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 2014 Panel: History of Money & Lessons for Digital Currencies Today" with time-based outline

Following the Economic Theory of Bitcoin panel on 17 May 2014 at the Bitcoin Foundation Conference in Amsterdam, I also participated in this one-hour panel addressing the history of money and lessons for digital currencies today (my own contributions start at 41:40). The varied topics included lessons from the history of the Netherlands, problems with the deflationary spiral argument, parallels to the early history of the oil industry, competition and types of centralization, historical circulation of multiple monetary metals and relevance for altcoins, and the role and operation of central banks relative to market competition and centralization versus decentralization.

Moderator: Ludwig Siegele (Online Business and Finance Editor, The Economist)

Speakers: Tuur Demeester (Founder, Adamant Research), Konrad Graf (Author & Investment Research Translator), Simon Lelieveldt (Regulatory Consultant, SL Consultancy), Erik Voorhees (Co-Founder, Coinapult)

1) Introductions

00:00–05:50 Introductions by each panelist

2) History of money in Amsterdam (Lelieveldt)

06:10–10:58 Lelieveldt: Amsterdam monetary history; water and community power more outside usual royal vested interests. Amsterdam Exchange Bank cleaned up confusion of many coins in circulation. Guilder was a unit of account without existing as a physical coin anymore, making it a virtual unit of account at the time. Human mind can adapt to and use many different things as currency.

3) Putting the “deflationary spiral” to rest (Voorhees)

10:58–19:07 Hyperdeflationary bitcoin economy hasn’t fallen apart. Opposite: more bitcoins spent when value is rising (wealth effect). Academics cite deflationary spiral as truism, but bitcoin shifts the burden of proof back onto supporters of the idea. Calling the gold standard “rigid” was a justification for control. Increasing the number of monetary units about as useful as increasing the length of an inch.

4) Parallels from history of the oil industry (Demeester)

19:07–28:18 Invitation to academics to launch altcoins representing their favorite monetary policy. Nothing else as disruptive as bitcoin in the history of money, but parallels with history of oil. Not approved by intellectuals or establishment. New innovations raise customer expectations. Academics may avoid taking bitcoin seriously for fear of ostracism from old paradigm.

5) Centralization, impact of licensing on competition, wealth transfer (general)

28:18–41:40 Multiple panelists and audience: Don’t waste time thinking about what (you think) bankers and others think. Oil and the internet were both fragmented originally, but centralization followed. What about bitcoin? Distinction between market-based centralization and coercive, legally privileged centralization. Wealth transfer, innovation, and social opinion.

6) Was the “gold standard” really the free market money of the old days? (Graf)

41:40–49:52 “Money production” an industry that can be examined ethically. Mining a specific service performed with compensation, but literally creating money “out of thin air” an illicit wealth transfer. Gold arrived at leading position through multiple government interventions. Litecoin as silver a weak metaphor. Question simplistic summary images as representations of actual history. [Here is a more detailed write-up on this topic that I posted after the conference: Gold standards, optionality, and parallel metallic- and crypto-coin circulations (21 May 2014)].

7) Q & A and discussion (general)

49:52–62:00 Central banks and money creation. Money another good in the economy or separate? Bankruptcy helpfully eliminates damaging institutions. New money creation leads to visible effects, but unhelpful for society overall; transfers wealth from some people to others. Trigger events for financial collapse? Dominoes collapse starting with weaker economies, periphery. Watch for rising interest rates.

“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 :-)

Gold standards, optionality, and parallel metallic- and crypto-coin circulations

Source: Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia Commons. Copper coin, 1782-1799 CE, Tipu Sultan ReignWhen one hears the words “gold standard,” it is usually either from people who think it was a horrible thing or people who think it was a wonderful thing. However, many in both groups seem to agree that “the” gold standard represents the free market money of the good old days, or the bad old days, or perhaps even the future.

However, the inclusion of the word “standard” could already serve as a warning that this may have been just another convoluted sequence of confused government programs. Looking into this more closely may suggest lessons for cryptocurrencies today.

Several different international monetary orders from 1871–1971 were based on gold: the classical gold standard, the gold exchange standard, and the Bretton Woods system. Yet these came only after a long series of previous legal interventions in money of various types. When such legal measures were absent or weaker, things tended to differ. Professor Guido Hülsmann characterizes it broadly this way on p. 46 of The Ethics of Money Production:

In the Middle Ages, gold, silver, and copper coins, as well as alloys thereof, circulated in overlapping exchange networks. At most times and places in the history of Western Europe, silver coins were most widespread and dominant in daily payments, whereas gold coins were used for larger payments, and copper coins in very small transactions. In ancient times too, this was the normal state of affairs.

One dramatic way that monetary metals were driven out of circulation was the policy of bimetallism. People we might today call “regulators” legally fixed the exchange rate between silver coins and gold coins to make the market more “regular.” The actual result was the rapid loss of a major component of the money supply from circulation. Hülsmann on p. 130:

One famous case in which bimetallism entailed fiat inflation-deflation was the British currency reform of 1717, when Isaac Newton was Master of the Mint. Newton proposed a fiat exchange rate between the (gold) guinea and the (silver) shilling very much equal to the going market rate. Yet parliament, ostensibly to “round up” the exchange rate of gold, decreed a fiat exchange rate that was significantly higher than the market rate. And then some well-positioned men helped the British citizens to replace their silver currency with a gold currency.

Hülsmann then cites similar cases in the US in 1792 and 1834. Not only did price fixing not make the market more “regular” as intended, it caused severe disruptions, with many losers, some winners, and a certain period of monopoly metal circulation.

The parallel circulation of metals may in this way have represented relatively more of a “free market money” situation than government orchestrated gold standards that arrived only after long sequences of legal manipulations—and which just happened to also channel the majority of gold into the vaults of monetary-system orchestrators.

Lessons for parallel cryptocoin circulations?

Such parallel circulation has been used as an analogy to promote parallel cryptocurrencies in a complementary monetary role. How well does this analogy hold up?

Each metal filled a different market role from the others, with some overlap. Likewise, each altcoin advertises different features. How significant will users perceive such differences to be?

The main difference between copper, silver, and gold was a large distinction in a practical characteristic, one unmistakeably clear and important to the end user—exchange value per unit of weight. A single gold coin could do the work of a handful of silver ones or a hefty pile of copper ones, whereas buying a few potatoes with gold instead of copper would have been quite a technical challenge in the opposite way.

However, this particular factor—probably the most important one from the case of metals—does not apply to cryptocurrencies, which can be divided and combined freely and have no weight. Perhaps some other factors will prove significant enough to create a similar degree of differentiation, but the final say goes to the market test, not the engineering imagination. Another significant difference among cryptocurrencies is the amount of hashing power protecting each chain. This is a factor, in contast, for which minimal significant parallel exists in the case of monetary metals (the closest thing would probably be relative differences in forgeability).

In considering a given cryptocoin from a monetary viewpoint, it is important to investigate and consider its actual patterns of use. Having the word “coin” in the name does not make it a monetary unit. What does? One sign is the extent and scale to which users are holding a unit so as to buy goods and services with it. This might contrast, for example, with an income purpose (buying and selling the asset against another monetary unit in pursuit of monetary gains), or social-signaling purposes such as giving out microtips to online commenters. Each altcoin or appcoin might fill different roles and provide different kinds of value to users, perhaps within particular sub-cultures, or perhaps in the context of particular services. Coins can apparently fill some of these functions without having to gain much traction in a more general monetary role.

In contrast to this, a central function of holding cash and other liquid balances is to address the uncertainty of the future and this is a general function—the more general, the better fulfilled. For example, we may know that we will want to buy some things in the future, but not necessarily know exactly which things, when, where, and at precisely what prices. Cash balances, due to their flexibility, enable us to adjust to such constellations of uncertainties. In this sense, a unit that is more widely accepted is likely to come in handy in a wider range of such future situations than one that is less widely accepted (there are also other factors to consider besides generality of acceptance, such as whether the units are expected to tend to gain or lose value while being held in balances).

I suspect that only significant traction in such a general monetary use, such as bitcoin has begun to gain, could sustain a large increase in a given unit’s purchasing power over the longer term through the network-effect process I have termed hyper-monetization.

There is a strong tendency in a trading network toward the use of a single monetary unit. This theoretical insight has sometimes been extended to the historical claim that this is the natural role of gold, or the forward-looking claim that gold should fill this role in an ideal future. However, other factors also push back in the opposite direction toward parallel circulations and multiple options. Such factors could be natural, such as we saw with large practical differences among different monetary metals, or political, such as the legal favoring of some monies in combination with the geographic sectioning off of the total trading universe.

One option is not really an option

Finally, adaptive systems and species that survive for a very long time tend to have some redundancies in critical systems. There is no single more critical system for the functioning of civilization than indirect exchange using money and other monetary units. A repeated theme in the history of money, however, has been actions by rulers that have the effect, whether intended or not in any given case, of removing alternatives and opt-out paths for money users, leaving them highly vulnerable to whatever happens with the remaining monopoly unit.

If a society has a single dominant monetary unit for whatever reason, it would seem favorable from this larger vulnerability assessment or antifragility perspective for its members to have other viable options at least waiting in the wings in parallel operation. Use of a single money certainly has strong advantages, but while network effects and broadness of acceptance are very large factors, they should not be mistaken for being the only ones.

In particular, use of one unit with no alternatives available does not address the need for adaptation to unexpected events. The complete absence of freely chooseable and ready alternatives makes a society more vulnerable to the effects of large-scale shocks. Points often lost on central planners of all schools are that redundancies and parallel options tend to have unexpected very long-term survival value, that more options are often better than fewer, and that having only one “option” is similar to having no option at all.

Recommended related books:

Jörg Guido Hülsmann, The Ethics of Money Production (2008)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (2012)

New paper: "Revisiting conceptions of commodity and scarcity in light of Bitcoin"

I have written a paper on Bitcoin in relation to fundamental theoretical concepts from economic theory, particularly “commodity,” as in the category of “commodity money,” the multiple meanings of “scarcity,” and “goods.” “Revisiting conceptions of commodity and scarcity in light of Bitcoin” (17 March 2014) [PDF] [ePub] is 21 pages of text, plus references.

