There is a bitcoin craze at the moment, with prices of bitcoin skyrocketing. Bitcoin is still far from ready for prime time, but as it matures, it will change society’s fundamental operations much more than the Internet did. The net, after all, only allowed people to talk and shop more efficiently. By comparison, bitcoin eradicates the government’s ability to operate.
Let’s begin by looking at what a bitcoin is. It is money. It is a new form of money that isn’t issued by a government. Governments don’t have a monopoly on coming up with things you can trade and barter with, and bitcoin is one such non-governmental barter instrument. The difference between bitcoin and all other such tokens of value that have been invented over the years is that nobody is in control of the money supply, and nobody is in control of the money flow. This means that nobody can start the printing presses to eradicate your savings, and nobody can seize or see your wealth or income. You can think of it as an open-source currency compared to proprietary, state-issued currencies.
There is no central bank. This is a revolutionary concept. People can trade cash at a distance without going through an intermediary. The first time you send the value of a cup of coffee to a friend in India on a Sunday, without any transaction fees, and they have the money instantly, without anybody but you knowing of the transaction, your jaw drops.
This would have been but a curiosity, if it weren’t for the ridiculously strong business case to cut banks and credit card processors out of the sales loop for corporations, which could roughly double the profits in retail sales. This means that there’s a very strong force for universal uptake of this new currency.
As nobody is in control of the money supply (it is set to grow predictably at a slowing rate until 2140), and demand increases with a limited supply, the price for each bitcoin increases. This is what we’re seeing now, as more and more people realize bitcoin’s business potential. Also, there is value in the concept that you don’t have to trust any single person to store or to transfer bitcoin – not your government, not your bank, not Western Union – is something completely new.
Erik Voorhees writes, “Bitcoin is thus the only currency and money system in the world which has no counter-party risk to hold and to transfer. This is absolutely revolutionary and you should read the preceding sentence again. […] Never in the history of the world has an individual had this ability. It is unprecedented.”
So why does bitcoin have value? How is it, strictly speaking, money? People who ask this tend to be stuck in the idea that only states and governments can issue money, but that’s not the case. What we see as money has changed many times, and when Marco Polo came back to Europe from China in the 13th century, people were mocking him for bringing home banknotes. “This is not money”, they would say, and burn the Chinese banknotes. Money was coins. If you dismiss bitcoin just because you’re not used to seeing sequences of rare prime numbers as money, make sure you’re not scoffing at banknotes as people were in the 13th century. If people use it as money to trade, it’s money.
Jon Matonis has an excellent piece over at Forbes where he challenges the notion that money must be state-issued, and explains that a transactional currency can compete on its own merits and its own market.
It is important to realize that while the Internet has changed life in the IT industry tremendously, from a government standpoint, the net hasn’t changed much at all. If anything, it has reinforced existing structures: consumers spend their state-issued money more efficiently, credit is borrowed more and better from state-regulated banks which expands the money supply and keeps people happy, and it has created new industries that can fuel the economy. Oh, and it also lets citizens submit governmental forms more efficiently.
The only flip side to the net, from a government angle, would be that some people use the Internet to violate state-issued monopolies on entertainment distribution, which has been seen as a problem that needs to be dealt with swiftly and harshly, but other than that, the internet really isn’t much new from a government standpoint. Think about that the next time you see a politician who doesn’t appear to get the net: for them, if they’ve been in government too long, there is nothing much to get.
So we essentially have four different types of players that keep the economy going, and by extension, the government funded and operational. One, there is the government itself, which issues money and regulates banks. (For this exercise, I include the central bank in “government”.) Two, there are commercial banks which are in complete control of the money flow, in exchange for sharing that insight with the government and letting it siphon off as much as it likes to operate itself. Also, commercial banks expand the money supply when people ask for credit, so credit is good as the economy is measured today (“growth”). At the bottom of the food chain are, three, corporations which are tasked with using this system, running all its operations through these banks, and four, the ordinary citizen, who is supposed to be doing actual work and actually produce something that fuels the entire ecosystem.
What bitcoin does is cut the banks out of the loop, and by extension, the government’s ability to operate.
Those wars you have seen on TV? They are all fueled by this mechanism – the ability for banks to keep people happy in letting them spend imaginary money, while simultaneously giving the nation-state the ability to control as much of the money flow as it likes (and siphon as much as it likes off for itself).
Now, bitcoin isn’t going to drive its adoption just because it is impervious to state control and insight. Rather, its adoption is going to be driven by the strong business case for corporations to cut banks out of the loop – more specifically, cut bank profits out of their own profits.
The normal reaction for a government would be to use its entire arsenal of force against any phenomenon that threatens the government’s ability to function to this degree. But bitcoin is resilient to that. There is no central point to shut down. You can’t point a gun at a prime number and expect things to change. And we all know how effective governmental attempts to shut down peer-to-peer networks have been (even if it has been a low-priority issue so far that they haven’t really cared about).
A while back, I wrote that bitcoin is “The Napster of banking”. Perhaps there is a better analogy – perhaps it is the Skynet of banking. There is no central mainframe to shut down, and the intelligence in bitcoin is completely distributed with the single goal of obsoleting central banking.
In this regard, people at Business Insider who compare the bitcoin trade and its current price spike with the bubble around Beanie Babies in the early century come across as dangerously shortsighted and ignorant. Bitcoin is not a plush toy, it is not a commodity. It is an economic agreement, and as such, has value like any other contract that improves your business. This particular contract improves every business except banks.
So is bitcoin ready to take over the world? Far from it.
There are many problems with bitcoin today, but they are becoming less severe than the problems that plagued it one, two, and three years ago. In short, we’re seeing kinks being worked out, scratches being polished, and dents being straightened. But there are many reasons why bitcoin couldn’t take the place of state-issued money today, even if it is on a strong trajectory to do so in the next decade or decades.
The liquidity to state-issued money is one thing that strikes me immediately. In any economy, you need bridges between payment systems that are in use. Today, the vast majority of such bridging is handled by a Japanese bitcoin exchange known as MtGox. This is an unacceptable single point of failure in an ecosystem (proven by two hours of outage today). Further, lags of 10 minutes are common with MtGox’s trading engine (I’m seeing 400 seconds of lag right as I type this), which is just ridiculous when the financial world at large is dealing with micro- and nanosecond trading.
Bitcoin is getting there. But it’s not there yet. When it gets there, expect governments to panic and society to be reshaped into something where governments cannot rely on taxing income nor wealth for running their operations.
That is a bigger change to society’s fundamental structure than the ability to seek and share culture and knowledge we got with the net.