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Cryptocurrencies and a Wider Regression Theorem

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Tags Money and BanksMoney and BankingValue and Exchange

12/11/2014Peter St. Onge

The debate whether or not cryptocurrencies are “money” has put a spotlight on the Menger-Mises Regression Theorem. As stated, the theorem posits that a non-fiat money must have had value before it became a money. Some have used currencies’ lack of antecedent value as knocking it off the money pedestal or as forcing cryptocurrencies to ignominiously piggyback on fiat currencies’ own regressions.

In a 2013 post Konrad Graf makes the excellent point that such critiques misread the Regression Theorem. In reality, Graf argues, the theorem is not a hypothesis to be tested, rather the theorem tells us that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin indeed had some antecedent value. At which point our task is to discover what that antecedent value was. Graf suggests several alternatives, including utility of Bitcoin as a geek toy, as art, or as social marker. Because of these non-monetary uses, Graf writes, bitcoin and the theorem do not threaten each other, but “merely gaze across the intellectual landscape at one another with knowing smiles.”

While I agree with Graf on his main point that the theorem implies cryptocurrencies did have antecedent value, I believe that both the original critique and Grafs’ response fall into a trap of misreading the theorem as requiring non-monetary and previously realized ("bought and sold") benefits.

Money Is a Useful Good

Among Menger’s greatest contributions in his Principles is the realization that money is fundamentally a good like any other — demanded for its usefulness in enabling transactions and store of value — with an actual price dictated by its scarcity.

If money, like any other good, derives its value from the benefits it offers, it’s hard to see why the money, even those benefits, require an antecedent. Just as the internet can be valuable without a “pre-internet,” a cryptocurrency enabling anonymous, irreversible, low-regulation transactions and savings can be valuable without a precursor.1 If there is no regression requirement for value in any other good, why does money alone bear this burden?

Must Money Have a Non-Monetary Use?

Instead, I would argue for a reading of the Regression Theorem with two important liberalizations. First, benefits provided by a money needn’t be non-monetary. That is, the benefits can reside in the good’s use as money itself — no need for geek-chic art. Second, antecedent demand needn’t have been realized — the use needn’t have actually occurred. It’s the antecedent demand, even latent, not the previous buying and selling, which counts in importing value via the Regression Theorem.

To give an example that satisfies both liberalizations, a benefit such as anonymous wire transfers is both a money-related benefit and is also a service that didn’t previously exist. In a liberalized Regression Theorem, this benefit would count as the antecedent demand giving the spark of life to a scarce cryptocurrency.

A concrete historical example of a currency offering both mainly monetary value and offering it only at moment of birth is Tang China’s paper money. Called “flying cash,” paper offered the key benefit of portability, set against its other risks compared with bullion coins (flammability, uncertain redemption). We could surely seek out non-monetary antecedent value for Tang cash — toilet paper comes to mind. But it seems a stretch to reach for artistic or hygiene uses, compared to the natural conclusion that flying cash was demanded because of its monetary benefits. The fact that demand for portable money was unrealized would simply increase paper money’s value to the unfortunate customer who lacked alternative light-weight money.

This mistaken focus on non-money-related and realized antecedent value is understandable, since even Mises seems to be mixing historical and praxeological discussion in Human Action (chapter 17, sec. 4) where Mises writes, “No good can be employed for the function of a medium of exchange which at the very beginning of its use for this purpose did not have exchange value on account of other employments.”

Here Mises seems to clearly state that Menger’s Regression Theorem requires a currency to have historically represented a commodity having non-money use. This is a natural interpretation, especially in context of Mises’s subsequent discussion of precious metals, clearly useful commodities that you can flash at parties.

But we must take care here to separate Mises’s historical generalization from the praxeological core of his statement. Because Mises has metal on his mind, he suggests the “other employments” must have been antecedent (“did not have”) and, in his subsequent discussion of metals, seems to imply the commodities should be both concrete and previously in use (realized) for non-money purposes.

Money Benefits Are as Useful as Non-Money Benefits

Again, praxeologically, none of these requirements are essential. Money benefits are as useful as non-money benefits, and a useful commodity could conceivably be created and become a medium of exchange at the same moment. So long as the commodity offers “employments” in the form of benefits to users. Cryptocurrencies’ anonymity, regulatory treatment, algorithmically fixed rate of growth, fee structure, and irreversibility of transfer are all money-related benefits, many unrealized before cryptocurrencies came along.

On this reading, and in agreement with Graf, cryptocurrencies are not at all a challenge to the Regression Theorem. They are a confirmation. At birth, cryptocurrencies offered useful features. These benefits function as “employments,” giving cryptocurrencies demand via transaction and store of-value benefits, which in turn import durable purchasing power.

Perceptions Are Important

That “seed” of demand can then be amplified by marketing — by framing the subjective benefits of the currency. Again like any other good, if individuals exert effort to communicate and frame the benefits of a cryptocurrency, then we might expect demand to increase. These individuals may be the owners of businesses that benefit from the currency, or they simply may be enthusiasts.

Now we can simply match these subjective benefits to scarcity to yield a price of a cryptocurrency. Below zero and the currency isn’t “good enough” — it’s not perceived to offer enough benefits. It’s not cool and it’s not art. Above zero and a currency is born: now Satoshi Nakamoto t-shirts are all the rage.

As technology lowers the costs of producing cryptocurrencies, broadening the Regression Theorem’s value requirement to accept novel money-related benefits opens up enormously the range of currencies that are possible in the future. It should be an exciting few decades in the world of currency innovation.

Image source: iStockphoto.
  • 1. Cryptocurrencies benefit from a perception of anonymity, although whether or not there is actual anonymity in practice is another matter.
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