This is a completely revised, updated, and reformatted version of an extended post that appeared almost exactly one year ago on 19 March 2013, entitled, “The sound of one Bitcoin.” That post was more in the style of a detective story, cataloging my personal step-by-step process in my first weeks of initially trying to make sense out of Bitcoin in terms of the economic theory that I had long studied.

A friend who knew I have been working on this revision asked recently if it was was mainly a refinement or if there were drastic changes from the original. I replied that while the basic ideas were the same, there were…drastic refinements. There are also connections to work that I have done in the intervening year since the original version came out.

Download here: [PDF] [ePub].

"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 as medium of exchange now and unit of account later: The inverse of Koning's medieval coins

A new article by JP Koning at the Moneyness blog revisits the idea that two monetary functions can be separated: medium of exchange (that which is used to actually buy things) and unit of account (what prices are quoted in and accounts generally kept in). He does this through a historical account of the monetary milieu of some medieval European cities. This has direct implications for viewing contemporary monetary developments half a millennium later.

In “Separating the functions of money—The case of medieval coinage” (13 September 2013), Koning suggests that a common unit of account (the pound/shilling/pence system) for pricing existed alongside a plethora of actual coins of various and sundry sizes, qualities, and metals. Each had to be repeatedly assessed and reevaluated due to wear, fraud, and outright devaluation in terms of the common unit of pricing. This had to be done so that such objects could actually be applied toward paying in specific transactions. Meanwhile, he claims that actual coins corresponding to this unit of account may well have been rare or might not have existed at all at certain times, at least relative to the mass of actually circulating crudely formed hunks of various metals (crude as retroactively judged by subsequent industrial coinage standards).

This is a thought-provoking discussion and I am sure there is more to be assessed and debated about the historical details. Nevertheless, the basic theoretical idea is that the unit used for pricing and what people actually hand over in trade to pay asked prices do not necessarily have to be the same. This implies that the problem of barter comprises at least two distinct issues: 1) no common unit of pricing for cost accounting, economic calculation, and comparison shopping and 2) no commonly accepted unit to be employed in concrete acts of payment. Koning thus seems to present a transitional hybrid case in which (1) is more developed while (2) is still a work in progress, or has broken down.

As it turns out, we are now witnessing a rapidly evolving case of just such a separation of functions. The difference is that, for now, it is the exact inverse of Koning’s medieval coins.

The opposite of medieval

Those who pay in Bitcoin today overwhelmingly pay prices that are listed in the local fiat currencies of the politically-defined jurisdictions they find themselves trading within. There are already a few exceptions, such as the Trezor high-security hardware wallet (priced at 1 bitcoin) and some mining shares, but such examples remain rare.

In current Bitcoin transactions, despite pricing still being largely denominated in euros, dollars, and the like, the actual “coin” being tendered differs from the unit of account and pricing. This separation of functions is much easier, quicker, and more accurate today than it was in, for example, Basel, Switzerland 600 years ago, due to the combination of real-time global networking and public exchange markets for both Bitcoin (see the new CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index) and other forex pairs. This means accounting and thinking about relative exchange values can easily be done for present convenience using existing pricing constellations.

According to Koning’s account of the medieval cases he describes (taken at face value for our purposes here), the unit of account itself may even have been virtual, while the actual media of exchange handed over in transactions were the various and sundry physical coins people had managed to acquire in their previous work and trading. In diametric contrast, with Bitcoin today, we have a “virtual” coin with global circulation that is mathematically perfect in its uniformity and fungibility. These ideally homogenous global “coins” now circulate next to a hodgepodge of national-monopoly units of account/payment which have all sorts of shifting real values. Specifically, almost all such “shifting” of paper currency values is downward, just at differing rates of descent.

The potential for role reversal and later convergence

If and as Bitcoin grows and its price volatility stabilizes with expanding adoption, market participants could in time come to use it as a global unit of account against which the various and sundry unstable fiat currencies continue their extended monetary Danse Macabre. Bitcoin-denominated prices could be paid in Bitcoin, of course, or they could also be paid in a local fiat money, if both traders agree. Fiat would substitute for the relatively stable Bitcoin at the current day’s exchange rate in a way precisely opposite to their current respective roles.

Beyond this, in a long-term Bitcoin success scenario, medium of exchange and unit of account functions would most likely tend to move further toward convergence—price in Bitcoin, pay in Bitcoin. This would tend to greatly enhance convenience for all the buyers and sellers of the world (meaning everyone). That is the sort of thing that the American founding generations of the late eighteenth century would have called “the common good.”

In a more recent Europe, as Philipp Bagus explains in The Tragedy of the Euro (2010), the monetary authorities of more inflationary national currencies were repeatedly embarrassed by the relative strength of the less inflationary deutschmark. They therefore sought a coordinated means of inflating through the euro system, so that rates of monetary depreciation could be “harmonized.”

Likewise, in a future world with a successful Bitcoin, the inflationary paper monies of the world (that is, all of them) may eventually become rather self-conscious if compared to a global rising-value currency. This time, however, the inflationists may have a harder time sparing themselves distress than they did in pressuring German politicians to end the deutschmark against the general sentiment of the German people.

This is because the Bitcoin “cat” is not only out of the bag; it has spawned a global tribe of at least 200,000 currently active network nodes located in nearly every corner of the earth, any one of which contains a complete copy of the block chain.

Much more difficult than herding politicians, is herding cats.

Recommended: Provocative and important new article on Bitcoin and altcoins

Daniel Krawisz has taken the time to do the cryptocurrency community a service and come down systematically, hard and at times hilariously on the many weak arguments in favor of various altcoins. In the process, his article reveals Bitcoin itself to be even stronger than it is often presented. He argues that the actual alleged threats to Bitcoin from the likes of double-spend attacks, 51% attacks and mining centralization are each much less realistic and significant in the real world than they are sometimes made out to be (although mining centralization is still something to keep an eye on).

His displayed combination of solid technical knowledge of the field with consistently sound economic reasoning is refreshing and valuable. This is more than a thorough critique of altcoins. It also functions as a fresh defense of Bitcoin against a number of typical technical and economic objections and concerns.

I had previously come to the working impression that if altcoins did gain any useful function, it would have to be in a niche application, or would simply be as a research platform to feed into Bitcoin development. Reading this article reinforced that view, and even suggests perhaps taking it further.

So go and read The Problem with Altcoins.

Bitcoin, price denomination and fixed-rate fiat conversions

People are apparently still talking about the monetary regression theorem and its relationship to Bitcoin. There still seems to be a lot of confusion out there around both. Using a confused version of the regression theorem to criticize a confused version of what Bitcoin is does not seem like a promising recipe. I have been trying to focus on finishing up a longer work on Bitcoin and Austrian theory, but here for now are a few updated comments that came out of an online discussion today.

One newer point that has emerged in my work in progress is that the regression theorem is a theoretical explanation of how something that was at one time not money could ever become money in the first place. However, the theorem is not made to be a criterion of judgment for determining what is or is not money after the fact. Upon observing something actually functioning as a medium of exchange, the economist’s task is to explain how it came about. The role of the regression theorem was to explain specifically how something could have ever gotten started in a medium-of-exchange role to begin with. Judging and dismissing are unrelated to the function of the actual regression theorem. It is supposed to be explanatory and illuminating.

One area of confusion seems to surround the relationship between Bitcoin and fiat money, specifically the idea that Bitcoin has somehow emerged from fiat money, something like the way the euro got started on the backs or the various European national currencies. I addressed this briefly in my 27 February 2013 article, but here are some further observations.

Such transitional conversions are done with fixed exchange rates set by law. The new currency takes up its value from the old one in an administratively managed process. This applies to historical metallic coin monies giving rise to paper money certificates through a fixed conversion rate (later dropping the convertibility) and it applies to retiring paper monies being used to launch a new paper money, as in the case of the euro. However, the attempt to apply this translation/transition model to Bitcoin runs into serious trouble because no such transitional official fixed exchange rates have ever existed for Bitcoin. Quite the contrary. Governmental actors are only beginning to so much as roughly understand Bitcoin years after it already entered active use. It emerged on the market from scratch as its own good, certainly not from any official fiat.

It could be objected that regardless of origins, Bitcoin is only able to keep functioning through its relationship to fiat money and fiat money pricing. It is a mere strange shadow of the existing systems. Goods and services are priced in fiat money and a Bitcoin equivalent is paid. Bitcoins can be bought and sold referencing current market pricing on the most liquid exchange, Mt. Gox. In other words, this argument implies, Bitcoin could not function without these props.

This raises a number of interlocking issues. Bitcoin is now useful for many reasons, among them transferring value that may or may not have been obtained through the sale of fiat money and that might or might not end up being used to buy other fiat money in the future. On the other hand, while there are certainly active speculative traders on the exchanges, there are also folks buying Bitcoin with fiat money with no intention of selling it again into fiat money, but only of using it to buy goods and services in the more or less distant future. There are merchants using Bitpay so they never have to “touch” Bitcoin, but there are also merchants giving discounts for payment in Bitcoin, and accumulating the Bitcoin. There are consumers holding Bitcoin ready to use and other consumers that might only obtain specific amounts of Bitcoin for some specific purpose and then return to a zero balance. There could be some Bitcoin miners who mainly only ever sell Bitcoin for fiat money, but never buy any with fiat money. Everything is possible.

One point the Austrian school has long emphasized in monetary theory is that while money is special in certain ways, it is also a good itself, not a mere veiled marker or representation of other values. It is a type of good distinguished from other goods and services mainly by its higher marketability.

It is true that Bitcoin users have benefited greatly from the existence of market economies with functioning price structures. Pricing is still done for the most part in local fiat currencies and will probably continue to be unless and until Bitcoin becomes more stable in purchasing power than the fiat money that users are comparing it to, each in his own decision-making context. Automatic software price conversion makes it possible for the system to piggyback on existing and familiar price structures in each local area with immense convenience.

