You personal benefits from joining the bitcoin economy are:
- Paying no transaction fees. Really and truly, zero fees;
- Sufferng no inflation because bitcoin inflation is impossible;
- Paying as much taxes as you actually will, beleive it or not;
- Financial anonymity far beyond the best Cayman Islands can offer.
Deflationary spiral is an economic argument that proposes that runaway deflation can eventually lead to the collapse of the currency given certain conditions and constraints. It is a common criticism made against the viability of Bitcoin. The ‘deflationary spiral’ is a real condition that affects the popular fractional reserve backing system. Bitcoin is not affected by this because it is fundamentally different from popular currency.
Deflation is a decline in the general price level. Deflation occurs when the price of goods and services, relative to a specific measure, decline. It is not necessarily that the value of the goods and services themselves declined, but can be because the value of the currency itself increased.
For example, let us consider an economy comprised entirely of beef and oranges where the medium of exchange is gold. Both beef and oranges can decay and are not consistent, and therefore cannot be used as a currency. In order to trade, people exchange gold for either beef or oranges. They see gold as a store of value that they can use to purchase beef or oranges in the future. What happens when the economy grows and we can produce more beef and more oranges? The price of both beef and oranges will decline. To the extent our productive capacity for both beef and oranges increased at the same pace, the exchange value between the two (the amount of beef for a given number of oranges) will likely stay the same; however, those who held gold as a store of value would now be able to purchase more beef and more oranges for a given amount of gold.
A deflationary spiral occurs when the value of a currency, relative to the goods in an economy, increases continually as a result of hoarding. As the value of the currency relative to the goods in the economy increase, people have the incentive to hoard the currency, because by merely holding it, they hope to be able to purchase more goods for less money in the future. A lack of currency available in the market causes the price of goods to further decrease, resulting in more hoarding.
In our economy of beef and oranges it is easy to see how this could occur. First, people see a significant gain in productivity on the horizon; we will be able to produce more beef and oranges for the same effort in the future. The supply of gold, however, is fixed. As a result, people desire to hold gold, because they will be able to purchase more beef and oranges with their gold in the future than they can now. This will lead to a decline in the price of beef and oranges as measured by gold (an increase in the value of gold). Limiting the amount of currency in the market available for exchange can also make transactions more difficult. In a complex system where we do not only have beef, oranges and gold, this can result in a deflationary spiral where no one wishes to spend their currency and the economy itself slows as a result of the limited number of transactions. Limited demand with fixed output results in a decline in prices, which further exacerbates the problem.
Alternative explanation: A deflationary spiral occurs when the price of a traded article increases at some given rate, which causes people to hoard it. As people hoard the commodity, less and less of it is available thus causing the price to go up even more. In turn, even more people hoard the commodity. Thus a feedback loop or spiral of deflation occurs. In practice, there is only a limited amount of 'value' that can be placed upon a good before it becomes too attractive to trade for other goods (thus ending the spiral). The only time that the 'Deflationary Spiral' can happen (to it's conclusion) is when people can foresee a time where they are forced to use that particular traded article. See below for a dissenting argument on this topic.
In The Popular Fractional Reserve Banking System
The popular money that we trade consists of the principal of the loans of other people. All this money must be someday 'repaid.' When people save (pay back their loans), the total monetary supply contracts. When people spend (take out loans), the total monetary supply is increasing.
If you have people who are hoarding money, the principal still needs to be repaid. Hoarding will make it harder for other people in the economy to pay back their loans.
Because people foresee a time where they need to pay back their loans (a future fixed expense), when the value of the money starts to increase (deflation), those with loans will endeavor to pay back the loans quicker. This causes the monetary supply to reduce, reducing the total amount of money available for repayment of loans, again making it harder for people to pay back what they owe.
This Deflationary spiral diverts funds away from the legitimate economy, to the repayment of debt. Causing the economy to stagnate and stop.
The key difference is that people don't foresee a fixed cost (unit amount) that they must pay with Bitcoin. If the value of the Bitcoins that they own increases, then any future cost will take a proportionally smaller amount of Bitcoins. There isn't any fixed incentive to holding Bitcoin other than speculation.
If the economy that uses Bitcoin grows, the per-unit value of Bitcoin proportionally increases also. Everything is the opposite of the popular fractional reserve banking system (because Bitcoin isn't a debt but an asset). Bitcoins only deflate in value when the Bitcoin Economy is growing.
Because the Deflationary spiral is a real problem in the traditional monetary system, doesn't necessarily mean that it will also be a problem in the Bitcoin economy.
"Elaborate controls to make sure that currency is not produced in greater numbers is not something any other currency, like the dollar or the euro, has," says Russ Roberts, professor of economics at George Mason University. The consequence will likely be slow and steady deflation, as the growth in circulating bitcoins declines and their value rises. "That is considered very destructive in today's economies, mostly because when it occurs, it is unexpected," says Roberts. But he thinks that won't apply in an economy where deflation is expected. "In a Bitcoin world, everyone would anticipate that, and they know what they got paid would buy more then than it would now."
--MIT Technology Review: What Bitcoin Is, and Why It Matters, May 25, 2011
A deflationary spiral occurs when there is an incentive to hoard because of declining prices, which results in even less available currency on the market, further perpetuating declining prices. How could this occur in the Bitcoin market?
1. Limited price stability has a negative impact on the acceptance of a currency. Vendors do not wish to speculate on the price of currency when selling goods or services.
2. Once prices do stabilize in the future, there will always be the knowledge that the number of Bitcoins in the market is limited. As a result, to the extent the GDP of the Bitcoin economy increases (the total value of all Bitcoin transactions completed increases in "real" terms), there will continue to be price deflation. The expectation of future deflation means that there will be a discrepancy in perceived values between parties valuing bitcoin on longer or shorter time horizons. The apparent over-pricing of bitcoin from the perspective of people engaging in short term transactions will encourage the creation and adoption of competing systems.
While this is not a traditional deflationary spiral, the constraint on the actual money supply can produce the same result, which is a limit on the value of goods and services transacted using Bitcoins.
is a decentralized electronic cash system that uses peer-to-peer networking, digital signatures and cryptographic proof so as to enable users to conduct irreversible transactions without relying on trust. Nodes broadcast transactions to the network, which records them in a public history, called the blockchain, after validating them with a proof-of-work system. Users make transactions with bitcoins, an alternative, digital currency that the network issues according to predetermined rules. Bitcoins do not have the backing of and do not represent any government-issued currency.
The Bitcoin network came into existence on 3 January 2009 with the issuance of the first bitcoins. In the same month the creator, Satoshi Nakamoto (thought to be a pseudonym), released the original Bitcoin client as open-source software. Prior to the invention of Bitcoin, electronic commerce systems could not securely operate without relying on a central authority to prevent double-spending. Nakamoto sidestepped this requirement for Bitcoin by employing a proof-of-work approach in a peer-to-peer network to reach consensus between peers on the validity of transactions. Bitcoin is a relatively new project under active development. As such, its developers caution that users should treat it as experimental software.
