By Thorsten Polleit
Bitcoin is the beginning of something great: a currency without a government, something necessary and imperative.1 – Nassim Taleb
The crypto-unit bitcoin2 holds out the prospect of something revolutionary: money created in the free market, money the production and use of which the state has no access to. The transactions carried out with it are anonymous; outsiders do not know who paid and who received the payment. It would be money that cannot be multiplied at will, whose quantity is finite, that knows no national borders, and that can be used unhindered worldwide. This is possible because the bitcoin is based on a special form of electronic data processing and storage: blockchain technology (a “distributed ledger technology,” DLT), which can also be described as a decentralized account book.
Think through the consequences if such a “denationalized” form of money should actually prevail in practice. The state can no longer tax its citizens as before. It lacks information on the labor and capital incomes of citizens and enterprises and their total wealth. The only option left to the state is to tax the assets in the “real world”—such as houses, land, works of art, etc. But this is costly and expensive. It could try to levy a “poll tax”: a tax in which everyone pays the same absolute tax amount—regardless of the personal circumstances of the taxpayers, such as income, wealth, ability, to achieve and so on. But would that be practicable? Could it be enforced? This is doubtful.
The state could also no longer simply borrow money. In a cryptocurrency world, who would give credit to the state? The state would have to justify the expectation that it would use the borrowed money productively to service its debt. But as we know, the state is not in a position to do this or is in a much worse position than private companies. So even if the state could obtain credit, it would have to pay a comparatively high interest rate, severely restricting its scope for credit financing.
In view of the financial disempowerment of the state by a cryptocurrency, the question arises: Could the state as we know it today still exist at all, could it still mobilize enough supporters and gather them behind it? After all, the fantasies of redistribution and enrichment that today drive many people as voters into the arms of political parties and ideologies would disappear into thin air. The state would no longer function as a redistribution machine; it basically would have little or no money to finance political promises. Cryptocurrencies therefore have the potential to herald the end of the state as we know it today.
The transition from the national fiat currencies to a cryptocurrency created in the free market has, above all, consequences for the existing fiat monetary system and the production and employment structure it has created. Suppose a cryptocurrency (C) rises in the favor of money demanders. It is increasingly in demand and therefore appreciates against the established fiat currency (F). If the prices of goods, calculated in F, remain unchanged, the holder of C records an increase in his purchasing power: one obtains more F for C and can purchase more goods, provided that the prices of goods, calculated in F, remain unchanged.
Since C has now appreciated compared to F, the prices of the goods expressed in F must also rise sooner or later—otherwise the holder of C could arbitrate by exchanging C for F and then paying the prices of the goods labeled in F. And because more and more people want to use C as money, goods prices will soon be labeled not only in F, but also in C. When money users increasingly turn away from F because they see C as the better money, the purchasing power devaluation of F continues. Because F is an unbacked currency, in extreme cases it can lose its purchasing power and become a total loss.
The decline in the purchasing power of F will have far-reaching consequences for the production and employment structure of the economy. It leads to an increase in market interest rates for loans denominated in F.3 Investments that have so far seemed profitable turn out to be a flop. Companies cut jobs. Debtors whose loans become due have problems obtaining follow-up loans and become insolvent. The boom provided by the fiat currencies collapses and turns into a bust. If the central banks accompany this bust with an expansion of the money supply, the exchange rate of the fiat currencies against the cryptocurrency will fall even further. The purchasing power of the sight, time, and savings deposits and bonds denominated in fiat currencies would be lost; in the event of loan defaults, creditors could only hope to be (partially) compensated by the collateral values, if any.
However, the bitcoin has not yet developed to the point where it could be a perfect substitute for the fiat currencies. For example, the performance of the bitcoin network is not yet large enough. At present, it is operating at full capacity when it processes around 360,000 payments per day. In Germany alone, however, around 75 million transfers are made in one working day! Another problem with bitcoin transactions is finality. In modern fiat cash payment systems, there is a clearly identifiable point in time at which a payment is legally and de facto completed, and from that point on the money transferred can be used immediately. However, DLT consensus techniques (such as proof of work) only allow relative finality, and this is undoubtedly detrimental to the money user (because blocks added to the blockchain can subsequently become invalid by resolving forks).