Yet I do not think there is any fundamental reason that Bitcoin-denominated pricing of goods and services could not evolve from scratch if it hypothetically had to. Fortunately, it does not have to. If no money existed at all, it would be necessary to get it going. We just have the convenience of already being able to rely on existing market prices for goods and services and the further convenience of being able to reference real-time market prices from organized exchanges. An argument could be made for just taking the easy road and using them. I think this is all just to the good of contextualized convenience and not so theoretically fundamental. Still, there are already Bitcoin-priced goods and services, particularly starting within the Bitcoin economy. For example, the Trezor Bitcoin hardware wallet is on pre-order for the price of 1 BTC.

The extent to which Bitcoin users reference fiat pricing in commerce is probably what has given rise to some  conflation with what I think is the quite different process by which one fiat money is converted into another by the official declaration of a fixed conversion price. Paper euros probably could never have taken off unless the official exchange rates with their predecessor currencies had been declared by law and the predecessor currencies had also been phased out by law. Without such official (“fiat”) declarations, printed euro notes would most likely either have been worthless or negatively valued due to the need to pay to store or dispose of them.

Bitcoin never had any official conversion price (or official anything), so how could it have gotten started? Bitcoin could never have begun to function in any other roles, such as transferring value derived from paper money over distance and converting into other paper money, if some initial users were not willing to trade any valuable goods or services for Bitcoin itself to begin with. After it began to be traded for other goods and services, one could observe it functioning in various, increasingly useful roles on that basis, some in interaction with existing monetary systems, but so long as its market price remained zero, it could not begin to serve in any such trading roles.

I think the initial-value question is probably much more narrow and technical than it is sometimes made out to be when the name of the regression theorem is invoked (the name; not necessarily the understanding). That question is how to explain a movement from a zero indirect-exchange value to non-zero indirect exchange value. Reaching non-zero from zero, especially in a digital computing context, is all that is needed for the rest to follow.

Anyone still talking about the regression theorem and Bitcoin might do well to focus on detailed historical research from the year 2009 and 2010 at the latest. After that, the deal was already done, leaving room only for efforts at explanation of what had happened. The rest was up to adoption, entrepreneurship and network-effect growth.

The m's and b's of millibitcoin redenomination

We could change where the display shows the decimal point. Same amount of money, just different convention for where the [commas and periods] go…moving the decimal place 3 places would mean if you had 1.00000 before, now it shows it as 1,000.00.

—“Satoshi Nakamoto,” February 10, 2010

In the Kingdom of Geekdom, my €2.60 espresso this morning might have cost 0.0283 BTC (at the 90-day weighted moving average of €92/BTC), perhaps pronounced “point zero two eight three bitcoins.”

Such a string of sounds could only happily emerge from the mouths of card-carrying Geekdom denizens channeling Mr. Spock himself, but it would be most unlikely to pass the lips, or be long tolerated by the ears, of the average Katie, Hans, Taiwo, or Eijiro on the streets of this planet.

And thus a resurgence of interest in changing the standard Bitcoin denomination from a bitcoin (1 BTC) to a millibitcoin (0.001 BTC) has taken shape on the Bitcoin Forum with an informal survey. The top responses to “Should we start using mBTC as the standard denomination?” are 53% for “Yes,” and 20% for “After the price is at $1,000, dollar parity for the mBTC.”

Maybe, but what do we say at checkout?

Designed for convenience at much lower value levels, the initial standard “bitcoin” unit, which equals 100 million satoshis, the more fundamental unit within the Bitcoin system, has grown to become far too valuable for most people’s ordinary way of thinking and speaking about prices. A bitcoin has traded over the past several weeks mainly in the $110–$130 range with the 90-day weighted moving average now just shy of $120. Unlike bitcoin exchange values from earlier years—a few cents and later a few dollars—most ordinary items now have to be bit-priced entirely within the decimal point range, although the luxury houses and cars at Bitpremier could just stay priced in bitcoins. A hypothetical rise to $1,000/BTC would greatly amplify this situation.

A redenomination would only impact the way price numbers are displayed and discussed and would make no fundamental changes to values held. A person with 1 bitcoin could just as well be said instead to have 100 centibitcoins or 1,000 millibitcoins.

In contrast, when political money managers talk of devaluation, redenomination, and most recently “easing,” such machinations actually do signal an active manipulation of purchasing power (always to its detriment). This current discussion simply seeks consensus on practical and linguistic conveniences by, for, and among the wholly self-selected community of participating Bitcoin developers, service providers, merchants, consumers, traders, and even observers.

Yet the difficulties of finding spoken language for naming this new unit, language capable of seeing wide global adoption in everyday use, have proven a lingering challenge. To address this topic, I will draw on conventional pricing usages in several different countries and languages in search of common patterns to use as criteria. I will then apply these criteria to existing proposals for a spoken-language name for the too technical “millibitcoins,” and then offer two suggestions, the second of which I have not yet seen proposed elsewhere.

Before moving on, let us be sure to put this whole “problem” in perspective. This is a “sound-currency problem,” in the sense of the “first-world problems” meme. A rising currency and falling prices of goods and services denominated in it are the kinds of “problems” most people ought to be happy to face. The long, sad history of declining political currency values has systematically punished savers and planners and rewarded debtors and those with less effective foresight, leading to shortening time horizons and eroding senses of personal responsibility.

Falling currency values leave families struggling to meet ever-rising prices for goods and services. By several estimates, the United States dollar, for example, has lost some 97%–98% of its value since its “management” was assigned to the Federal Reserve System in 1913 (I refer those who fear falling prices, the deflation-phobic, to my 29 March 2013, A short Bitcoin commentary on “Deflation and Liberty” and the works linked from it).

Speaking of prices

Since the Bitcoin network spans this entire planet, such linguistic research ought to begin by at least attempting to reference practices in several countries and major languages. I will select examples below from the US, Germany, and Japan, based simply on my own degree of direct familiarity with each (please add other instructive usage examples in the comments). The three numerical examples below are of roughly similar purchasing power in each zone, probably enough to buy another espresso.

The first thing I notice is that it is common to use two decimal places, “cents” after a main unit. Second, in shopping language, the unit names are often omitted altogether. Thus, in the US, a spoken “two-sixty” means two dollars and sixty cents ($2.60). In Germany, “zweisechzig” likewise means two euros and sixty cents (€2.60), or more formally “zwei euro sechzig” (but still most often omitting “zent”). Omitting the unit is facilitated in both cases in the same way: two individual numbers are spoken in sequence, the first specifying the whole unit; the second, hundredths of it.

In Japanese, ¥260 is “nihyaku rokujuu-en”. Here, there is no decimal point, but in effect “hyakuen” (¥100) takes the place of the base unit in the dollar and euro examples. The “yen” (actually pronounced “en”) is not omitted in speech, but it only takes a quick syllable to say it and units are not optional in general. The “hyaku,” also lightning fast to say in Japanese, already works to create a division in ¥260 between the two hundreds and the sixty. This makes it less functionally different from the English and German examples than it might at first appear.

Generally speaking, when the names of currency units are not contextually omitted in speech altogether, they can almost always be pronounced in just two syllables: dollars, euros, pesos, kronas, rubles, rupees…bitcoins. In contrast, “millibitcoin” or “mBTC” (pronouncing each letter) each take up a hefty four syllables and are as such unlikely to survive in non-technical spoken usage.

The bit is dead; long live the bit?

So, what might that unit be called in ordinary speech? Some commentators have identified a problem with “coin.” It is by nature indivisible. On the other hand, “the coin of the realm” does give a more uncountable sense of a money in use in a particular place.

Either way, this provides an easy opportunity to cut out a syllable, and with “coin” duly exiled, proposals for spoken options for millibitcoin have included “millibits,” “embits,” “mills,” “mill,” “millies,” and “bits.” Those thinking way ahead have already termed a microbitcoin (0.000001) a “Mike,” presumably the thin, but loving partner of the much heftier Millie.

“Millibits” came out ahead in an informal naming poll for millibitcoin way back on May 14, 2011. Unfortunately, at three syllables, it is still a mouthful for everyday speech, exceeding the conventional two syllable mainstream for currency unit names.

You want change? Anybody got some tools?

“Bits,” at just one syllable, already have a long and storied history in coinage. For centuries, the Spanish silver dollar was a preferred unit of global trade due to its relative freedom from debasement of silver content and its wide international adoption. The peso de a ocho coin was worth eight reales and became known as “pieces of eight” in English, giving pirate parrots something to prattle on about. It has also been said that certain coins were physically cut into eight pieces or “bits” as a way to improvise around small-change shortages using the resulting sharp metallic pie pieces. I am not sure of the ratio of fiction to fact on that one.

The resulting related use of “two bits” to mean a quarter dollar has only recently been fading out of informal use in the US after a long run. Unfortunately, fiat inflation eventually left a quarter dollar unable to buy much of anything and the meaning of “two-bit” declined with it, coming to characterize something of poor quality. A “two-bit coffee” might thus sound rather dilute to modern ears.

Could “bit” be brought back in a decimal-based, high-tech reincarnation? A millibitcoin (0.001 BTC) is now trading at about US $0.13. Twenty of these might buy that espresso at $2.60 and “twenty millibitcoins” (20 mBTC; 0.020 BTC) might be shortened in speech to “twenty bits.”

The centibit challenge and foodie what-ifs

If such bits stood for centibitcoins (0.01 BTC) instead of millibitcoins (0.001 BTC), that espresso might cost about “two bits” after all (assuming $130/BTC). With centibitcoins, a family sushi dinner that might add up to $65.95 would come to “fifty (bits) seventy-three,” or the waiter could say, “in Bitcoin, that’s fifty seventy-three.” That’s 50.73 centibitcoins versus 507.3 millibitcoins and 0.5073 bitcoins.

A centibitcoin redenomination could thus bring things into a familiar range for dollar and euro users right away. At around $130/BTC, a centibitcoin would trade for $1.30, €1.00, and ¥100. That seems intuitively perfect, but only under approximately current rates.

Bitcoin exchange values could stay level or fall. Expecting a long, level trend or modest decline would speak in favor of centibitcoins as the standard unit. If Bitcoin does continue to climb impressively, though, how long before its dollar exchange value adds another digit?

Let us say that the bulls have it and the exchange value of a bitcoin moves to $500 and then $1,000 over the next several years. How would these two alternative redenominations then play out with some everyday examples?