Owners transfer bitcoins by sending them to another Bitcoin address using a website or program designed for this purpose. Under the hood, the software transfers the coins by generating a digital signature to link the prior transaction with the public key of the next owner. Bitcoin nodes record all data necessary to make any valid transaction in a publicly distributed database called the block chain. Nodes build the block chain using a proof-of-work system that prevents double-spending and confirms transactions.
Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography using Elliptic Curve DSA. Every user in the Bitcoin network has a digital wallet containing a number of cryptographic keypairs. The wallet's public keys are transformed into Bitcoin addresses, which act as the receiving endpoints for all payments. Addresses in human-readable form appear as strings of numbers and letters around 33 characters in length, always beginning with the digit 1 or 3, as in the example of 175tWpb8K1S7NmH4Zx6rewF9WQrcZv245W. The wallet's private keys are used to authorize transactions from that user's wallet.
Users obtain new Bitcoin addresses from any Bitcoin client software, including web-based Bitcoin wallets. Creating a new address is a completely offline process and requires no communication with the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network. Most Bitcoin addresses look like meaningless random characters. It is possible to get more personalized addresses using programs that generate addresses rapidly, keeping ones matching some specific pattern. Examples such as 1LoveUNuf2az5e2m7v9kGRAFHYjDaf4jju with the 1LoveU prefix can be obtained in a few minutes on an average desktop computer.
Transactions with Bitcoin
A Bitcoin software client uses a wallet, a collection of the user's addresses and corresponding private encryption keys. Users can create as many Bitcoin addresses as they wish. When user A wants to transfer bitcoins to user B, A creates a transaction message indicating that some of the balance associated with their Bitcoin wallet is to be sent to the address of B, and A's Bitcoin client signs the transaction with the address's private keys.
Because of the asymmetric cryptographic method, only the owner's private keys are able to create a valid signature to send coins from their Bitcoin wallet. The private keys cannot be determined from the signature – they are a secret known only to the address owner. The owner's node broadcasts the resulting message to send money, the transaction, on the peer-to-peer network. Other members of the peer-to-peer network validate the cryptographic signatures and the amounts of the transaction before accepting the money transfer.
The main chain (black) consists of the longest series of blocks from the genesis block (green) to the current block. Orphan blocks (grey) exist outside of the main chain. To prevent double-spending, the network implements what Nakamoto describes as a peer-to-peer distributed timestamp server, which assigns sequential identifiers to each transaction, which are then hardened against modification using the idea of chained proofs of work (shown in the Bitcoin client as confirmations). In his white paper, Nakamoto wrote: "we propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer distributed timestamp server to generate computational proof of the chronological order of transactions."
Whenever a node broadcasts a transaction, the network immediately labels it as unconfirmed. The confirmation status reflects the likelihood that an attempt to reverse the transaction could succeed. Any transaction broadcast to other nodes does not become confirmed until the network acknowledges it in a collectively maintained timestamped-list of all known transactions, the block chain.
Every generating node in the Bitcoin network collects all the unacknowledged transactions it knows of in a file called a block, which also contains a reference to the previous valid block known to that node. It then appends a nonce value to this previous block and computes the SHA-256 cryptographic hash of the block and the appended nonce value. The node repeats this process until it adds a nonce that allows for the generation of a hash with a value lower than a specified target. Because computers cannot practically reverse the hash function, finding such a nonce is hard and requires on average a predictable amount of repetitious trial and error. This is where the proof-of-work concept comes in to play. When a node finds such a solution, it announces it to the rest of the network. Peers receiving the new solved block validate it by computing the hash and checking that it really starts with the given number of zero bits (i.e., that the hash is within the target). Then they accept it and add it to the chain.
The network confirms a transaction when it records it in a block. Further blocks generated further confirm it. After six confirmations, most Bitcoin clients considers a transaction confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. After this, it is overwhelmingly likely that the transactions are part of the main block chain rather than an orphaned one, and impractical to reverse.
Eventually, the block chain contains the cryptographic ownership history of all coins from their creator-address to their current owner-address. Therefore, if a user attempts to reuse coins he already spent, the network rejects the transaction.
The network must store the whole transaction history inside the block chain, which grows constantly as new records are added and never removed. Nakamoto conceived that as the database became larger, users would desire applications for Bitcoin that didn't store the entire database on their computer. To enable this, the system uses a Merkle tree to organize the transaction records in such a way that a future Bitcoin client can locally delete portions of its own database it knows it will never need, such as earlier transaction records of bitcoins that have changed ownership multiple times, while keeping the cryptographic integrity of the remaining database intact. Some users will only need the portion of the block chain that pertains to the coins they own or might receive in the future. At the present time however, all users of the Bitcoin software receive the entire database over the peer-to-peer network after running the software the first time. As of April 2012, this database is approximately 1.2 gigabytes (raw block data without any indexing or optimization).
When more people mine for coins, and everything else stays the same, blocks will generate more quickly. In order to throttle the creation of blocks (and thus keep miners on a more even platform as well as keep the network stable and prevent unnecessary forking of the block chain), the difficulty of generating the next block is mathematically adjusted. Referring back to the Target section, a block is generated when a hash value is found that is less than a certain threshold (or, more simply, starts with more zeros). Since lower thresholds mean less possible hashes can be accepted, the more zeros a hash requires to start with, the more difficult it will be to find an acceptable hash. When mining increases (more clients mining or more efficient ways of mining are found), the difficulty increases, and when mining decreases, the difficulty decreases. This keeps block generation at about every 10 minutes per block.
As more people use more (or less) computing power to try to generate valid blocks, the rate of block creation varies. To compensate for this growth and to keep the rate of block creation close to the desired average of one block every ten minutes, Bitcoin changes the difficulty of finding a valid block every 2016 blocks. Each node in the network adjusts the difficulty so the distribution mean is λ = 2016 blocks per two weeks, so that there are roughly ten minutes between the creation of new blocks on average (the wait times between events in a Poisson process follow an exponential distribution). The network sets the difficulty to the value that would have most likely caused the prior 2016 blocks to take two weeks to complete, given the same computational effort (according to the timestamps recorded in the blocks). All nodes perform and enforce the same difficulty calculation.
In addition to the pending transactions confirmed in the block, a generating node adds a "generate" transaction, which awards new bitcoins to the operator of the node that generated the block. The system sets the payout of this generated transaction according to its defined inflation schedule. Nakamoto compared the generation of new coins by expending CPU time and electricity to gold miners expending resources to add gold to circulation. The "miner" that generates a block also receives the fees that users have paid as an incentive to give particular transactions priority for faster confirmation.
A strong correlation exists between the price of bitcoins in the free market and the hashing power of the network at any specific time. Difficulty is the automatic stabilizer which allows to keep mining for bitcoins profitable in the long run for the most efficient miners. This holds true independently of the fluctuations in demand of Bitcoin in relation to other currencies. The proof-of-work problems are especially suitable to GPUs and specialized hardware. Bitcoin users often pool computational effort to increase the stability of the collected fees and subsidy they receive.
The network never creates more than 50 BTC per block and this amount will decrease over time towards zero, such that no more than 21 million will ever exist. As this payout decreases, the incentive for users to run block-generating nodes will change to earning transaction fees.
