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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Is Bitcoin Really Money?

Image credit: www.wired.com

Unless you lived under a rock for a few years, you have heard of electronic currency known as Bitcoin. I accept that if, for some reason, everybody tomorrow (governments included) accepted Bitcoin as money, it would become money. But, I wish here to show how the Bitcoin does not fail to be money due to certain reasons that are often claimed against it, but does fail to be money in one, very crucial, aspect.

Why bother showing how some arguments against Bitcoin fail? The reason is that people are likely to believe that, if the arguments they are aware of that prove Bitcoin isn't real money fail, then it follows that Bitcoin is money. This does not follow logically: indeed, salesmen and, for that matter, scam artists (one legitimately, the other not) are experts at overcoming one's natural objections by having "an answer to everything". But that only means the answer to the would-be buyer's most common objections. Just because those objections fail does not mean there aren't other serious reasons to suspect Bitcoin.

Nothing I write here is the economic equivalent of rocket science. But this, if anything, is all the more reason to write it: the more obvious the problem and the more people ignore it, the more urgent is to show what is going on.

Let us, then, start with some obvious objections that are not, in themselves, crucial -- in the sense that, while true, real money has the same issues.

1). Bitcoin is private currency. It is -- in the sense that it is not backed or issued by any government. This is important (as we shall see later), but, historically, most money was privately printed. Indeed, until the 19th century, most bank notes were notes issued by private banks, for example.

2). Bitcoin is fiat currency. That is, there is no way to limit the amount of money printed. But this is true for government-backed currency as well. The US dollar or the Euro, indeed all modern currencies, are not backed by gold or anything else. In theory the US could print as much money as it wishes. So why should Bitcoin, whose big selling point is that it is limited in quantity, in practice at least, be less money than the US dollar? If anything, it seems it should be more valuable than government-backed fiat money.

3). People speculate with Bitcoin, and its value can therefore fluctuate wildly. Why did Bitcoin's value skyrocket recently and then fall? Because, for psychological reasons, people began to believe its value would increase, increasing demand for it, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once people began to suspect Bitcoin is overvalued, they stopped buying and started selling -- creating another self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet this, while true, is not in itself evidence that Bitcoin is illegitimate any more than the existence of bubbles in everything from tulips to internet startups is evidence, in itself, that the underlying commodity is worthless, and the bubble a pyramid scheme.  It is true that there were (and are) deliberate bubbles that are simply frauds -- pump-and-dump schemes for example -- and others that, in hindsight, seem absurd (the south sea bubble, the tulip bubble). But that in itself is not evidence Bitcoin is a scam.

4). Bitcoin is electronic money, and does not exist physically. This certainly be a problem in the sense that it may well be difficult to, say, stop people from counterfeiting it, but in fact most transactions with real money today do not involve the physical transfers of federal notes, let alone of gold coins. It is, in theory, possible to replace all paper money -- or gold coins for that matter -- with electronic equivalents.

The real problem is different: no government accepts Bitcoin as legal tender for the payment of debts, and in particular, of taxes. It is therefore not legal tender. In the USA, people must accept the US dollar as payment, and the government must accept it as payment of taxes. This is not so with Bitcoin. You must convert your Bitcoins to dollars before you can use them to pay any debt to the government.

You might be able to find someone to sell your Bitcoins to for dollars, or who will accept goods for Bitcoins which you can then sell for US dollars, but that is no different than anything else: it is not illegal for a private individual to accept anything whatever, including monopoly money, as payment. Indeed, James Boggs paints his own "money" and actually exchanges his "notes" for goods -- which led to him getting in trouble with the feds, but (correctly) he was acquitted of charges of counterfeiting, since no reasonable person would think his art is genuine federal bills, and he openly tells the person he gives them to that they aren't. But he can do it because people are willing to do it, considering his art collectibles, not because they have any legal duty to accept his bills.

Same with gold, in the "old days". It was not merely the fact that gold was rare that made it money, that is, legal tender (as opposed to making it valuable). It was that the government had to accept it (or at least its own gold and silver coins) as a payment of taxes. Similarly, to simplify, the original bank notes were notes the bank had to accept, legally, for gold or silver in the amount written on the note (which, to simplify, had then to be legally accepted by the government).

So Bitcoin is simply not money if by money we mean 'legal tender'. This does not mean -- in itself -- that it cannot be used for exchange, or is valueless. By definition almost everything that is valuable is not legal tender: corporate bonds, real estate, livestock, and so on. The government is not required to accept cows and oxen as payment -- livestock is not legal tender -- but this does hardly means that such commodities are not valuable: indeed, the term pecuniary comes from the latin pecus, cattle, and the Bible speaks of Abraham of being rich with cattle and livestock, despite the fact that he lived (if he existed in reality) about a thousand years before the invention of coined money.

But here, alas, is Bitcoin's second problem: if something is not legal tender, in order to be valuable, it should have some intrinsic value -- like livestock or bonds. Bitcoin does not. If something is neither legal tender that the government must accept, nor has intrinsic value, the only reason to exchange Bitcoin for legal tender or for goods with intrinsic value is the view that somebody else will want to do so in the future with our Bitcoins. They may -- or they may not. But they, too, would do so only if they think that someone in the future would be willing to do so with their Bitcoins.

Sounds problematic? It is. Bitcoin has, by definition of being "private" money, that, if this is not a contradiction in terms, the crucial bad property of fiat money -- no intrinsic value -- with the crucial bad property of commodities -- not being legal tender.


It is true that, the way this post is written, it may seem that the government can mysteriously create value out of nothing -- as if the mere fact that something is legal tender makes it valuable. Let us say only that things are, of course, not as simple as that. How money, a medium of exchange with no intrinsic value, actually becomes a "store" for value, is significantly more complicated than this. If nothing else, this can be seen by the fact that governments certainly can, and often did, make their legal tender practically valueless with hyperinflation.

All I am claiming here is the opposite: that if something is not legal tender, it by golly better be intrinsically valuable if it is to be used as a store of value. Bitcoin is not. It is not different, in this respect, than (for example) Pokemon or Magic: the Gathering cards. Some people will pay a lot of money for such cards, or for rare tulips for that matter, but...

The argument between "bitcoiners" and economists remind me of the arguments between creationists and biologists: the bitcoiners spend most of their time arguing against fiat money, arguing in particular that fiat money, despite being legal tender, is valueless (as indeed, in particular cases, it is), just like creationists spend most of their time arguing against evolution, not for creationism.

But even if it were true that all fiat money is indeed valueless (as an experiment, ask the next person who tells you that to give you all the valueless fiat money in their wallet), this would not be any evidence Bitcoin is valuable -- just like, if evolution were disproved tomorrow, it would not be one whit of evidence that creationists asre correct.

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