At $500 per bitcoin, a $2.60 espresso would cost 0.0052 bitcoins, 0.52 centibitcoins, and 5.20 millibitcoins. Millibitcoins would win according to the balance of the above criteria (“in Bitcoin, that’ll be five twenty”). The big sushi dinner would be 0.1319 bitcoins, 13.19 centibitcoins, and 131.90 millibitcoins. In this case, either one might look okay.

At $1,000 per bitcoin, the espresso would cost 0.0026 bitcoins, 0.26 centibitcoins, and 2.60 millibitcoins. Millie would win. The sushi would then come to 0.06595 bitcoins, 6.595 centibitcoins, and 65.95 millibitcoins, and millie would win again.

While a centibitcoin transition would make sense for now, an assumption of further exchange value growth would point in favor of the proposed millibitcoin unit. Either way, a redenomination could well be positive. A key challenge for Bitcoin entrepreneurs is helping to broaden adoption into more frequent everyday payments and purchases. Making Bitcoin units easier for contemporary people to talk about in everyday language and think about closer to everyday price numbers could well be helpful.

So how about just putting “m” and “B” together?

“Embies” (mB) is another option I have proposed based on pronouncing “m” and “b”. The B can also be written with the proposed Bitcoin currency symbol when it makes its way into standard character sets. Embie matches the conventional two-syllable criteria. It strikes me as easy to pronounce on a multilingual basis. It also seems friendly and familiar; it could be a pet’s name. I find it easier to say than the two-syllable “embits” candidate. Not all sets of two syllables are equally easy to pronounce.

Still, some people seem to hate it, while others like it. It may be that the name for BTC 0.001 that will prevail in the end has not yet been coined.


For additional articles on this topic, visit my Bitcoin Theory page on this site.


IN-DEPTH | The sound of one bitcoin: Tangibility, scarcity, and a "hard-money" checklist

The first purpose of a scientific terminology is to facilitate the analysis of the problems involved.

—Ludwig von Mises on the role of monetary terminology

IMPORTANT UPDATE: What follows has been substantially updated, revised, and republished in other versions. The final version appeared in The Journal of Prices and Markets as, “Commodity, scarcity, and monetary value theory in light of bitcoin” (accepted 20 Oct 2014; published 24 Feb 2015; HTML, PDF). The arguments are substantively similar, but whereas the final version is more refined and academic in tone, the following was an initial overview treatment.

* * *

Tradable bitcoin units viewed as discrete objects of human action appear to be a new type of phenomenon, unprecedented. At times, they even appear to elude trusted monetary classification schemes. If such typologies were sound, however, they should not require correction so much as some careful revisiting within a new context of knowledge.

In this second installment on Bitcoin theory (following “Bitcoins, the regression theorem, and that curious but unthreatening empirical world” (27 February 2013), we seek to further clarify the economic nature of Bitcoin by closely reexamining the concepts of scarcity, goods, and tangibility. We distinguish what we will label economic-theory and property-theory senses of the word “scarcity” and attempt to more clearly differentiate scarcity from tangibility. This distinction helps overcome difficulties that have arisen in considering Bitcoin in relation to the monetary classification scheme pioneered in Ludwig von Mises’s The Theory of Money and Credit (TMC; original German 1912).

With these proposed building blocks in place, we examine bitcoin units viewed as scarce objects of human action using a typical set of criteria for explaining the historical-evolutionary strengths of metallic coins as media of exchange. How do tradable bitcoin units stack up directly on a list of “hard-money” criteria?

We also stress that the economic analysis of empirical cases must always be comparative. States of perfection, while useful in the advancement of pure theory, cannot legitimately be smuggled in to represent real empirical possibilities and serve as standards for comparison. How something compares to an imaginary state of perfection may help the theorist reason, but it is no cause to reject or prefer any real empirical option, which, whatever it may be, can never compete with any unrealizable, imaginary state.

The focus this time remains on the perspective of individual actors and discrete objects involved in action (which includes both tangible and intangible “objects”), with a central focus on economic theory. Planned future installments will then shift toward more system-level, market-level, and legal-theory perspectives. This step-by-step procedure reflects one aspect of an integral approach to the interplay of individual and system perspectives, as well as the parallel use of multiple, discrete fields, to enhance the totality of understanding.

Part I: Money Unveiled

“I can pay you in eggs or a bunch of these specially configured nested electron-shell wrapped neutron/proton bundles. Your choice, buddy.” Image source: Pumbaa (original work by Greg Robson), Wikimedia Commons.

The thing is…

In taking a strictly subjectivist position on the nature of goods, the fact that bitcoin units might be described as “merely” the current status of accounting entries in the ubiquitously duplicated block chain (and therefore not “really” goods at all in themselves), poses less of a difficulty than it might at first appear to. Of interest for action-based economic theory is the observation that large numbers of market actors on a global scale are nevertheless treating these units as a type of scarce economic good in general and as a medium of exchange in particular. By way of illustration, quipping that silver is “really” just one particular and generally pointless arrangement of sub-atomic particles is of no avail for praxeology, which is based on a strict dualist distinction between teleological concepts and the more objective, causal concepts of the natural sciences.

If no existing category or “box” on a given monetary classification proved sufficient to contain Bitcoin, a new category might have to be appended. In investigating a new case, terms and categories should facilitate understanding rather than hinder it. In developing his terminology in Chapter 3, “The Various Kinds of Money,” in TMC  (pp. 50–67), Mises sought to employ terms that would specifically facilitate economic analysis more effectively than the conventional and positive-law terms of the time (pp. 59–60). He notes on pp. 61–62 that:

Our terminology should prove more useful than that which is generally employed. It should express more clearly the peculiarities of the processes by which the different types of money are valued. [it should also help to overcome] the naive and confused popular conception of value that sees in the precious metals something “intrinsically” valuable and in paper credit money something necessarily anomalous. Scientifically, this terminology is perfectly useless and a source of endless misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

I do not believe that Mises’s classification scheme from TMC requires any fundamental revision to account for Bitcoin. We may only need to take a further step in the direction of a strictly dualistic action theory. This is the same direction of travel that gave rise to those classifications in the first place as Mises began to carry economic theory step by step further away from its objectivized past and toward its action-based future. Mises warned sternly in 1912 (p. 62) that:

The greatest mistake that can be made in economic investigation is to fix attention on mere appearances, and so to fail to perceive the fundamental difference between things whose externals alone are similar, or to discriminate between fundamentally similar things whose externals alone are different.

A fresh mystery from Vienna

Stephansdom in Vienna. Photo by Konrad S. Graf.

Among its many other contributions, Peter Šurda’s 2012 thesis, “Economics of Bitcoin: Is Bitcoin an alternative to fiat currencies and gold?” [90-page PDF; Vienna University of Economics and Business) carefully examined Bitcoin in terms of Mises’s monetary classification scheme from TMC. Up to a certain point, Šurda interpreted the situation in largely the same way as I have.

In a procedure reminiscent of the 1939 Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, he rejected, correctly I believe, one candidate after another as a place for Bitcoin within the TMC scheme (pp. 23–28). It is not any kind of money substitute (Bitcoin is not “redeemable” for any more fundamental unit). Even within Mises’s “money in the narrower sense” (senses other than money substitutes), Bitcoin is not credit money (no creditor/debtor relationship exists) and not fiat money (it lacks any legal-tender status or any other state-sponsored privileges, stamps, or certifications whatsoever to “prop it up”).

Somewhat disquietingly perhaps, Šurda and I had each arrived independently at just one final suspect. The only candidate that is even a remote possibility is: “commodity money.”

Yet surely this could not be quite right either. At this point, one might think it would have been easier to start by rejecting commodity money, and then try to make an analogy to some of the other categories. Commentators have tried to do this variously with fiat money and token money, for example. However, I do not think such claims hold up to scrutiny.

It is certainly quite odd in this context to begin trying to imagine Bitcoin as a “commodity.” True, in certain other contexts, “commodities” can have a quite broad meaning. In its broadest theoretical usage in purchasing-power theory, “commodities” are sometimes the euphemistic label for everything that is not money—all that against which money prices are paid. Nevertheless, for the most part, and certainly in this context, “commodity” takes its narrower and much more common meaning. It is a fungible physical material or product, such as metal, oil, grain, or these days interchangeable “commodity” memory chips or other general-purpose electronic components.

The opposite perspective: Vienna from high above in Stephansdom. Photo by Konrad S. Graf. 

In the face of this apparent impasse, Šurda’s thesis next proposed several considerations. First, since he had already argued that Bitcoin is not a “money” (yet), but a secondary medium of exchange (p. 22), it need not necessarily fit on a chart of “money” in any case. Yet he also recognized that to some degree this just kicks the can down the road a few more yards. What if Bitcoin did somehow grow to eventually qualify as “money,” even by his own chosen definition? To this he proposed some alternative terminology from several existing sources (p. 26), such as “quasi-commodity money.”

He offers additional detail on this issue is in his recent post, “The classification and future of Bitcoin” (12 March 2013), where he notes perhaps the most important point of all:

The issue…is not some abstract classification for its own sake. The purpose of the classification system provided by Mises is to assist in the economic analysis of trade, money supply, price building, liquidity and so on. From this perspective, if we insist that we must keep the number of categories the same that Mises used, the economically closest category of Bitcoin would be commodity money.

I think further clarification may still be possible from some different directions. I suggested in the previous installment of this series that substituting the more subjectivist word “good” for “commodity” may already be a useful step, at least from a meaning-content point of view. This time, we venture further into language and context.

As always, meaning must come first; words have to follow along as best they can. Concepts are one thing; the words used to signify them another. To me these are not just theoretical claims, but my lived experience working as a professional translator for many years (Japanese to English as it so happens). A good translator is constantly at play with the concepts and meanings that the various words are employed, at times somewhat imperfectly, to get across from mind to mind in given times and contexts. One of the first things it occurs to my translator self to do is to check into the source text and consider what, if anything, might be noticed there that may not occur to a reader of the resulting translation. It is also often helpful to consider the background context of debates in which words were employed.