Miners have no obligation to include transactions in the blocks they try to solve. The client can associate a transaction fee with any transaction, giving miners an incentive to put the transaction in a block, as miners collect the transaction fees associated with all transactions included in blocks they solve. Very small transactions, or those that use relatively new coins, have low "priority" and the network may require a transaction fee to reduce spam. Most bitcoin clients, including Bitcoin-Qt version 0.5.2 (beta), enforce a minimum fee for low priority transactions of 0.0005 BTC.
Because transactions are broadcast to the entire network, they are inherently public. Unlike regular banking, which preserves customer privacy by keeping transaction records private, loose transactional privacy is accomplished in Bitcoin by using many multiple unique addresses for every wallet, while at the same time publishing all transactions. As an example, if Alice sends 123.45 BTC to Bob, the network creates a public record that allows anyone to see that 123.45 has been sent from one address to another. However, unless Alice or Bob make their ownership of these addresses publicly known, it is difficult for anyone else to connect the transaction with them. However, if someone connects an address to a user at any point they could follow back a series of transactions as each participant likely knows who paid them and may disclose that information on request or under duress.
Jeff Garzik, one of the Bitcoin developers, explained as much in an interview and concluded that "attempting major illicit transactions with bitcoin, given existing statistical analysis techniques deployed in the field by law enforcement, is pretty damned dumb." He also said "We are working with the government to make sure indeed the long arm of the government can reach Bitcoin... the only way bitcoins are gonna be successful is working with regulation and with the government."
Read-only access to bitcoin addresses can be achieved using various websites or software to query the number of bitcoins associated with any address. Also, the transaction history of all bitcoins is freely available to query, and because all transactions are added to the bitcoin block chain, which is a distributed database formed by all bitcoin participants, a user's bitcoin software does not need to be running for that user to receive bitcoins.
In order to be able to send bitcoins from an address (such as when purchasing products or other currencies) one must be in possession of the private key associated with that address. These are typically referred to as "wallets", and the wallet, or private key, should be considered as valuable as the bitcoins associated (or received in the future) with the address to which the private key belongs. Wallets can be kept offline (i.e. not connected to the internet), and this is safer than storing a wallet online. Encrypting the wallet is also recommended. The more bitcoins that can be accessed using the wallet, the greater the effort that is recommended in keeping it secure.
Online wallets are usually that which is contained within the bitcoin client software, or could be an "ewallet" which is usually a web-based bitcoin client which serves multiple users.
Bitcoin payments are normally displayed to the receiver near-instantly, but the client initially displays them as unconfirmed, because the bitcoin system cannot yet assure that the transaction is permanent. The network may invalidate a transaction because of a conflict (such as the client sending the same bitcoins to two different receivers). This may happen if a sender malfunctions, or if a sender intentionally attempts to defraud a receiver. When the network processes the transaction, it adds an increasing number of confirmations every time the network extends the block-chain.
The process of confirming a transaction is accomplished by solving a computationally difficult proof-of-work problem. The problem is based on data from the transactions that must be confirmed, as well as the entire previous transaction history. This process makes it infeasible for an attacker to rewrite the transaction history without having more computing power than the rest of the bitcoin system. Nodes that process blocks of transactions are rewarded by receiving a programmed amount of bitcoin, which arises "out of thin air," as well as any transaction fees associated with the transactions they process. This compensates the operators of these systems for their computational work used to secure bitcoin transactions against reversal, and also accomplishes the initial wealth distribution for the bitcoin system as a whole. The network automatically adjusts the difficulty of the proof-of-work problem to maintain the average time between new blocks at ten minutes. All participating systems check the validity of every transaction and of every block and ignore any that violate the rules, such as blocks that bring the wrong amount of new bitcoin into existence, or transactions that would involve one sender spending the same bitcoin twice.
Protocol implementations include the original C++ Bitcoin codebase, libbitcoin (not based on the original codebase) and an open source implementation in Java called BitCoinJ.
Unlike conventional fiat currency, Bitcoin has no centralized issuing authority. The network is programmed to increase the money supply as a geometric series until the total number of bitcoins reaches 21 million BTC. As of 2012, over 8 million of the total 21 million BTC have been mined. By 2013 half of the total supply will be generated, and by 2017, 3/4 will be generated. To ensure sufficient granularity of the money supply, clients can divide each BTC unit down to eight decimal places (a total of 2.1 × 1015 or 2.1 quadrillion units). This smallest unit is colloquially called a "Satoshi".
Although the network makes the complete history of every bitcoin transaction public, it can be difficult to associate bitcoin identities with real-life identities.This property makes bitcoin transactions attractive to some sellers of illegal products who assume police will not go to the trouble.
Bitcoin as quasi-commodity money
Bitcoin shares characteristics of both commodity money and fiat money, but does not fit properly in either category. Bitcoin supersedes commodity money in value density, recognizability and divisibility and it also matches fiat money as medium of exchange. It also resembles commodity money in the fact that, at least during the expansion of the Bitcoin base, its value, assuming competing suppliers, is equal to its marginal cost of production. On the other hand, fiat money commands a value far higher than its costs of production, which raises the risk of severe mismanagement by their monopolistic suppliers.
For some of the reasons above, and for the fact that commodities are "naturally" scarce, while Bitcoin is scarce in a contrived way, and not subject to supply shocks in the usually understood sense, economist George Selgin classifies Bitcoin as Quasi-Commodity money.
Reception and concerns
Wikileaks, Freenet, Singularity Institute, Internet Archive, Free Software Foundation and others, accept donations in Bitcoin. The Electronic Frontier Foundation did so for a while but has since stopped, citing concerns about a lack of legal precedent about new currency systems, and because they "generally don't endorse any type of product or service – and Bitcoin is no exception." Gavin Andresen, one of the main developers, is explicitly advising people "not to make heavy investments in bitcoins", calling it "kind of like a high risk investment". Jered Kenna, CEO of TradeHill, formerly a major Bitcoin Exchange, also cautions eager investors and stated to the The New York Observer that "Bitcoin is still an experiment and not to bet the house". As of July 2011, some small businesses have started to adopt Bitcoin. LaCie, a public company, accepts Bitcoin for its Wuala service. A frequent problem faced by retailers willing to accept Bitcoin is the high volatility of its exchange rate to the US dollar, as well as the absence of futures to hedge this volatility (although option contracts are available). In a review of the virtual currency, James Surowiecki opined that hoarding by speculators represented one of the largest hindrances to accelerating its adoption.
Bitcoins are awarded to Bitcoin miners for the solution to a difficult proof-of-work problem which confirms transactions and prevents double-spending. This incentive, as the Nakamoto white paper describes it, encourages "nodes to support the network, and provides a way to initially distribute coins into circulation, since no central authority issues them."
The network currently requires over 1,000,000 times more work for confirming a block and receiving an award (50 BTC as of February 2012) than when the first blocks were confirmed. The network adjusts the difficulty every 2016 blocks based on the time taken to find the previous 2016 blocks such that one block is created roughly every 10 minutes. Thus the more computing power that is directed toward mining, the more computing power the network requires to complete a block confirmation and to receive the award. The network will also halve the award every 210,000 blocks, designed to occur about every four years.
