Bitcoin: Money of the Future or Old-Fashioned Bubble?
Bitcoin has been all the rage lately. The stuff, or lack thereof, runs on peer-to-peer technology, is fully decentralized, has no patents, and is open source. Currently, there are almost 11 million units in existence and the maximum amount of units that will ever be created by the logic of its design are 21 million. For more details on how they work, see the recent Mises Daily “The Money-Ness of Bitcoins by economist Nikolay Gertchev.
While bitcoins are designed so that they cannot be hyperinflated in name, they certainly can be hyperinflated in substance. Already, there are numerous knockoffs such as litecoin, namecoin, and freicoin in place. This is a particularly valid point because bitcoin is a starfish, i.e., it is fully decentralized. As stated by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom,
The starfish doesn’t have a head. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, you’ll be in for a surprise: the animal won’t die, and pretty soon you’ll have two starfish to deal with.1
After the music-sharing service Napster went under, Niklas Zennström (the creator of Skype) stepped in with his creation called Kazaa, which had no central server that could be shut down. Eventually, such peer-to-peer programs became more numerous, to include Kazaa Lite, eDonkey, eMule, BitTorrent, etc. While this may be good news for people who like to download and share content for free, it certainly is not for people who are under the impression that bitcoin is a hedge against inflation. Those who compare bitcoin to a language neglect the fact that most people do not have an incentive to create a new language out of the blue. On the other hand, a great chunk of human history consists of people searching for the philosopher’s stone to magically produce gold. There can be no doubt that bitcoin has a built-in gold rush mechanism, which has already spilled over to litecoin and will be sure to spill over to subsequent knockoffs as well.2
Does bitcoin jibe with the Austrian stand on money? The only way to find out is to read what the great Austrians had to say. Let’s start with Carl Menger. In Principles of Economics, Carl Menger made the point that money, a general medium of exchange, has always tended to be the most “saleable” (i.e., “marketable” or “liquid”) commodity of the time.
What is saleability? It is not simply value. One may have a Picasso at home, which will fetch quite a sum at a Sotheby’s auction during a boom, but a Picasso, like a poem by Friedrich Shiller, a work of Sanskrit, or a decades-old bottle of red wine can never be the most saleable good. As Menger put it, saleability is the
facility with which [a good] can be disposed of at a market at any convenient time at current purchasing prices, or with less or more diminution of the same. (...) Compare only the number of persons to whom bread and meat can be sold with the number to whom astronomical instruments can be sold.
Menger went on to point out that cattle were the most saleable commodity in the ancient world. This is perfectly understandable in a world where bare-bones subsistence is a reality for most people and the structure of production is virtually nonexistent. As society progressed, however, cattle became less and less marketable.
As civilization progressed, Menger states that
… peoples who were led to adopt a copper standard as a result of the material circumstances under which their economy developed, passed on from the less precious metals to the more precious ones, from copper and iron to silver and gold, with the further development of civilization, and especially with the geographical extension of commerce.
Gold won out due to a variety of reasons, such as being durable, amalgamable, malleable, divisible, homogeneous, and rare. Yet, the ultimate reason that gold won out is because it was the most saleable of commodities. As Menger went on to write,
Gold nuggets extracted from the sands of the Aranyos River by a dirty Transylvanian gypsy are just as saleable in his hands as in the hands of the owner of [the] gold mine, provided the gypsy knows where to find the right market for his commodity. Gold nuggets can pass through any number of hands without any decrease whatsoever in marketability. But articles of clothing, bedding, prepared foods, etc., would be suspect and almost unsaleable, or at any rate of greatly depreciated value, in the hands of the gypsy, even if they had not been used by him, and even if he had, from the beginning, acquired them only with the intention of passing them on in exchange.
This leads us to another criticism of bitcoin: It can never be the most saleable good. The reasoning for this is quite simple. Until the majority of the 7 billion or so people that inhabit this planet have either a smart phone or frequent access to the internet, a digital currency is out of the question.
Gold, on the other hand, is easily recognizable, as opposed to silver that may be mistaken for other metals such as nickel. Moreover, it melts at a relatively low temperature and is a relatively soft metal, which provides superior amalgamation and partly explains why it historically won out over metals such as platinum. If one questions the role of gold in the present monetary system, one only has to walk down the street in a metropolitan area and see a ‘We Buy Gold’ sign. Moreover, central banks hold gold and lots of it. They do not hold cattle, wheat, soybeans, copper, silver, or bitcoins.
Menger also wrote,
I am ready to admit that, under highly developed conditions of trade, money is regarded by many economizing men only as a token. But it is quite certain that this illusion would immediately be dispelled if the character of coins as quantities of industrial raw materials were lost. 3
While it may very well be true that some early adopters valued bitcoins with what Menger described as imaginary value, the point of the most saleable good bears repeating. Gold is and has been seen as an object of beauty since the dawn of civilization. Thus, the argument that bitcoins are in accord with the regression theorem because a handful of people consume them as they would a Picasso, is like saying paper money has value because John Law or Ben Bernanke really enjoy playing monopoly. In fact, we might as well say that alchemy works, considering that a significant amount of human history and energy was spent in attempting to find the philosopher’s stone. Some people may enjoy work just for the sake of working. Unfortunately, this is not a sufficient justification for slavery nor the labor theory of value.