TMC is a translation of Mises’ 1912 Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel. “Commodity money” was the term used to translate Sachgeld. Although some issues have been found with the TMC translation, including most notably the title itself (see the recent centennial symposium volume,The Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media(2013), “commodity money” seems a perfectly reasonable translation in this case. To be clear, I am aware of no reason to think that Mises would have objected, or did object, to this choice. In Nationalökonomie, the 1940 German precursor to Human Action, many instances of Sachgeld are accompanied by the usual examples of gold and silver, which also serve as the stock examples of “commodity money” in Human Action in 1949.

Nevertheless, our purpose is not to toy with words, but to better understand their theoretical content and meaning, and specifically to look for some assistance on the challenge of reconciling Bitcoin with Mises’s original categories. Bitcoin is a novel enough development that it forces us to revisit in a new context of knowledge fundamental concepts that were arranged and labeled as they were in a previous context of knowledge.

In this process, one language might provide hints that another withholds. A word that was unobjectionable in the past might begin to suffer now for the first time from outmoded or non-essential connotations. Moreover, this is likely to occur somewhat more strongly with regard to the particular words and senses of words used in one language than with the corresponding words and senses of words used in another. It is in this spirit that some multilingual brainstorming might lead to a missing clue.

Lt. Cdr. Data sleuthing in Star Trek: The Next Generation.And indeed, the two-part compound construction of the German word Sachgeld suggests some related connotations that “commodity money” in English does not. Die Sache is a “thing,” in either a concrete or abstract sense. Alternative senses from this word and associated compounds readily include such abstract senses as “the matter at hand,” “the facts of the situation,” and “the main or most important point or issue.” A Sachbuch is a non-fiction book (not a “commodity book,” but a book about any non-fictional topic, a “factual book” as opposed to a fictional one). Sachgeld itself in modern dictionaries comes across as any “thing” (or even animal or person) that was historically used as a medium of exchange, or simply the earliest forms that money took historically (note that historically here also implies prior to the evolution of money substitutes).

It appears that Sachgeld, in its first, most literal possible sense, looks like “thing-money” or “fact-money.”

This may already be enough of a clue to begin threading a path through the “commodity” puzzle that Bitcoin, perhaps now for the first time ever, presents. One of our central underlying themes this time will be continuing to seek ways to disentangle the concept of tangibility from various other concepts relevant to monetary theory, especially scarcity. A “thing” is usually considered tangible, but unlike “commodity” in its relevant monetary meaning (a fungible physical material), “thing” more easily also covers abstract senses such as “matters at hand,” “conditions,” and so forth, as in, “The thing is…” or “How are things going?” or “It is a curious thing, this Bitcoin.”

At this stage, rather than creating an alternative category, or turning to a sub-category such as “quasi-commodity money,” it may only be necessary to revisit the original concept of Sachgeld such that it takes on a more abstract and subjective, and less concrete and objective, sense than it has ever been asked to. This would also seem to be in keeping with the overall long-term direction of development of the Austrian school of economics in distinguishing ever more carefully between action-based teleological concepts and objective characteristics of various means employed in acting.

It appears, then, that we might interpret the central economic meaning of Mises’s monetary category of Sachgeld as something like “thing-in-itself money,” or “money in itself,” or “money in fact,” and my re-reading of Chapter 3 of TMC does not appear to exclude this possibility. Much as a silver coin in the old days functioned directly as “money in itself,” and was not “backed by anything,” a bitcoin unit is likewise not “backed by anything.” Nor is it even a perfect or imperfect substitute for anything else. From the point of view of economic actors using it, a bitcoin unit is the tradable good itself. No intermediating substitutes stand between it and its user. And the mere existence of various service providers does not automatically imply that money substitutes are in play.

Paper fiat money is “backed” by such factors as user experience from the past, legal tender laws and user expectations of their continuation, and other powers suppressing certain forms of competition. But Bitcoin enjoys no such force of either habit or law. Moreover, a study of the Bitcoin system suggests no obvious need or function for such money substitutes as have historically grown up around metallic currencies. Not that they are impossible, just that they would not appear to add value. They could even subtract value by adding superfluous risk layers. Many of the advantages that typical money substitutes had in the past, such as freedom from the weight burdens and creeping heterogeneity of precious-metal coins from gradual wear, are already provided in Bitcoin from the point of view of users of “the thing itself” (a topic also addressed in more detail below).

Some knightly context

For an initial check on how well this proposed interpretation might mesh with the greater context in which TMC appeared and its major contributions, we rely on Professor Hülsmann’s definitive intellectual biography, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism (2007).

First, we find that Hülsmann noted on p. 215 (emphasis mine) that:

In dealing with the nature of money, Mises relied heavily on the work of Carl Menger. The founder of the Austrian School had shown that money is not to be defined by the physical characteristics of whatever good is used as money; rather, money is characterized by the fact that the good under consideration is (1) a commodity that is (2) used in indirect exchanges, and (3) bought and sold primarily for the purpose of such indirect exchanges.

The words “good” and “commodity” as we read this passage would normally seem to point to physical characteristics, and this was most likely also the intended meaning. But what if we try reading again with abstract senses for these words in mind? The substantive points in this paragraph are all about functional characteristics of money for actors. Look for the verbs: used as, bought, and sold. Moreover, “physical characteristics” are specifically singled out as factors on which money is “not to be defined.”

In quickly reviewing Mises’s typology of monetary objects (pp. 216–217), Hülsmann notes that:

[Mises] distinguished several types of “money in the narrower sense” from several types of “money surrogates” or substitutes. Money in the narrower sense is a good in its own right. In contrast, money substitutes were legal titles to money in the narrower sense. They were typically issued by banks and were redeemable in real money at the counters of the issuing bank.

Here we have the word “good” again. We also have “a good in its own right.” This seems reminiscent of our hyper-literal attempt at rendering Sachgeld as “thing-in-itself money,” or more simply “money in itself.” So far as I am aware, Bitcoin currently has no significant substitutes and virtually no issuers of any such substitutes. Perhaps with a few arcane or experimental exceptions, Bitcoin is so far traded directlyas itself at freely fluctuating rates against all other goods, services, and monies. While the construction of Bitcoin-denominated financial instruments is possible, most all of the actually traded forms of Bitcoin are direct instantiations of bitcoin units.

As Šurda explained (pp. 9–18), Bitcoin is already inherently “form-invariant,” much as language can come in spoken and written forms, but remains language. “Transfer of Balances (ToB)” methods convey Bitcoin units from one wallet to another, while “Transfer of Keys (ToK)” methods, suited for offline use, transfer physically instantiated wallets that contain specified Bitcoin balances (effectively denominations). The private key is physically contained inside a ToK object in the shape of a coin, smart card, etc. with structural and one-time-change physical security features such as holographic coverings and color-change chemistry. Critically, the current wallet balances on ToK objects can be verified if necessary using only the public key without the need to expose the physically concealed private key to any party. None of these ToK objects are Bitcoin substitutes; they are each native forms of Bitcoin itself.

The question of whether actual Bitcoin substitutes and associated practices entailed in the kind of “banking” we are accustomed to could evolve on top of Bitcoin is a separate and open one. Šurda has also just recently offered some further observations on this in an interview with Jon Matonis in American Banker, “How cryptocurrencies could upend Banks’ monetary role” (15 March 2013).

The key issue seems to me that Bitcoin both functions as a money in itself and delivers many of the benefits of historically evolved money substitutes, leaving little demand for them to grow up in relation to Bitcoin, at least in the same old ways. In a provocative take on the question of Bitcoin money substitutes, Pierre Rochard has suggested that this type of development might simply render the ongoing debate about banking reserve practices not so much resolved as obsolete (22 February 2013). People will of course attempt to construct all such familiar instruments, but whether they can add any value relative to native Bitcoin and attract any sustained and significant use remains to be seen.

Mises, in developing his own monetary theory in TMC, was also arguing against the assignment theory of money, which holds that money has no real value of its own to actors, but merely functions as a sort of neutral receipt that facilitates deposits and withdrawals on the “social warehouse” of goods. Money, in this view, is simply a “veil,” functioning as a sort of mere claim ticket exchangeable for other goods, but not a good in itself.

On p. 237, Hülsmann explains that:

Mises’s great achievement in his Theory of Money and Credit was in liberating us from the veil-of-money myth…Mises could even rely on Menger’s theory of cash holdings, which already contained, in nuce, the insight that money is itself an economic good and not just representative of other goods.

Böhm-Bawerk had put it this way in an early-1880s lecture (p. 235):

Money is by its nature a good like any other good; it is merely in greater demand and can circulate more widely than all other commodities. Money is no symbol or pledge; it is not the sign of a good, but bears its value in itself. It is itself really a good.

Hülsmann explains the role of Mises’s strict terminology in countering the prevailing assignment theory of money (p. 237):

To combine these elements into one coherent theory required a radical break with time-honored pillars of monetary economics, in particular, with the classical tradition of presenting money as a mere veil. Mises was fully conscious that this was the key to his theory, which is why, in an introductory chapter of his book [Chapter 3], he engaged in the somewhat tedious exercise of distinguishing various types of money proper (money in the narrower sense) from money substitutes. It was these substitutes in fact that were the sort of tokens or place holders that Wieser and the other champions of the assignment theory tacitly had in mind when they spoke of money…While it is true that the value of a money substitute corresponds exactly to the value of the underlying real good (for example, one ounce of gold), the value of the gold money itself does not correspond to anything; rather it is determined by the same general law of diminishing marginal value that determines the values of all goods.

This greater context clarifies that “money in the narrower sense” is a form of money valued directly without any intermediation of substitutes and without mere veiled representational reference to other goods. Money was not just a placeholder or accounting entry, a claim ticket for other goods. It was one good trading for other goods on the market. Moreover, Sachgeld, “money in itself,” was further differentiated from Mises’s other two monies “in the narrower sense” by not being a debt instrument (credit money) and also not depending on any official legal certification or special legal status (fiat money). The primary distinction of money in the narrower sense among all other goods was its wider relative marketability, as Böhm-Bawerk had explained.

This higher degree of marketability then gives rise to an increased value of money as a hedge against uncertainty. If no uncertainty existed, there would be no need to hold cash balances. As Hoppe explains in “‘The Yield from Money Held’ Reconsidered” (2009), in the real and always uncertain world, we do not know in advance exactly what we will want to buy and when, but we do know with much higher certainty that we will want to buy something sometime. The holding of cash balances can be understood as a forward-looking measure we take in relation to this degree of perceived uncertainty.