Those who chose to put computational and electrical resources toward mining early on had a greater chance at receiving awards for block generations. This served to make available enough processing power to process blocks. Indeed, without miners there are no transactions and the Bitcoin economy comes to a halt.
Some criticize Bitcoin for being a Ponzi scheme in that it rewards early adopters. While early Bitcoin miners may benefit more than later ones, the returns on their investments do not come at the expense of others participating in the Bitcoin economy. The return (on invested computing power and electricity) is the reward for doing useful work in the Bitcoin network by verifying blocks, and often costs nearly as much in electricity costs as they receive.
Prices fluctuate relative to goods and services more than more widely accepted currencies, since the price of a bitcoin is not yet sticky. Also, different exchanges quote different prices, implying the market is not yet efficient. On 19 June 2011, a security breach of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin Exchange (formerly the "Magic: the Gathering Online Exchange") caused the leaking of usernames, emails and MD5 hashed passwords of over 60,000 users onto the Web. The price of a bitcoin briefly dropped to $0.01 on the Mt. Gox exchange (but remained unaffected on other exchanges) after a hacker allegedly used credentials from a Mt. Gox auditor's compromised computer to illegally transfer a large number of bitcoins to himself and sell them all, creating a massive "ask" order at any price. Within minutes the price rebounded to over $15 before Mt. Gox shut down their exchange and canceled all trades that happened during the hacking period. The exchange rate of bitcoins quickly returned to near pre-crash values.
In May 2012, 1 BTC traded at around $5.00 USD. Taking into account the total number of Bitcoins in circulation, the market capitalization of the Bitcoin network stands at over 45 million USD.
Until version 0.4.0, if an attacker had compromised the machine storing a particular Bitcoin wallet, then they could easily transfer any bitcoins to their own wallet. On 16 June 2011, computer security companies started publishing the discovery of malicious software that locates the wallet file on Windows computers and uploads it to a remote server. Users could prevent this attack by encrypting the wallet file; however, Bitcoin clients did not build this functionality in until wxBitcoin version 0.4.0.] Dan Kaminsky, a leading Internet technology security researcher, investigated Bitcoin. His examination reached various conclusions on Bitcoin, anonymity and its future scalability. In the area of security of the basic model he concluded Nakamoto designed Bitcoin well. This relates to the underlying Bitcoin model rather than any particular attack against a specific client, such as described above.
In June 2011, Symantec warned about the possibility of botnets engaging in covert "mining" of bitcoins (unauthorized use of computer resources to generate bitcoins), consuming computing cycles, using extra electricity and possibly increasing the temperature of the computer. Later that month, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation caught an employee using the company's servers to generate bitcoins without permission. Some malware also uses the parallel processing capabilities of the GPUs built into many modern-day video cards. In mid August 2011, bitcoin miner botnets were found; trojans infecting Mac OS X have also been uncovered.
The hacking organization "LulzSec" accepted donations in Bitcoin, having said that the group "needs bitcoin donations to continue their hacking efforts". Following the banking blockade instituted against Wikileaks by mainstream payment processors such as VISA, Mastercard and Paypal, the website accepts donations in Bitcoin.
Silk Road is an anonymous black market that uses only Bitcoin. In a 2011 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Drug Enforcement Administration, senators Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia called for an investigation into Bitcoin and Silk Road. Schumer described the use of bitcoins at Silk Road as a form of money laundering. Consequently Amir Taaki of Intersango, a UK-based bitcoin exchange, put out a statement calling for regulation of Bitcoin exchanges by law enforcement.
Satoshi Nakamoto designed the Bitcoin system and worked on the software in 2007. In 2008, Nakamoto self-published a paper outlining his work on The Cryptography Mailing list at metzdowd.com and then on 3 January 2009 released the open source project called Bitcoin and created the first block, called the "Genesis Block." Many people other than Nakamoto contributed to the development of the Bitcoin software. The name "Satoshi Nakamoto" is believed to be a pseudonym.
April 11, 2012
There has been much talk about Bitcoin within libertarian and economic circles. It's becoming a buzzword, but like all new systems that break onto the public stage quickly, Bitcoin brings with it excitement, speculation, rumor, and downright confusion. To be sure, Bitcoin is complicated. After all, it's an entirely new global monetary system - both a currency and a payment network for that currency. Like all powerful tools, it's important for those interested in using Bitcoin to spend some time engaging in the due diligence of education. Similar to a bicycle, once you know how to use Bitcoin, it will feel very easy and comfortable. But also like a bicycle, one could spend years learning the physics that enable it to operate. Such deep knowledge is not necessary to the actual rider, and in the same way one can enjoy the world of Bitcoin with little more than a healthy curiosity and a bit of practice.
What is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is two things: it is a digital currency unit
and it is the global payment network
with which one sends and receives those currency units. Both the currency unit and the payment network share the same name: Bitcoin.
As a currency unit, consider Bitcoin like other currencies. The world has euros, dollars, yen, gold and silver ounces, and now it has Bitcoin as well. The properties of the Bitcoin currency unit are as follows:
There will never be more than 21 million in existence, and they are released over time at a declining rate (at the time of writing, about 8.5 million Bitcoins exist).
As new coins are released on the set schedule, they are given at random to those who contribute computing power to securing the network. This is called "Bitcoin Mining" but it should more accurately be called "Bitcoin Auditing." Those who contribute more computing power to this work have better odds of receiving the new coins, but the rate of new coin creation never increases (in fact it diminishes over time until all 21 million coins exist). Inflation is thus pre-determined and ever-decreasing toward zero.
Each Bitcoin is divisible by one hundred million. You can thus possess 0.00000001 Bitcoins.
Bitcoins are perfectly fungible, they are divided and combined seamlessly in your account.
It is theoretically impossible to make a fake Bitcoin (to fully understand why this is true, one needs to study cryptography and fairly advanced mathematics).
As a currency existing in a perfectly free market, Bitcoins always have a market price. At the time of this writing, this price is about $4.80 each. Because Bitcoin is global, there are also market prices for Bitcoin in every major national currency from yen to Brazilian reals.
Bitcoins are traded like other currencies on exchange websites, and this is how the market price is established. The most prominent exchange is MtGox.com
So those are the details of Bitcoin as a currency unit, but Bitcoin is also a payment network. As a payment network, Bitcoin replaces the function of banks (especially the Federal Reserve as money creation is not at the whim of any person nor group), inter-bank funding networks (like SWIFT and SEPA), payment processors (like PayPal) and remitters (such as Western Union). The entirety of these massive industries as they relate to the creation, storage, accounting, and transfer of money has been usurped by Bitcoin. If Bitcoin succeeds, it is likely that PayPal and Western Union would be removed from the marketplace. The Federal Reserve (and every central bank) would be made redundant. "Disruptive technology" is thus an understatement.
How does it work?
But how does Bitcoin work, you ask? How does it replace the functions for which we've so long relied on (and been beholden to) governments, banks, and payment companies?