With the imminent hyperinflation meme fading away and no longer holding much water, the new reason to hold bitcoins is the anonymity, nay, the freedom that it provides. Want to gamble online or buy something illegal? Bitcoins are the solution. It is a way of circumventing the authorities and uplifting free and voluntary trade, or so goes the story. Unfortunately for many of the misinformed, the reality is toto caelo. It would be best to take it from bitcoin developer Jeff Garzik himself. The fun starts at 3:20.
The ironic part about this is that anyone and everyone who has participated in illegal activity using bitcoins, presumably because they thought it was anonymous, now has a permanent record of every single one of their transactions contained on the public ledger. Those who think they are clever by using add-ons such as Tor are just as foolish as those who think prepaid cards or smart phones are anonymous. Imagine if bitcoins existed 50 years ago. Chances are, none of the last three presidents (including Barack Obama) would have run for office.
The question left to be answered is whether or not bitcoin is once again taking the shape of a bubble. The answer is yes. There is present a reflexive pattern of people buying because prices are rising, and prices rising because people are buying. The myopic are extrapolating the price trend of the past four months, which they deem is normal, and in so doing they exacerbate it to the upside, thus attracting even greater fools. The inflection point will come when the continuity of bullish thought is broken. One thing is for sure, the amount of suckers left who are willing to jump on the moving and ever-accelerating train is drawing thin, and so are their pockets.
When prices for any asset go parabolic, it does technical damage to a chart. It is sort of like someone deciding to go full speed in the middle of a marathon. Surely, one would look good for a few minutes. However, at a certain point one would inevitably collapse, with the possibilities of finishing the race being greatly diminished, let alone doing as well as they would have otherwise.
Gold went parabolic toward the second half of 2011 to $1,900/oz., which did a lot of technical damage to the charts that gold is just now beginning to shake off. Like Icarus, who had soared too high and melted the wax on his wings, parabolic moves always end in a correction, and if prolonged, a crash. Ironically, the best thing that can happen for bitcoin naysayers is if bitcoin skyrockets to $300/btc within a week.
There is nothing anti-Austrian about acknowledging that there exists in the market place a lot of naïve, irrational, and misinformed players. During the dotcom bubble, for example, a maintenance and building company called Temco Services almost tripled in a matter of minutes in 1998. The reason is because by 1998 every other layperson was involved in the market. Thus, the level of competence significantly dropped. The ticker symbol for Temco is TMCO, which was fairly close to that of Ticketmaster Online, which was TMCS. Ticketmaster Online (then TMCS) just happened to trade publicly for the first time on the day that Temco Services (TMCO) tripled. Rising asset prices create euphoria, and euphoria significantly drops the IQ of the participants.
Another reason why bitcoin is so susceptible to bubble behavior is because it is perceived as being something new. “New era” thinking always attracts lots of attention. The tulip was introduced to Europe by way of Turkey in the middle of the sixteenth century. (In fact, the word tulip came from the Turkish tulipan, which means turban.) The tulip was perceived as something new to Amsterdam, a country which at the time possessed an abundance of newly discovered gold and silver from the New World. Likewise, the Mississippi bubble, which was perpetrated by John Law, promised vast riches to be had from the New World. The manias in railways, the radio, the internet, you name it, most of them involved something new or something perceived to be new.
Ludwig von Mises never claimed that only gold or silver are money. On the contrary, he stated that ‘the market enables any commodity to be turned into money and money into any commodity’. Furthermore, Mises went so far as to say that silver was no longer a monetary metal, which explains why the gold/silver price ratio has tilted significantly towards gold from the late 19th century onwards, in having written 'If any kind of money is deprived of its monetary characteristics, then naturally it also loses the special value that depends on its use as a common medium of exchange, and only retains that value which depends upon its other employment. In the course of history this has always occurred when a good has been excluded from the constantly narrowing circle of common media of exchange. Generally speaking, we do not know much about this process, which to a large extent took place in times about which our information is scanty. But recent times have provided an outstanding example: the almost complete demonetization of silver. Silver, which previously was widely used as money, has been almost entirely expelled from this position, and there can be no doubt that at a time not very far off, perhaps even in a few years only, it will have played out its part as money altogether'. He further went on to crystallize this point by classifying silver coins still in circulation as fiduciary media, having written, 'Of no greater relevance is the circumstance that the fiduciary media were in the one case predominantly bank notes and cheques and are in the other case predominantly silver coins. The silver rupee is in truth nothing but a metallic note, for the conversion of which its issuer, the State, is responsible'. Those who rushed into silver in 2011 would have been well advised to have read the TMC instead of listening to the likes of Max Keiser, and so would bitcoiners today.
There is no doubt that bitcoin is a spontaneous answer to the monetary instability that we see all around us today. On one side of the pond people are worried about the glorified currency peg known as the Euro and on the other about the amount of damage that Bernanke is willing to inflict upon the world’s reserve currency. However, let us not become so enamored of an innovative stateless solution that we forget Austrian economics and hitch libertarianism’s wagon to something heading for a crash.
- 1. The Starfish and the Spider was originally published in 2006.
- 2. Consider that bitcoin started at $35/btc in March and is currently at $185/btc, this is an increase of 429%. However, litecoin started at $0.07/ltc in March and is currently at $4.49/ltc, this is an increase of 6,314%. It makes perfect sense for people to pile into knockoffs because the potential profits, due to starting from a much smaller base, are exponentially higher. This is the gold rush mechanism at work.
- 3. Underline added by the present writer .