No coinbug likes inflation

Whatever the future brings, for today, at least, Bitcoin seems to behave very much like a “money in itself,” but one unlike any the world has ever seen. It is digital and it is apparently impossible for any party to manipulate its total supply. This is critical, because one of the central political-economic monetary issues is inflation, by which I mean specifically, the ability of money producers to manipulate the money supply for whatever reasons they might happen to have in mind or cite at a given time.

As Mises wrote in TMC (p. 428):

It is not just an accident that in our age inflation has become the accepted method of monetary management. Inflation is the fiscal complement of statism and arbitrary government.

He also explained the social-protective advantages of having precious-metal coins circulate physically (p. 450):

Gold must be in the cash holdings of everybody. Everybody must see gold coins changing hands, must be used to having gold coins in his pockets, to receiving gold coins when he cashes his pay check, and to spending gold coins when he buys in a store.

This might seem at first to be the definitive Misesian endorsement of circulating metallic coins. Yet as Hülsmann notes in this context, “Mises had not become a gold bug. He had no fetish about the yellow metal or any other metal” (Last Knight, p. 922). Hülsmann then points us to the reasons behind Mises’s proposal—to help counteract the advance of inflationary policies (TMC, pp. 451–52):

What is needed is to alarm the masses in time. The working man in cashing his pay check should learn that some foul trick has been played upon him. The President, Congress, and the Supreme Court have clearly proved their inability or unwillingness to protect the common man, the voter, from being victimized by inflationary machinations.

The function of securing a sound currency must pass into new hands, into those of the whole nation [world?]…Perpetual vigilance on the part of the citizens can achieve what a thousand laws and dozens of alphabetical bureaus with hordes of employees never have and never will achieve: the preservation of a sound currency.

At this point, much appears to hinge on the definitions of “good” and “commodity.” Must they necessarily maintain their historical associations with tangibility? It is therefore to tangibility, and in particular its relationship with scarcity, that we now turn. Against all the temptations to try to drop Bitcoin into one old basket or another, can Bitcoin nevertheless stubbornly hold out and demand recognition as something new in the world?


Part II: The Sound of One Bitcoin

That intangible sense of scarcity

In further considering Bitcoin and monetary theory, the concepts of goods, scarcity, and tangibility must be carefully differentiated. Scarcity and tangibility were long inseparable in the form of monetary metals. They remain fused in most familiar goods.

But what if factors other than tangibility, per se, such as relative stability of total supply, durability, and divisibility, were the essential factors even in evolutions of metallic media of exchange? What if tangibility was something of a monetary “inactive ingredient,” a “material carrier” for those other qualities, which had actually always been the essential ones?

Digital goods have brought the separability of goods from tangibility front and center in the modern world. To apply these concepts now to the case of Bitcoin, we revisit their various senses and definitions, including some recent refinements.

Copying is not theft

Most digital goods, such as song or text files can, in principle, be copied ad infinitum even as any earlier copy from which other copies are made remains entirely unchanged.

This was the essence of the digital-information revolution. Unlimited numbers of people could use copies at the same time without direct mutual interference or degradation of the integrity of any earlier copies. A copy could be made without the original disappearing, as would be the case with theft or any other kind of transfer. Moreover, any copy could then become a new, equally serviceable “original” from which new copies were made from there. “Originals” would not even degrade with time or use, as is the case with analog reproduction methods, with their analog “master” copies.

The difference between copying and theft has been humorously and quickly illustrated in the “Copying is not theft” one-minute meme. Since a video may be worth 10,000 words, it might repay the time to view this now to see the essence of this distinction (literally one minute) before proceeding.

The advent of mass digital replication dealt a crushing blow, at least within the abstract realm of knowledge and patterns, to an age-old enemy—inherent or natural scarcity. In response, we have been witnessing a legal and technical scramble to create artificial scarcity to replace it. The major methods have been expanding and tightening legislation and enforcement and the application of digital rights management (DRM) technologies. This combination of developments brought the dusty old issue of “intellectual property” front and center. To make any sense of this odd scene in a principled way required a fresh look at basic social-theory definitions and concepts.

As one important step in this effort, Jeffrey Tucker and Stephan Kinsella in “Goods, scarce and non-scarce” (25 August 2010), focused on distinguishing perfectly copiable goods, such as ideas, methods, and most digital goods, labeling them as “non-scarce goods.” They quoted from Kinsella’s landmark “Against Intellectual Property” (2001), which addresses the relationship between tangibility, scarcity, and the core social function of property rights. Kinsella (p. 19) asked:

What is it about tangible goods that makes them sub­jects for property rights? Why are tangible goods property? A little reflection will show that it is these goods’ scarcity—the fact that there can be conflict over these goods by multiple human actors. The very possibility of conflict over a resource renders it scarce…the fundamental social and ethical function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources.

This sense of “scarce” is a social-relational one. It refers to the physical impossibility of a rivalrous good being used for different purposes simultaneously by more than one party. For example, one person cannot, under any imaginable scenario, drive from Rome to Vienna while another drives from Sydney to Brisbane in the same car. This specific sense of scarcity derives from the property theory reasoning of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who wrote in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (p. 235) that:

insofar as goods are superabundant (‘free’ goods), no conflict over the use of goods is possible and no action-coordination is needed…To develop the concept of property, it is necessary for goods to be scarce, so that conflicts over the use of these goods can possibly arise.

Care must be taken, as we shall see, because scarcity is sometimes used with a different meaning in economic theory. In that usage, “scarcity” is a necessary attribute of any economic good, by definition. Moreover, in popular colloquial usage, “scarce” has yet a third meaning of “in short supply” or “not enough to go around” relative to an assumed “normal” or ideal baseline situation, which is completely distinct again from either of the two foregoing technical meanings.

Tucker and Kinsella mentioned that tangibility is not inherently necessary for scarcity, citing airspace and radio waves as examples (one transmitter can interfere with another). Yet the practical conclusion seemed to be that tangibility and scarcity do coincide in almost all cases. All of the examples in an informal and illustrative chart of “scarce” goods (and non-goods) happened to also share the attribute of tangibility, while the non-scarce examples were all intangible. And indeed, this is almost always the case. Yet they left no doubt about the key point:

The term scarcity here…means that a condition of contestable control exists for anything that cannot be simultaneously owned: my ownership and control excludes your control.

While the meaning and purpose of their argument is clear in its context, in strictly economic theory terms, one must still act to obtain even a “free” or “non-scarce” copy of a good. One must still click on one free file icon rather than another, for example, displaying choice and preference through this action, and making the clicked-on file a means in action and the runner-up file an opportunity cost. As a result, great care must be taken with the overlapping and sometimes reversed senses of these two meanings of the word scarcity. For example, in the property theory sense, even a “non-good” can be scarce, which is impossible in the economic theory sense. Yet once again, Tucker and Kinsella took care to make their meaning clear:

Something can have zero price and still be scarce: a mud pie, soup with a fly in it, a computer that won’t boot. So long as no one wants these things, they are not economic goods. And yet, in their physical nature, they are scarce because if someone did want them, and they thus became goods, there could be contests over their possession and use. They would have to be allocated by either violence or market exchange based on property rights.

This subtle difference in the meaning of scarcity in economic theory and property theory reflects the respective clarification tasks at hand. Economic theory is in the first instance concerned with the nature of economizing action as such, which can only be taken by individual actors (“Crusoe”). Property theory is first of all concerned with individual action in its capacity as occurring in a social context of other similar actors (Crusoe plus Friday on up). This latter context gives rise to the binary descriptive possibilities of either cooperative (consenting) or conflicting (violent) relationships. One sense of scarcity is used for the purpose of considering Crusoe only, while the other sense of scarcity is used for the purpose of considering the possible classes of interactions between Crusoe and Friday.

Property rights are a fundamentally social phenomenon; they are irrelevant to the consideration of Crusoe alone. And this goes for the narrower sense of the word scarcity used in property-theory reasoning. With Crusoe and Friday situations onward, however, social action theory posits binary action possibilities of either cooperation or violent conflict. These encompass a descriptively possible totality of all possible human interactions (on this, see Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State [MES, 1962] pp. 79–94, and Guido Hülsmann, “The a priori foundation of property economics(2004)). This particular set of binary classifications has been selected (either more or less consciously) by investigators as being valuable for helping to explain differential social phenomena.

Confusion in discussions of scarcity could also arise from the use of the term “free goods,” which Kinsella and Tucker also associated with non-scarce goods. In the strictly economic theory sense, “free” goods are not really “goods” at all, but the background conditions under which actions take place. They are not means in themselves within an (intentional) structure of action. Rothbard put in this way in MES (p. 8):

The means to satisfy man’s wants are called goods. These goods are all the objects of economizing action…The common distinction between “economic goods” and “free goods” (such as air) is erroneous…air is not a means, but a general condition of human welfare, and is not the object of action.

Air would not be a means for a jogger unless this particular jogger were an obsessive economist who had in mind “using” air as a “means” to go jogging. The air outside under normal circumstances is a background environmental condition, but not itself an object of action, and therefore not a good, unless its supply or quality is threatened. In strict dualist fashion, Mises emphasized how the concept of a means only arises in relation to the study of action (Human Action, pp. 92–93; my emphasis):

Means are not in the given universe; in this universe there exist only things…Parts of the external world become means only through the operation of the human mind and its offshoot, human action…It is human meaning and action which transform them into means.

Means are necessarily always limited, i.e., scarce with regard to the services for which man wants to use them. If this were not the case, there would not be any action with regard to them. Where man is not restrained by the insufficient quantity of things available, there is no need for any action.

Eugen Böhm von Bawerk’s image on 1984 “Austrian” fiat paper. Andrew Jackson sympathizes. Source: Berlin-George, Wikimedia Commons. Good for what?