To use Bitcoin, you traditionally download the software (though you can also use an "ewallet" system, discussed later). The software acts as your "bank account." It stores a secret code on your computer, and this code enables funds to be spent from your bank account. In Bitcoin terminology, this bank account is called your "wallet." So your wallet sits on your computer, and as soon as one has this wallet software one can receive and send Bitcoins to other wallet-holders anywhere in the world. It is as fast and easy as sending an email (easier because you don't have to bother writing a message!).
You don't need a name, an address, a Social Security/Slavery number, or any personal information of any kind. Nobody "approves" you for Bitcoin. It's free and open-source software. You get it from Bitcoin.org.
Transactions are sent and accounts are secured using what's known as "public key cryptography." Every account has a public key and a private key - both of which are long strings of numbers and letters. Your wallet software knows your private key, and this allows it to send money. To send money to someone, you merely need to know their public key (basically their bank account number). If you have your private key plus their public key, a transaction can be created and the funds are deducted from your account and credited to the receiver's account, without anyone else having a say in the matter.
As mentioned, your account is merely defined as a long string of numbers and letters:
Thus, your account has no personal information attached to it. You do not need to divulge any information whatsoever in order to obtain a Bitcoin account. This means you can receive, store, and spend Bitcoins with relative anonymity. The anonymity is relative because if you post your address anywhere that can be attributed to you (like on your Facebook page), then of course one can see that the account belongs to you, and money going to it would not be anonymous.
Bitcoin therefore works as a peer-to-peer network upon which account holders can transfer Bitcoin currency between accounts instantly and with relative anonymity. So long as an account holder protects her private key, her funds remain perfectly secure and only she can send them to someone else (and nobody can stop her).
How does it work?
This is perhaps the most important topic to address, as nothing else matters if Bitcoin has no value. What makes Bitcoin worth anything? Isn't it just "fake"? Isn't it just a made-up pretend virtual currency? Many say, "I can't hold it, I can't see it, and thus it's artificial and not worth my time." Let's challenge this understandable initial reaction. Let's demonstrate why Bitcoin is valuable, and very much worth one's time.
Financial privacy has long been symbolized by the notorious "Swiss bank account." Yet, anyone with a Swiss bank account has to trust that bank, and as we've seen in the last couple years, "bank privacy" even in Switzerland is a myth - banks there have been bending over for the US government and divulging customer information. So imagine having a private, numbered Swiss bank account, but without having to bother with the Swiss bank itself. That is Bitcoin. Instead of placing your trust in a regulated bank governed by fallible humans, Bitcoin enables you to place your trust in an unregulated cryptographic environment governed by infallible mathematics. 2+2 will always equal 4, no matter how many guns the government points at the equation.
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. Gold advocates will point out that physical gold bullion has no counter-party risk, but that is only true for storage in your own home. Store it in a vault or bank and you have counter-party risk. And sending gold? You have to trust all sorts of people if you wish to transfer your gold somewhere else or spend it across distance.
Bitcoin means complete ownership of money both in storage and transfer. Nobody can prevent you from having it. Nobody can prevent you from spending it. Even if one's home is broken into, or even if the government issues a "confiscation order" (as they did with gold in 1933), one's Bitcoins are perfectly safe. Try fleeing a country with $1,000,000 in bullion without the government knowing about it. Easier said than done. With Bitcoin, it's almost easier done than said - you could put $1,000,000 of Bitcoin on a USB drive, or even write the private key on a piece of paper, or just email the wallet file to yourself to be retrieved outside the country.
Starting to see the value? Never in the history of the world has an individual had this ability. It is unprecedented.
No really, WHY is Bitcoin valuable???
At this point, skeptics should say, "okay fine, you can store and spend Bitcoins without interference, but what gives them initial value? Why do they have a price?" It's a very good question, and even expert economists have struggled with the answer.
But really, the answer is simple. Bitcoins have value because A) they are useful and B) they are scarce. Combine those two attributes in any asset and you will discover it has a price. The moment the first Bitcoin was traded to someone in exchange for something else, an exchange rate (market price) was established. Subsequent exchangers agreed or disagreed with that rate, and made further trades accordingly. Bitcoin thus spontaneously developed a price, as do all things in an open market if they are sufficiently useful and sufficiently scarce.
Let's look at value a little further, because it's a contentious issue with Bitcoin. There are many (including Paul Krugman) who believe Bitcoin isn't worth anything and is no more than a speculative bubble fad.
I wouldn't expect Krugman to "get it," but wiser/real economists need only observe metals to start understanding why Bitcoins have value. After all, any strong advocate of gold or silver as money should hopefully understand why these metals should be money. The answer is that these metals tend to be chosen in an open marketplace as money, because their specific properties make them useful as a means of exchange. It is the properties of gold and silver—unique to these metals—which make them excellent money. They are scarce, fungible, uniform, transportable, have a high value-to-weight ratio, are easily identifiable, are highly durable, and their supplies are relatively steady and predictable. Contrast other goods like chickens, or seashells, or sand, and you discover that none of them are as good on the above attributes as precious metals. Chickens can't well be cut in half or recombined, seashells are not uniform, and sand is too plentiful to be used as money. Why not other metals... why don't we use iron as money? It's not scarce enough - you'd need carts of it at the store to go shopping.
As any Austrian economist can tell you, money is merely that commodity in an open market which best satisfies the properties necessary for useful exchange. Gold and silver take the cake every time a violent government doesn't get in the way... or at least, this is true historically. But, this doesn't mean that gold and silver are "perfect, infallible money." Indeed, there are practical problems. One can't easily divide and combine silver coins to make change. One can't easily send large values of gold across distance without hiring security and waiting for transport. One must pay storage fees, or risk theft at home. And, while difficult, it is possible to make fake gold and silver ingots and pass them off in trade as real.
So then it follows that if gold and silver are not perfect money (though admittedly the best we've had), perhaps mankind could discover or invent something that was even better. This is the Bitcoin experiment - the question of whether Bitcoin, with its specific attributes, is an even better form of money than what the marketplace currently enjoys (or in the case of state fiat, is forced to use). If the Austrians are right, and a marketplace tends to chose the medium of exchange which best works as money, and Bitcoin's specific attributes make it excellent money, then perhaps the marketplace will, over time, increasingly use it for such.
The answer so far, is yes. Bitcoin is finding more and more niches for early adoption, which further supports its market price, providing confidence to holders that it will retain value, and this further lends Bitcoin to be used for still more purposes. It's an organic and messy process, full of trial and error, potholes, brilliant innovations and terrible failures. But that's what an open marketplace is, no? Every day a more resilient economy is being built, and not at the point of a gun, but voluntarily - not by decree of Bernanke, but by spontaneous, self-interested private order.
Many have made the argument that "nothing backs Bitcoin." And this is true. Bitcoin cannot be redeemed for any fixed value, nor is it tied to any existing currency or commodity. But, neither is gold. Gold is not backed by anything - it is valuable because it's useful and scarce. Cars are not backed by anything, they are merely useful as cars and thus have value. Food is not backed, nor are computers. All these goods have value in proportion to their usefulness and scarcity, and one merely needs to see the usefulness of Bitcoin to understand why, without backing from any government nor corporation, without being tied to any fiat currency or existing commodity, it commands a price on the market and rightly so.
How does one obtain it?
