a way that was free of moral, psychological, or spiritual qualifications. Ends were logically necessary characteristics of what action is. Any moral evaluation of particular ends or accounts of central psychological motivations or spiritual purposes were all separate and additional matters. A level exists at which action can be considered as such, separately from all such add-on differentiations.

The only surprising result would have been controversy not ensuring. Objectivists accused economists of the Austrian school of amoralism due to their anchorless “subjective” theory of value that provided no moral compass.

Well, yes. Providing a moral compass is not the purpose of the analysis. Action theory makes non-moral statements about action. These are must be statements rather than ethical ought statements or empirical maybe/let's check statements. All that Misesian action theory (praxeology) can legitimately claim on this matter is that action consists of employing means in the pursuit of ends—any ends.

Nevertheless, praxeological economists still attempted to comment on ultimate ends, the attempts reflecting their wider philosophical leanings. This crept in in discussions of “labor” and “leisure” in relation to “happiness” or other versions of a purported ultimate end.

Is there some universal end of all human action and if so what? Is it seeking happiness in general, happiness as “rationally understood,” or eudemonia (“human flourishing”)? Is it acting to remove states of dissatisfaction and uneasiness in search of an elusive ultimate state of rest (Ludwig von Mises)? Is it eliminating the root causes of recurring disappointment and suffering (Buddhism)? Or something else?

Each formulation seems to paint the relative value of “labor” and “leisure” in a different light. Yet this raises suspicions. One should not expect to find such differing implications from versions of a supposedly universal definition. Negative definitions of labor seem to favor rest, positive ones activity, and some spiritual ones equanimity regardless of particular conditions of activity versus rest.

This leaves another possibility. Is there any need for praxeology to carry a concept of one ultimate end at all? Actual actions are many and discrete, each consisting of specific means/ends structures in particular contexts. These many ends do not have to all be packageable under a single characterization. A bout of removing uneasiness, for example, could come right after a day of pursuing human flourishing (a Miseseso–Rothbardian tag team), all done by a Zen master unattached to the particular outcomes of any and all such ephemeral pursuits as labor and leisure.

Under what conditions do people actually find themselves either more or less happy? To look into this question, an important article by professor Roderick T. Long on Objectivist ethical theory and Austrian school subjective value theory, taken alongside two books on the psychology of happiness, shed light.

From Mises to Rothbard

In “Praxeology: Who Needs It?” (2005; PDF), Professor Long quotes Murray Rothbard on his differences with Ludwig von Mises’s “removing uneasiness” criteria. This is what Mises set out early in Human Action (1949) as the abstract general end of all action. Mises does also use striving for happiness on the same pages. However, he most often returns to the negative formulation of removing uneasiness. This shows up in his discussions of the relationships among labor, leisure, and (dis)satisfaction.

Long wrote: “Rothbard…describes how, in his economic treatise Man, Economy, and State (1962; MES), he took care to revise precisely this Misesian doctrine (310).” In correspondence quoted in Joseph Stromberg’s introduction to MES (p. xl), Rothbard had written:

The revision purged [Mises’s] original formulation of its definite philosophical pessimism, of the idea that human beings are constantly in a state of dissatisfaction and that man could only be happy in a state of inactive rest, such as in Paradise. Such a philosophical view is contrary to the natural state of man, which is at its happiest precisely when it is engaged in productive activity.

Long explained that:

Rothbard acknowledges the possibility of “satisfaction in the labor itself,” and so grounds the “disutility of labor” not in labor’s being inherently distasteful, but in the fact that “labor always involves the forgoing of leisure,” which is also a value…The fact that leisure has value for us explains why we prefer to economize on labor, thus allowing Rothbard to draw all the essential conclusions for which Mises thought he needed the mistaken Nirvana premise. (311)

Yet Rothbard’s view that people are happiest “precisely when…engaged in productive activity,” as opposed to when idle in paradise, is also an empirical psychological claim. As such, however, it does find support in psychological research on self-reported happiness. One qualification that will emerge, though, is that Rothbard's use of the word “productive” could lead to an unwarranted emphasis on the categorization of activity types, such as work versus hobby.

Get into the flow

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents the results of research on tens of thousands of participants in different cultures. It found that higher degrees of self-reported happiness were associated with engagement in self-chosen, goal-directed activity structured with an optimal relationship between challenge and capability.

Self-reported happiness was higher the better persons were positioned to 1) select and revise their own goals and 2) dynamically adjust the balance between challenge and capability toward a moving zone the researchers labeled “flow.” Adjusting challenge can be relatively straightforward through choices of goal and performance criteria (quantity, quality, time, outcomes). Raising capabilities might involve taking the time to invest in capital (tools) or human capital (abilities) to increase effectiveness before further task engagement.

For example, cutting down a large tree with a dull hatchet could become frustrating. Taking the time to buy or borrow a chainsaw before cutting may turn into a more enjoyable overall experience. Moving right to managing a major logging operation with no experience in either managing or logging would most likely quickly lead to frustration, if not disaster.

In a hobby context, though hardly ever in a work context, one might lower capabilities in pursuit of the flow zone. Gamers, for example might sometimes choose to play with inferior in-game equipment, which would effectively raise their challenge level compared to selecting the best available equipment.

Golf, bowling, and some games have “handicap” scoring options. This reduces or evens out score gaps, enabling more skilled and less skilled players to more meaningfully compete in the same match, reducing boredom for the more skilled and frustration for the less skilled.