A “good” is thus something that serves as a means within the structure of human action. Gael J. Campan argues that this was already explained in Eugen Böhm-Bawerk’s 1881 paper, “Whether Legal Rights and Relationships Are Economic Goods.” The first part of Campan’s article “Does Justice Qualify as an Economic Good?” (1999) explains the subjectivist conception of a “good” that Böhm-Bawerk advanced (my emphasis):

While scarcity is commonly referred to as an essential feature of an economic good, this must not be understood purely in a physical sense, i.e., a fewer number of items compared to the quantity of others. Indeed, if all means are scarce by definition, it is specifically because they are limited with respect to the actual ends that they are capable of satisfying…The characteristics of a good are not inherent in things and not a property of things, but merely a relationship between certain things and men.

The thing named a good must have useful properties, which is not to be understood in a strictly physical sense.

As quoted by Campan, p. 24, Böhm-Bawerk wrote (my emphasis; and try it once omitting “corporeal”):

Whatever importance we accord to the corporeal objects of the world of economic goods derives from the importance we attach to the satisfaction of our wants and the attainment of our purposes…It is the renditions of service rather than the goods themselves which, as a matter of principle, constitute the primary basic units of our economic transactions. And it is only from the renditions of service that the goods, secondarily, derive their own significance.

Define “scarce”

We have seen that scarcity in the property-theory sense pertains not to whether something is a good or not in this broader economic-theory sense, but rather to the native potential for rivalrousness of consumption and, specifically, to the presence or absence of the attributes of copiability and simultaneous shareability. Since the broader economic concept of scarcity is already contained within the definition of a “good,” the narrower property-theory sense appears more useful for the current explanatory tasks.

Building on this property-theory sense of scarcity from Hoppe, Kinsella, and Tucker, I propose defining a “non-scarce good” as: a good that is copiable with perfect remainder of the original and useable by multiple actors simultaneously without mutual interference.

Here the two travellers from our previous example,  each now with a car of his own, can simultaneously drive to Vienna and Brisbane, respectively, while each listens to identical digital copies of the same album by the same band (each driver incurring his own respective speeding citations). The variable cost of producing each additional playing of this same album is effectively zero (at any rate, quite unlike producing an additional “copy” of a car).

The point for right now is not to enter into the pros and cons of copyright legislation and entertainment business models (on which I recommend work done at and, but rather only to show the relevant descriptivedistinctions involved. A copy of a non-scarce good can be freely produced with no objective effect on previous copies, while a “copy” of a scarce good such as a car cannot be made in this way. Either control of the given instance of a car must be transferred (through sale, gift, or theft), or an entirely new instance of a car must be constructed from new and different scarce instances of the requisite materials and energy.

The point of Tucker and Kinsella’s article was to create a relevant binary classification along these lines (my emphasis):

One helpful way to understand this is to classify all goods as either finite and therefore normally scarce or nonfinite and therefore naturally nonscarce…It is scarce goods that serve as means for action, while nonscarce goods that can be copied without displacing the original are not means but guides for action.

…[A] recipe can be shared unto infinity. Once the information in the recipe and the techniques of making it are released, they are free goods, nonscarce goods, or nonfinite goods.

By contrast, according to my suggested definition of a non-scarce good above, the definition of a scarce good (in the property theory sense) would be the negation: a good that is not copiable with perfect remainder of the original and is not useable by multiple actors simultaneously without mutual interference. This proposed definition encompasses what most people think of colloquially as “goods” in general: groceries, clothes, and so forth.

In the modern age, such “non-scarce goods” have proliferated. As Tucker and Kinsella put it, “The range and importance of non-scarce goods has been vastly expanded by the existence of digital goods.” For the most part, non-scarce goods include all sorts of abstract goods such as ideas, text and music files, patterns, plans, recipes, methods, and so on. Specifically, it includes the meaning and content of all types of media and text, and other abstract and digital “things.”


In the case of Bitcoin, matters are different. Each bitcoin unit can exist in only one wallet at one time due to the Bitcoin protocol’s methods of ubiquitously recording transactions and preventing double-spending. It is critical to understand that these qualities of Bitcoin scarcity are not merely due to add-on “security measures.” They are not appended legal or technical “protections.” Rather they are integraland inseparable attributes of a system protocol of which a given bitcoin unit is one element.

As should be clear by now, it is not necessary to fuss over objectivistic considerations such as whether an abstract collection of digits in certain configurations can “really” be a “good” or not. Böhm-Bawerk’s insertion of the word “corporeality” into his 1881 sentence is not a separate criterion for something to serve as a means, a point we can much more easily see today than over 130 years ago. Böhm-Bawerk nevertheless clearly explained that one must observe what people are doing to understand what economic goods are, an insight that Mises would later take up and run with in his action-based reconstruction of economic theory.

Bitcoin has now brought authenticscarcity into the world of digital goods.

This is not the artificially imposed, legally constructed “scarcity” of “intellectual property” legislation, which was the target of Tucker and Kinsella’s important work. It is not even a type of tacked-on DRM system that attempts to use technical measures to create artificial scarcity out of informational objects that are in their nature not otherwise scarce. The Bitcoin system has set up a type of scarcity that is inherent to the nature of the good itself. This possibly unique achievement of an inherent scarcity within the digital realm is an essential part of the innovation that has made Bitcoin a new type of good.

A bitcoin unit viewed as an object of action also meets another essential criterion from Böhm-Bawerk—it can be controlled. As Campan explained (p. 24):

It is necessary that the thing in question be disposable or available to us. We must possess the full power of disposal over it if we are really to command its power to satisfy our wants…the possession of a good cannot simply be decreed: either you possess effective control over it or not.

The Bitcoin system achieves this through private key/public key encryption, which allows effective control of bitcoin units in a user’s wallet, provided said user maintains control of their private key and/or related passwords. Once a bitcoin unit is transferred from one wallet to another, it is no longer “in” the originating wallet, but only “in” the destination wallet.

Thus, in the property-theory sense of scarcity, a bitcoin unit qualifies, not as non-scarce like most other abstract or digital objects, but as scarce, since according to our proposed definition, it is “a good that is not copiable with perfect remainder of the original and is not useable by multiple actors simultaneously without mutual interference.”

Once a private key to a Bitcoin wallet is copied, more than one party can have the key at the same time, as with any other non-scarce good. However, even so, only one party can succeed in using this private key to make use of any given bitcoin unit associated with that wallet. Only one transaction with a given bitcoin unit can be confirmed in the block chain. Even though a private key or password can easily be copied if obtained, even in this case, only one person can end up succeeding in making use of a given bitcoin unit because of the system’s prevention of double-spending. A known compromised key pair (wallet) can be abandoned. Additional key pairs are free and plentiful.

What is the sound of one bitcoin?

Two hands clapping make a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

—Koan attributed to Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku 白隠 慧鶴 (1686–1768)

We have seen that the concept of scarcity in both economic-theory and property-theory senses is useful to understanding bitcoin units as objects of human action and that scarcity and tangibility are separable. But can the quality of tangibility, so essential to the familiar story of the evolution of precious metals as monies, just be unceremoniously dropped? It is said that an experienced examiner can distinguish the authenticity of a precious metal coin by dropping it and listening to its ring. But what is the sound of a bitcoin dropping?

It was tangibility in the monetary-evolution story that had seemingly held together all the numerous traditional monetary-commodity characteristics in the form of a nice solid coin of silver, gold, or copper. It appears that some observers steeped in that story, upon seeing that Bitcoin lacks tangibility, concluded that it must also lack the other associated monetary characteristics such as durability and relative stability of supply.

In this context, we find it insightful that Jon Matonis, a long-time observer of and writer on cryptocurrenices, recently said in a Reddit interview (19 March 2013) that one way to quickly understand Bitcoin better is that it is distinguished from gold in that “it depends on mathematical properties rather than chemical properties.”

A “hard-money” checklist check

With these considerations in mind, this paragraph from Professor Hülsmann from “How to Use Methodological Individualism” (27 July 2009) will be helpful. The essay was on a different theme, but the following paragraph from it contains a great deal of interest for our current topic all in one convenient place (my emphasis):

Media of exchange become ever more generally accepted to the extent that they are objectively more suitable than their competitors in arranging indirect exchanges. Silver is more suitable as a medium of exchange than cherry cakes because it is durable, divisible, malleable, homogeneous, and carries a great purchasing power per weight unit. Market participants are likely to recognize this relative superiority in a process of learning and imitation, and eventually most of them will use silver to carry out their transactions. Hence, one can explain why the technique of indirect exchange is adopted on an individual level; and one can explain why specific media of exchange become generally accepted and thus gradually turn into money.

There is much of relevance in that paragraph, but for now, I will only consider how bitcoins seem to fare against silver coins on those very characteristics (plus stock stability) on which silver coins beat cherry cakes:

Divisible, malleable, and scarce. Source: Mikela, Wikimedia Commons. Are bitcoin units

  1. Durable?Perfectly. Abstract digital objects do not change. However, this is subject to recording and replication, substrate non-destruction, private keys and passwords not being lost, etc.
  2. Divisible?Current theoretical maximum of 2.1 x 1015 units to be reached around 2140, with future extensions apparently also possible (finally enough tradable units for the “needs of trade”?).
  3. Malleable? Irrelevant; not tangible. However, analogs of this quality may be found in the variety of “transfer of keys” code-recording methods such as hologram- and color-change-protected code-bearing physical coins and cards.
  4. Homogeneous? Perfectly. More homogeneous than possible with any conceivable physical material because the homogeneity is mathematical (by definition) rather than physical (by empirical measurement relative to a definition).
  5. Purchasing power per weight? Infinite. Intangible code patterns lack the characteristic of weight altogether, rendering the slightest purchasing power infinite in per-weight terms.
  6. Now add: Relative stability of supply? Quantitative growth and terminal maximum quantity and timing are determined computationally; macro supply of bitcoin units (theoretically) not subject to human manipulation.

On this initial reading, it appears that Bitcoin obliterates metallic coins on factors 2–5, whereas factors 1 and 6 are open to contingencies and informed technical debates. Just as silver coins beat cherry cakes on these criteria (except malleability!), Bitcoin beats silver coins outright on four of six criteria. The other two criteria require further investigation, but Bitcoin also appears potentially competitive and possibly superior on these characteristics as well. These are questions for empirical observation, debate, prediction, and speculation about the specific course of the future, not for abstract theory as such.