When one understands why Bitcoins are useful and therefore valuable, one might wish to obtain some. But how? Well, how does one obtain any currency? There are two basic ways, either by selling goods and services for it, or by buying it at an exchange.
We'll examine buying at an exchange first. "Exchanges" are simply websites where buyers and sellers come together to trade one currency for another. If you have an account at an exchange, and fund the exchange with Bernanke Bucks, you can buy Bitcoins.
The practical steps for doing this are as follows:
Step 1 Create a free account at a trustworthy exchange like MtGox.com or CryptoXChange.com or (mainly for Europeans) Intersango.com.
Step 2 Put money in the exchange by using an intermediary like Dwolla.com or (much faster with a small fee) BitInstant.com. Dwolla will link to your bank account and takes 3-5 days to move money from your bank to the exchange. BitInstant, comparatively, allows anonymous cash deposits up to $500 at a time and takes under an hour. These cash deposits are made by you at any major bank branch (you don't even need a bank account). Within 30-60 minutes of your cash deposit, BitInstant will credit your exchange account with your USD. You can literally have your first Bitcoins 30 minutes after reading this article.
Step 3 Once your funds are at the exchange, you can buy Bitcoins at the current market price. The coins then stay at the exchange in your account until you send them somewhere else (to your personal wallet or someone you'd like to pay, etc). If you want to sell Bitcoins for dollars, you simply do the process in reverse - send the Bitcoins to an exchange, sell them at market price, and transfer the USD to your bank.
The Bitcoin market is fully-liquid and operates 24/7 with no holidays. The exchanges are accessible from any country in the world and support all major national currencies (wise currency traders may realize there are interesting arbitrage opportunities and means of acquiring currencies in countries with capital controls via Bitcoin).
The other way to get Bitcoins is to sell goods and services for them, just like you sell goods or your labor for dollars. Being able to receive Bitcoins is as simple as putting your Bitcoin address on your webpage, and you get this address automatically once you have a Bitcoin wallet. There is no "sign up" or "approval" to be able to accept Bitcoin. You can be any age, and in any country. Just get the wallet software (from bitcoin.org) or use an "ewallet" such as Paytunia.com, and paste your Bitcoin address for the world to see. Anyone who knows your Bitcoin address can send you Bitcoins instantly.
For small businesses who would like a more advanced way to accept and track Bitcoin payments for website orders, there are a few good merchant solutions. Paysius.com is the best - it will plug into your site (using common shopping cart plugins) and enable your customers to select "Bitcoin" as payment during checkout instead of credit card or PayPal, etc. (this doesn't replace those methods, it merely gives your customers a new option). Further, because very few businesses can pay their salaries and suppliers in Bitcoin (yet), systems like Paysius give the business the ability to auto-convert incoming Bitcoins into normal USD and have that deposited in the company bank account. Fees are much lower than credit card processing, and Bitcoin payments have zero chargebacks or reversals (it's impossible to reverse a Bitcoin payment) so merchants can securely accept payment from any country with no more risk of reversal, which should be a welcome relief to those who have been burned by PayPal or credit card fraud. Other than Paysius.com, Bit-pay.com is another good option for merchants to accept Bitcoin.
So that's it - that's how you get Bitcoins. Just buy them, or sell stuff in exchange.
Being careful with money
This is where many people have justified concerns. Bitcoin requires a high degree of personal responsibility, and so users need to know the basic rules for using Bitcoin safely. The bad news is, if you screw up, you can lose money and never get it back. The good news is, with a few basic pointers and some practice, you can use Bitcoin extremely securely, without fear of loss. Do not get into Bitcoin without understanding these basic concepts:
Concept 1 Bitcoins are like cash and are thus stored in a specific physical place. This means, you must always be mindful of where your Bitcoins are, and what risks that location presents. For example, if your coins are on your computer, and you don't back them up somewhere else (yes, they can be backed up easily), and the computer crashes, your money is gone. There is no company you can call to complain about it... the money is lost forever. Similarly, if you store your coins with an online service (like an ewallet or exchange), then you are trusting that service to hold your coins safely. If you give your coins to someone who is not trustworthy, they can run away and you'll never get them back. You wouldn't give $100 cash to someone you don't trust. The same is true with Bitcoin. So if the coins are in your possession (on your computer or smartphone), you must be mindful of them, back them up, and keep your systems secure. If the coins are held for you by someone else, then you must be able to trust that party. This is the most important safety concept of Bitcoin.
Concept 2 Wherever you keep your Bitcoins, they will be protected with passwords. If coins are on your computer in your wallet file, and someone learns your wallet password and they obtain your wallet file, then they can spend your coins! Similarly, if you keep coins with a service provider, and someone learns your login information, they can steal your coins. Use strong passwords whenever you deal with Bitcoin (more than 12 characters) and keep them always in a safe place. Funds are not protected by government-mandated and taxpayer-subsidized FDIC insurance - a Bitcoin bank cannot just type in digits into your account to replenish funds stolen by your own carelessness with your password.
Concept 3 When coins are on your own computer (meaning you're using the wallet software from bitcoin.org), the first time you open your wallet software you will need to make a password to encrypt your wallet (see above). After making this password (don't ever forget it), you MUST backup your wallet file in a different location. This file is where your money is stored. The file name is "wallet.dat" and backing it up is as simple as copying the file and putting it somewhere else. To find your wallet.dat file:
--------- On Windows, you must first tell your computer to "Show hidden files and folders" - look up how to do this online. Then, you can find your wallet here:
C:\Documents and Settings\YourUserName\Application data\Bitcoin (XP)
C:\Users\YourUserName\Appdata\Roaming\Bitcoin (Vista and Windows 7)
If you're on a Mac, you can find it here: ~/Library/Application Support/Bitcoin/ --------
Put this wallet.dat file on a USB drive in your safe or mail it to your parents. Burn it to a CD and put it in a bank safety deposit box. Put it on a different computer. You can even email the file to yourself. Better yet, do two or three of the above. You only need to back up the wallet file once at the beginning (you don't need to do it every day or week, etc), and you should do it before you've received any money. Back it up, keep it safe, and the likelihood of you losing your Bitcoins will be lower than you dying in a car crash. If you don't back it up, the likelihood of you losing your coins is almost guaranteed.
Concept 4 Liberty advocates love free markets. But, with freedom comes responsibility. Bitcoin exists in a free market. It is not regulated, tracked, or overseen by anything other than cold hard mathematics. Thus, the companies and organizations you find in Bitcoinland are often unregulated and private. A Bitcoin-based company doesn't even need to be registered as a company anywhere, because it doesn't need a business checking account or an IRS extortion number (known as an EIN). While this means Bitcoin enables truly free trade on a global scale, it also means Bitcoin users need to be careful and prudent. Don't buy things from companies or websites you don't trust. You may never see your money again, and there is no way to "reverse" a payment. With Bitcoin, reputation and history are everything. If you wouldn't give cash to a stranger in an alleyway, don't give Bitcoins to a stranger online. Enjoy the free market, and be a responsible adult.