The transaction costs are also of great importance regarding whether the bitcoin can assert itself as a universally used means of payment. In the recent past, there have been some major fluctuations in this area: In mid-June 2019, a transaction cost about $4.10, in December 2017 it peaked at more than $37, but in the meantime for many months it had been only $0.07. In addition, the time taken to process a transaction had also fluctuated considerably at times, which may be disadvantageous from the point of view of bitcoin users in view of the emergence of instant payment for fiat cash payments.
Another important aspect is the question of the “intermediary.” Bitcoin is designed to enable intermediary-free transactions between participants. But do the market participants really want intermediary–free money? What if there are problems? For example, if someone made a mistake and transferred one hundred bitcoins instead of one, he cannot reverse the transaction. And nobody can help him! The fact that many hold their bitcoins in trading venues and not in their private digital wallets suggests that even in a world of cryptocurrencies there is a demand for intermediaries offering services such as storage and security of private keys.
However, as soon as intermediaries come into play, the transaction chain is no longer limited to the digital world, but reaches the real world. At the interface between the digital and the real world, a trustworthy entity is required. Just think of credit transactions. They cannot be performed unseen (trustless) and anonymously. Payment defaults can happen here, and therefore the lender wants to know who the borrower is, what credit quality he has, what collateral he provides. And if the bridge is built from the digital to the real world, the crypto-money inevitably finds itself in the crosshairs of the state. However, this bridge will ultimately be necessary, because in modern economies with a division of labor, money must have the capacity for intermediation.4
It is safe to assume that technology will continue to make progress, that it will remove many remaining obstacles. However, it can also be expected that the state will make every effort to discourage a free market for money, for example, by reducing the competitiveness of alternative money media such as precious metals and crypto-units vis-à-vis fiat money through tax measures (such as turnover and capital gains taxes). As long as this is the case, it will be difficult even for money that is better in all other respects to assert itself.
Therefore, technical superiority alone will probably not be sufficient to help free market money—whether in the form of gold, silver, or crypto-units—achieve a breakthrough. In addition, and above all, it will be necessary for people to demand their right to self-determination in the choice of money or to recognize the need to make use of it. Ludwig von Mises has cited the “sound-money principle” in this context: “[T]he sound-money principle has two aspects. It is affirmative in approving the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is negative in obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system.”5 And he continues: “It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights.”6
These words make it clear that in order for a free market for money to become at all possible, quite a substantial change must take place in people’s minds. We must turn away from democratic socialism, from all socialist-collectivist false doctrines, from their state-glorifying delusion, no longer listen to socialist appeals to envy and resentment. This can only be achieved through better insight, acceptance of better ideas and logical thinking. Admittedly, this is a difficult undertaking, but it is not hopeless. Especially since there is a logical alternative to democratic socialism: the private law society with a free market for money. What this means is outlined in the final chapter of this book.
About the author: Dr. Thorsten Polleit is Chief Economist of Degussa and Honorary Professor at the University of Bayreuth. He also acts as an investment advisor.
- 1.“Nassim Taleb on Bitcoin: ‘Bitcoin Is the Beginning of Something Great,’” Nassim Taleb (website), Mar. 23, 2013, https://nassimtaleb.org/2013/03/nassim-taleb-on-bitcoin/.
- 2.It is better to speak of crypto-units, because many of the so-called crypto currencies do not yet deserve the term currency or money, because they are not very widespread, or general means of exchange.
- 3.Because more and more investors sell their bonds, for example. As the market supply rises, prices fall and market interest rates rise (assuming that the demand for securities remains unchanged).
- 4.See Cameron Harwick, “Cryptocurrency and the Problem of Intermediation,” Independent Review 20, no. 4 (2016): 569–88.
- 5.Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, p. 414.