This analysis of Bitcoin suggests several other points with regard to several of these characteristics.

First, purchasing power per weight was a major impetus in the evolution of paper and account entry substitutes for precious metal coin monies. Bitcoin’s purchasing power per weight is already infinite, and is therefore, quite literally, unbeatable on this factor. Another problem with metallic coins was gradual wear from circulation, which would eventually give rise to weight variations—a loss of homogeneity resulting from imperfect durability. Bitcoin does not share these particular defects with metallic coins that helped lead to market demand for substitutes.

Second, people tend to interpret the traditional hard-money characteristic of durability as a mainly material one. Tires, for example, are described as being more or less durable. On reflection, however, a temporal aspect is central to the concept of durability in that it refers to measurement of change over time in relation to use. To ask about durability is to ask the extent to which an object tends to change over time in certain of its properties under certain conditions. In the case of an abstract code relationship, the code need not change at all. Although its recording substrates might change, the code itself can be perfectly copied and copied again, and it is in this specific sense that its durability as a code sequence is theoretically infinite for any relevant purpose.

Third, regarding divisibility, whereas fiat money issuers stand ready to add as many integers (“zeroes”) to paper fiat notes as they like to facilitate the steady loss of value of fiat monetary units; the Bitcoin system is capable of supporting divisibility to as many decimal places as are demanded to facilitate a steady gain of value over time. This is a diametric contrast the further implications of which would be difficult to overstate.

Competing ways to approximate a golden spiral. Source: Silverhammermba, Wikimedia Commons. Comparative versus imaginary-perfection methods

The ultimate potential for manipulation of the total Bitcoin stock (factor 6 above) is a key question that is certainly a very technical one, possibly with philosophical aspects. Can it be established that future quantitative supply manipulation at the macro level cannot occur? Would that require “proving” a technical and empirical negative?

Whatever the factors and answers, it is important to apply the realistic comparative perspective of the true economist rather than the “imaginary-perfections” perspective of the false one. For example, with fiat monies, we know above all that large-scale, distortive, quantitative manipulation of the money supply can occur—andin all known cases actually does.

Even with metallic currencies, comparisons on hypotheticals would still have to be even-handed. The stock of precious metals adjusts slightly over time with mine output and other factors (though always with much less volatility than the stock of a fiat money). Nevertheless, at the extreme, can it be shown that cheap synthetic gold could not ever be produced (as the alchemists had forever dreamed), thereby collapsing the price of gold by inflating its supply? (as the alchemists may or may not have thought through far enough).

Gold can apparently already be synthesized in particle accelerators and nuclear reactors, just not cheaply. If one of the criteria required of a candidate for becoming a sound money is proof of a fantastically complex technical and empirical negative, then such must be required equally of all potential candidates. If, for example, it must be “proven” that no mass quantitative manipulation of Bitcoin could ever possibly take place under any imaginable conditions, then it must likewise be “proven” that no future cheap gold synthesis could ever possibly take place.

Empirical perfection never comes to pass. In all such matters, the comparative method must be recalled and put to use. Pros and cons of possible alternatives must be assessed. Critical comparisons against made-up and wholly unrealizable hypothetical states of empirical perfection must be identified and rejected.

Unfortunately, just such clouded thinking has been ingrained and normalized through the practice of assuming that state actors can successfully and perfectly accomplish whatever they like by enacting legislation and setting up a bureaucracy. This patently absurd dream is then compared (at best) to the forever imperfect efforts of the living human beings who by contrast inhabit the so-called “market” (which euphemistically seems to mean “reality”).

Human action is by nature always a choice among perceived possibilities. The Misesian tradition of economics is positioned as one part of the study of human action. The study of society is the study of acting persons joined in a grand, interacting process of trial and error writ large.

It is not the role of economic or legal theory to predict the future. However, they can and do have useful and unique contributions to make to basic understanding. These can in turn prove useful in such other fields as investing, forecasting, and business-model development that do attempt the always-speculative and risk-bearing task of peering ahead into the soon-to-become empirical future.

For additional articles on this topic, visit my Bitcoin Theory page on this site.

IN-DEPTH | Bitcoins, the regression theorem, and that curious but unthreatening empirical world

I attempt to account for the emergence of bitcoins in terms of the monetary regression theorem. In doing so, I argue that 1) the existence of bitcoins does not and could not challenge the regression theorem and 2) the regression theorem does not constitute any particular problem for bitcoins in terms of economic theory. That said, 3) the investment analysis of bitcoins is a separate matter from the economic-theory analysis and is a good (but separate) topic for vigorous debate.
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REVIEW | The Ethics of Money Production by Jörg Guido Hülsmann

Business ethics, or at least violating them, if the media is to be believed, is all the rage. The Ethics of Money Production is the first in-depth look (well, the second; the first, as Hülsmann points out, was written 700 years ago by a French Bishop) at the ethics of making money. Not the business of earning money, but the business of producing it.

Money production has been monopolized by the state for so long that it is difficult for us to even conceive of it is a business. The very idea sounds like science fiction. But might this not be in the good sense of science fiction, the sense in which it invites us to question fundamentals and consider what else is possible?

Money production is a business, one that happens to be a state monopoly, generating massive financial gain for the state in multiple layers. Like any business, even a state monopoly, money production ought to be viewable from the perspective of business ethics.

Is the monopolization of money production by the state really necessary, wise, or ethical, or is it simply a practice of long standing that needs to be called into serious question? The Ethics of Money Production takes on just this challenge from both ethical and economic perspectives.

For me, this book came at the end of a concentrated series of readings I did on money and banking issues. Years earlier, I had read several works in the free banking literature from Larry White, George Selgin, and Kevin Dowd, but this time my readings included The Case Against the Fed, The Mystery of Banking, Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles and a series of more recent back-and-forth academic articles on the fractional reserve vs. 100% reserve debate. Even after all this, Hülsmann's volume had a number of unique and important perspectives and insights to offer.

While it is simply stated, it covers a tremendous breadth, touching on all the key issues at just the right level of detail to make it accessible without oversimplifying. It squarely addresses the issues from both ethical and utilitarian angles while clearly distinguishing which is which. It gives priority to the ethical. If something is just plain wrong, there is no basis for excusing it on some set of utilitarian grounds. Nevertheless, the author is also in thorough command of all the utilitarian arguments made in favor of what he identifies as unethical money production, and he examines them all, finding each to also be flawed or self-contradictory on purely economic grounds.

He finds that there has been no real attempt to defend conventional statist monetary practices on ethical grounds at all, and indeed, he can uncover no non-utilitarian ethical grounds in support of such practices to even address. Moreover, he finds substantial grounds for condemning these practices as fraudulent and socially destructive on many levels, from both ethical and purely economic standpoints.

He summarizes the forms that this destruction takes. The continuous loss of value of everyone's money discourages saving, responsibility, and long-term planning and thereby even assists in the break-down of family bonds and other institutions of civil society. The sole beneficiary is the state itself and its closest friends, the banks that help finance its activities beyond what the citizens would be willing to pay in visible taxes.

Inflationary financing is essential to state power, to its wars, to its expansion, to the consolidation of its domination of its subjects. Control of money is a central, if not the central, strategic issue in the strength of the state, providing the state with a nearly limitless means of financing itself at the expense of its subjects in a way that is hidden from, and quite mysterious to, most of them.

What is new in The Ethics of Money Production?

Hülsmann goes even further than his predecessors in imagining the conditions of free market money production. A key weakness in previous formulations was a working assumption that only one type of metal would form a circulating monetary unit. However, it is quite possible that more than one could function in parallel for different purposes. There is no need to have an arbitrary, state-imposed "bimetalist" exchange rate between metals, which has historically driven one or another metal out of circulation whenever the market rate for it exceeded the official rate. In a truly free market for money, gold could end up being used for higher-end transactions and savings, and silver and/or copper coins for everyday transactions. He mentions historical precedent for such arrangements where, for brief periods, the state has not banned them. The metal rates would obviously have to float, as all state-manufactured bimetalist disasters and Gresham's Law-generated deflations in history have clearly demonstrated.

Multiple, freely floating monetary metal currencies are also defensive for the monetary order as a whole. If one metal begins to become corrupted or weakened for any reason, it is easy for consumers to switch to another at the margin. This helps preserve monetary stability, tending to mitigate and rebalance speculative value shifts, and preserves for consumers the ability to quickly and dynamically shift away from any potential problem areas. This is exactly the same consumer power that the state has always sought to take away in order to protect its sad parade of monopolistic funny-money schemes. The essential point is to have total monetary freedom, which means that people are never forced to accept money they do not wish to, and are free to use any money they do wish to.

The book also pointed out a subtle error in previous monetary standard formulations. Saying that "an ounce" of a certain grade of a metal is the monetary unit is not clear enough. Rather, it may be better for the unit to be a specified type of coin that contains this amount of metal.

It is costly to mint coins. If the monetary unit is not specified as a coin, a debt of 100 ounces could be paid, for example, with 100-oz. bar instead of 100 coins. However, the bar is quite likely to be less valuable than the coins because of liquidity differences and minting costs. The market solution would likely be to make a specified type of coin itself function as the contractual monetary unit. If someone wanted to pay in bullion, it would have to be discounted so that the value of the 100-oz. bar, for example, would be lower than the value of 100 of the minted coin units, and a balance would be due in addition to the bar.

Understanding this means taking yet another step toward the consistent application of the subjective theory of value in monetary theory. In this scenario, the bar, even though of the same metal, is not the money; it is just another commodity. This is because "money" is an economic rather than a physical concept. The coin, in this example, would be the "money," but not the bar.

As Hülsmann shows, all such problems, such as confusion as to the actual monetary unit, ultimately arise from the state arrogating to itself the right to set arbitrary "standards," which inevitably have some flaw in them that leads to problems that people operating in free markets could easily have solved and would not have generated.

But the state does this for a reason: it profits. That it profits at the expense of its subject population, should be the first point taught in any exposition of monetary theory. In state-run educational institutions, however, how much prominence is this point likely to be given?

As expected, it is hidden as well as it can be. The author shines light on it for all to see and shows a way forward that is at the same time more ethical, economically sounder, and truer.