Concept 5 Remember that Bitcoin should still be considered an experiment. As resilient as the system has proven to be, it is still new. The value of a Bitcoin could drop to zero tomorrow. This means under no circumstances should people invest money in Bitcoin which they cannot afford to lose. Bitcoin is a highly volatile commodity with an extremely uncertain future. Grandmothers should not be putting retirement money into Bitcoin (nor in US dollars, for that matter).
What can one do with it?
The short answer is that you can do anything, but you might have to build it first! Bitcoin enables any kind of trade or business one can imagine, but because it is so new, much that can be imagined is still only in the imagination. Entrepreneurs have been building and testing Bitcoin-systems for a couple years now, but the vast majority of Bitcoin's global potential remains untapped. Every liberty-minded entrepreneur should be considering this point.
As for what's currently available, the most basic thing one can do with Bitcoin is buy products and services from anyone who accepts Bitcoin. A partial list can be found here: https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Trade There is also the booming illicit drug market known as Silk Road, where almost any substance imaginable can be purchased for Bitcoin. Accessing Silk Road requires further security precautions such as the use of Tor, which is beyond the scope of this article.
Next, donations are made very efficient via Bitcoin. Groups from Wikileaks to indie film companies and animal shelters accept Bitcoin donations. Bitcoin works great for donations because micro-transactions are possible (you can't send $0.10 to a charity via PayPal, because the fees are larger than $0.10... but with Bitcoin you can). If you want to accept donations for anything, put a Bitcoin address on your website. It costs you nothing. Want to donate to Wikileaks? Here's their address:
Like to gamble? Bitcoin lets US players actually play poker online. The government can't stop the payments, after all. Sites such as SealsWithClubs.eu are gaining popularity, with larger casinos being built.
Want to send money to friends or family overseas? Use Bitcoin. Instead of paying Western Union $40, just send Bitcoins for free. Remittance markets are one area where Bitcoin really shines, because it passes across borders instantly and with no possibility of regulation nor interference. Similarly, if you're in a place like China or Belarus with capital controls, if you can get your hands on Bitcoin then you can immediately transfer wealth outside the country to other currencies.
Want gold or silver to store value acquired via Bitcoin? Try a site like Coinabul.com
Work with freelancers or have a business that pays people in other countries? Use Bitcoin. After all, Bitcoin enables "under the table" payments to anyone, anywhere. Paying a contractor in Italy or India is now as easy as sending an email.
Want to protect wealth or move it privately? Bitcoin transcends all borders and regulations. No longer do you need to have your wealth sitting in an account that can be frozen or seized.
Basically, anything you can do with "money" generically, you can do with Bitcoin - yet you now have no governmental restriction upon that activity. If you're a merchant, why not start accepting Bitcoin as payment? It's easy to integrate if you use a system like Paysius.com.
If you think Bitcoin could be used in a creative new way, then go build the system! Just as few people understood the power of the internet in the early '90s, the same is true with Bitcoin. And just as with the internet, it is attracting builders and entrepreneurs all over the world.
Bitcoin vs. The State
Now we get to the more fun part, which is especially relevant to any libertarian discussion of Bitcoin. This is the manner by which Bitcoin supersedes government control. "Okay," people say, "so Bitcoin is new and the government doesn't regulate it yet, but they will!" Unfortunately for the government, they cannot. No person nor group of people can defy the laws of mathematics upon which Bitcoin is built.
But first, let's look at the ways the government could interfere with the Bitcoin system.
Private websites on a hosted server can be taken down by the government. We saw this in amazing clarity recently when MegaUpload was taken down by the US government, even before any trial or finding of criminal activity had been accomplished. It should be assumed that the government can take down any site it wishes, with or without the legal cover of legislation like SOPA and PIPA (which merely give legal blessing to powers already assumed and demonstrated). So this means that any website that dealt in Bitcoins could be removed and shut down. The exchanges would be the first target.
Yet, even here the government runs into trouble, because websites can be mirrored, copied, and hidden very easily. Taking down Bitcoin websites would be like cutting the heads of a Hydra - for each successful severance, publicity and the profit motive would compel more sites to spring up (case in point: how many file sharing sites exist, other than MegaUpload?).
In fact, certain sites have proven impossible for the government to take down altogether. Take the example of The Silk Road, which is a brazen website selling illicit drugs. US Senator Chuck Schumer expressed angst in this regard, though he's pitifully impotent to remove the site because it exists on what's known as the "dark web," on servers hidden via cryptography. If the above-ground Bitcoin websites are shut down, the below-ground sites will flourish. And every time a high profile site is taken down, Bitcoin would get free publicity around the world.
So taking down websites is an inadequate strategy if the government wishes to impede Bitcoin. What else could they do?
Within one country, at least, a government could prohibit individuals and businesses from openly accepting Bitcoins (and if this happened in the US, it'd be the ultimate sign that the Supreme Court had fully abandoned its proper responsibilities). Suppose the US Government did ban the acceptance of Bitcoin: it would mean Bitcoin could only be accepted in secret. This would harm the economy significantly, but wouldn't come close to stopping Bitcoin (and indeed, unless every government did this, Bitcoins could be openly accepted in other countries leading to capital flight which would pressure governments not to outlaw it in the first place).
But what about the more obvious attack method - can't the government just "shut down" Bitcoin transfers? Amazingly, no. Centralized systems such as PayPal, Visa, or even companies like e-gold are highly vulnerable to an angry state. The thugs must merely break down the door, confiscate the servers, and throw the owners in jail. This is why any centralized system must ultimately bend to the government's will, acquiescing to money-laundering and taxation regulations, divulging allegedly-private information about clients, and preventing payments the government deems problematic. If they don't, they're shut down.
Bitcoin is not vulnerable to this risk, because there is no central point of failure. There is no Bitcoin office. There are no central Bitcoin servers. There is no president nor employees of Bitcoin. Bitcoin has no home country, it is licensed nowhere. It is a distributed network, a protocol, that can operate as long as the internet exists (and, in fact, even without the internet per se). Transactions occur peer-to-peer, meaning no governing body approves them. Accounts cannot be frozen, because nobody has the freeze button.
Bitcoin cannot be turned off - it is like a benevolent cancer which, so long as a few hosts survive somewhere in the world, can perpetuate itself and regrow at the speed of information.
Bitcoin and Disruption
Once one makes this realization - that the government is actually quite powerless to stop Bitcoin, then a few ramifications might spring into mind. If Bitcoin doesn't fail on its own, then to some extent it will succeed, and as it succeeds, it starts to replace many of the institutions which have caused so much trouble for humanity.
First on the chopping block are market actors which compete for the business of money transfer. Mega-companies like PayPal and Western Union (and even more deeply rooted companies like SWIFT) discover that they have to compete with a system that transfers money at practically zero cost. The "service" these companies provide is made redundant, and just as the buggy-whip manufacturers were out of a job at the onset of the automobile, so too will payment services be useless at the onset of the frictionless global transfers afforded by Bitcoin.
From a market efficiency standpoint, if these companies are earning billions of dollars a year for providing a service which can be done for free, then if that service catches on, humanity will be billions of dollars per year richer. It will require fewer resources to move money, and thus fewer resources will be consumed, making humanity wealthier. Cars made humanity richer by enabling transportation at lower cost, Email made the world richer by enabling communication at lower cost, and in the exact same way Bitcoin can make the world richer by enabling monetary transfers at lower cost.