The flow research found that how activities were classified by type, such as labor, work, play, hobby, or leisure, did not impact the degree of happiness reported. Boredom, both at work and on vacation, showed up when capabilities were too far above challenges. One might look forward to finally having “nothing to do” on vacation—and then get bored with nothing to do. Frustration—both at work and in leisure or hobby activities—showed up when challenges were too far above capabilities. The challenge/capability balance influenced happiness. Categorizations of activities, such as labor versus leisure, did not.

Both at work and at leisure, research participants reported higher degrees of happiness when they had set their own goals. Even for goals that had originated elsewhere, such as with organizational leadership or a client, flow effects could still be found if the person made the decision to make those goals their own, as opposed to merely acquiescing and going along with orders.

The common element found to support higher degrees of self-reported happiness was each person having the final say on his or her own activities over both long-term strategic and short-term tactical scales. In my view, this recommends a set of social conditions that support individual-level autonomy, flexibility, and discretion. Individuals should be able to chose their own goals and how to pursue them. This includes minimizing the need to “apply for permission” before taking action, as well as maximizing individual discretion on which groups to join or leave. The only social institution capable of assuring such individual discretion and autonomy is one with consistent respect for rights of first appropriation and mutually consensual transfers of property.

The typical popular counter to such allegedly “atomistic” principles is that people are “social” creatures. However, this claim cannot justify the use of violence to orchestrate non-consensual relationships. It does not explain what is “social” about the advocacy and implementation of such violence. Actually being social entails not advocating, approving of, or implementing initiations of threats or violence.

Got game?

According to Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011) by Jane McGonigal, good games are designed to capture the above dynamics by enabling the player to self-adjust challenge levels and cultivate rising capabilities as challenge levels rise. Even prior to this, the player first selects which game to play, when, and with whom. Gaming entails a wide range of autonomous dynamic decisions that influence the challenge/capability balance. What difficulty level does the player select? How long does the player work on a puzzle before turning to a help clue?

Games themselves are also designed to dynamically adjust this balance. Difficulty and strength of opponents typically rise as the player gains achievements, levels, rank, and equipment. Games also often provide adaptive feedback on progress toward clearly defined goals. These are each elements that modern game designers have raised to high levels.

The popularity of gaming helps illustrate the motivational power of each person being able to seek flow states through dynamic autonomous goal selection and challenge/capability balancing. McGonigal’s central theme is that games have come to be designed to tap into motivation in a way vastly superior to typical (de)motivational structures found in schools and corporations. Lessons for institutional improvement could be derived from the study of game design.

Moreover, if we are concerned with young people being obsessive about gaming and uninterested in school, we should naturally want to examine the extents to which goals are self-selected and the challenge/capability balance is adjustable individually in gaming versus school. The answer is near. Most good games offer high degrees of player autonomy and masterful challenge/capability balancing. Most schools are abysmal in both areas.

Promoting interest in "the real world" could therefore begin by increasing the range of autonomy that young people can practice in that real world, for example, by enabling them to engage in work again.

Why will kids work ingeniously and for unending hours for in-game gold? In gaming, they can work with whom they chose and keep the gold they earn. This contrasts with the more and more artificially constrained real world in modern interventionist economies, which increasingly outlaw young people from working at all. The message to young people is: if you want to work, earn, and create, it must be in the virtual world or not at all. The analysis of action from a praxeological standpoint applies just as well to in-game action as to out-of-game action.

Psychology, ethics, and praxeology: The distinctions revisited

The psychological research from Flow and the analysis of gaming can help remove extraneous implications from past attempts to formulate descriptions of the ultimate ends of action. Relationships among labor, leisure, and happiness do not exist. Happiness is influenced by self-chosen challenge/capability balance without regard to labels such as labor and leisure.

The distinctions between praxeology, ethical philosophy, and psychology should be clearly maintained, yet valid insights from each should not be ignored either. Praxeology says, “it is/must be so by definition.” Ethics says, “one should act this way rather than that way.” Psychology says, “we observe, notice, and hypothesize.”

Meanings of "rationality" also play into this topic and clarifying this is also helpful. Long clarified the nature of “rationality” as used in praxeology, including which claims praxeology can legitimately make regarding it. When a praxeologist claims that all action is rational, it is a claim that actors employ means to the attainment of ends. This only states an implication of what action is.

However, an ethicist’s or psychologist’s definition of “rational” must specify some narrower distinctions or be meaningless for their purposes. Those wearing psychologist or philosopher hats might well be interested in whether people deceive themselves in their judgments or make poor judgments. However, such distinctions must be left behind when donning the praxeologist’s peculiar new hat. Long writes:

In a sense, then, it is true that agents always act rationally; but the only sense of this claim to which Mises is [praxeologists are] entitled is that agents always act, not necessarily in a manner appropriate to their situation in all the ways they actually see it, or even in the most justified of the ways they actually see it, but rather in a manner appropriate to their situation in the way of actually seeing it that is constitutive of their action. (309–310).

This third formulation finally leaves no room for distinctions among “rational” (as contrasted with “irrational”) qualities of particular actions as judged by any narrower ethical or psychological criterion. Instead, the meaning of “rationality” for praxeologists is a universal-definitional one. As such, it is of no use to psychologists or ethicists who require narrower definitions to work with. Indeed, it is not especially useful to praxeologists at all and might be better abandoned as a relic from a time when this distinction was not yet clear enough.

This third formulation helps refine the lines between psychological interpretation, ethical advice and judgment (“this is rational, that is not”), and universalizable statements about action. Only the third formulation is undeniable for all cases of action without further inquiry into motivation, thought processes, or value scales. Only the third statement is/must be so as a logical implication of what action means. The rest is up to the other fields.