If Bitcoin grows large enough to start replacing financial transaction networks, its value will stabilize further and more confidence can be imbued in the long-term price. Subsequently, Bitcoin will become an increasingly better (more stable) means of value storage, which threatens banks first and then national currencies second.
All the work done by banks to hold and account for money (and transfer it between individuals and companies) can be done natively by Bitcoin. And so just as the payment services become redundant, so too do many services provided by banks, shrinking the banking sector down to those areas where it still serves useful value.
A Bitcoin world would still have banks, of course, but the banks would be properly placed into those market roles where they do useful work. People don't necessarily want to store value on home-based PC's, and a bank with security staff and safe systems may make a smart place to hold funds (but instead of everyone having to hold funds at the bank, it would be their option based on their risk-profile). Similarly, there will always be a need in a capitalist system for loans and interest paid on deposits. Banks would enjoy this ability with Bitcoin so long as they were efficient and could compete in the open market.
And as we move further along the adoption and growth curve of a Bitcoin monetary system, we see that national currencies themselves become challenged quite quickly. Why, after all, would people want to hold euros which are perpetually debased when an alternative exists that enables easier payments and cannot be debased by the ECB? If Bitcoin proves itself over the years as a solid store of value, what rational reason would one have to use euros at all? Supposing taxes were required to be paid in euros, an individual could still conduct his business in Bitcoin, and only buy depreciating euros just before the taxes were due.
Why don't we see this with gold today? Because gold has no good payment system built into it - physical bullion is not efficient for daily trade, and digital vaults backed by gold have all come under fire from government AML concerns, as we've seen the transfer systems of companies like GoldMoney be pressured into shutting down (last year, GoldMoney discontinued it's account-to-account transfers).
Remember, Bitcoin automatically makes both the storage and transfer of funds easy, secure, private, and instantaneous. With a history of price stability earned over time, or in conjunction with gold and silver as an even more reliable store of value, why use state fiat at all?
The final domino to fall, of course, is the power which governments wield over their flock via their ability to print, regulate, and control the nation's money. When a state currency is challenged, the state itself is challenged, and market forces move swiftly around sickly, depreciating inhibitors. The press conferences of someone like Bernanke would become less and less important, because the currency he printed would be used in narrower and narrower circles. Instead of fighting the government, Bitcoin enables individuals to sidestep it - to ignore it to a large degree. Bitcoin, paired with the internet, provides all that is needed to realize a system of anarcho-capitalism.
After all, what power would the Zimbabwe government have if its people had had Bitcoin in their communities - money they could hide and spend via cell phones and email accounts. What cause would there be in Greece to riot at the ECB mandates when the country can abandon the euro in favor of a money that each of them controls unto themselves. And from where would the US get the resources to deficit-finance its wars and welfare programs when it no longer has the ability to print money and pay back debt with debased currency? Like a gold standard, Bitcoin shackles a government and forces it to subsist only on what it can tax openly and legitimately borrow, but unlike a gold standard, Bitcoin doesn't require any official status to become a standard. The market can arrive at the standard sans government approval, again because it works elegantly both for storage and transfer and it cannot be stopped because it exists in decentralized form.
We see that along Bitcoin's growth and adoption curve, some exciting and quite revolutionary possibilities occur. Instead of trying to change governments with a useless vote, or pathetic pleading, we merely abandon the government's powerbase - the power derived from control of exchange and currency. The awkward inconveniences and growing pains of this new monetary system should be easily outweighed by the gift given to the noble cause of liberty if it should succeed.
Time for a reality check. A prudent person should assume Bitcoin will fail, if for no other reason than that most new things fail. But, there is a very real chance it will succeed, and this chance is increased with every new user, every new business, and every new system developed within the Bitcoin economy. The ramifications of success are extraordinary, and it is thus worth at least a cursory review by any advocate of liberty, not just in the US but around the world.
Spend some time with Bitcoin. Learn it, challenge it, and use it. You can assume no government wants you adopting this system in any capacity, and for that reason alone it's worth consideration by honest, moral, and industrious people.
June 4, 2011
Three weeks ago I discovered bitcoin. It sounded interesting enough that I decided to devote an entire Saturday to it—that was my “day of bitcoin.” My day of bitcoin evolved into my three weeks of bitcoin. In that time, I have been obsessively reading about it, writing about it, buying it, and creating businesses for it. As far as I can recall, I have never been so obsessed about anything. But the reason I am obsessed with bitcoin is simple: it is the most incredible thing to ever happen in the world. I am not exaggerating. We are presently witnessing the most disruptive change to ever happen to collective human behavior. Although there have been other disruptive changes to human behavior in the past, bitcoin is happening much faster than those. Consider, for instance, computing.
Charles Babbage invented the mechanical Analytical Engine in the 1830s. It took on the order of a century or more before those seeds of an idea blossomed into something that actually started being used on a large scale. Or consider, say, the internet, which was invented in the 1960s, but took on the order of decades before it saturated the world. That was faster than computing, but still long compared to bitcoin. Bitcoin was only invented about 2.5 years ago. And already, I have been able to ask random people about it, and they know what I’m talking about. If the growth of bitcoin continues exponentially like most widely useful technologies, it will only be on the order of years—not centuries, not even decades, but individual years—before virtually everyone is using it.
The standard term for such a rapid change is a “singularity.” Robin Hanson predicted an economic singularity. Bitcoin, as I will argue, is that singularity. (Hat tip to noagendamarket on the bitcoin forum for reminding me of Robin Hanson’s article.)
What is bitcoin?
Bitcoin is the decentralized digital currency. I say “the,” rather than “a,” because there can only be one. Since decentralized digital currencies rely on computational power to ensure security, the currency with the most computational power is the most secure. If we ever found ourselves with more than one decentralized digital currency, which ever one had more computational resources devoted to it would be the most secure, and thus more people would trust it, and thus more people would use it, and thus it would come to dominate and be the only one. Bitcoin is that currency. (Previously, I argued that there could be a market of currencies. However, I now realize that, while there can be a market of currencies, there can’t be more than one decentralized digital currency.)
Why is it gaining traction?
Bitcoin is useful for all the same reasons that any currency is useful: it is a medium of exchange. The advantage of being decentralized is that you do not have to rely on a third party for security. Thus, bitcoin is more useful than digital dollars for the same reason that digital dollars are more useful than paper dollars, or paper dollars are more useful than gold: it is just easier to pay people with them. No banks means less headaches, in the same way that no gold means there is a lot less weight you have to lug around. Bitcoin is thus a better answer to a problem humanity has been slowly solving for millenia: how do we remove barriers to payment?
There are other advantages to bitcoin too, besides being more convenient. The fact that no central party party controls the supply means no central party can inflate it to redistribute wealth in their favor. No one can debase bitcoin to pay for a war. Also, since it is deflationary (in the sense that prices reliably go down), it encourages savings, because everyone gets richer that way.
Certainly, then, bitcoin is a candidate for an economic singularity, because everyone has incentives to use it, and it makes the world a better place. That’s great in theory, but the reason why it cleary actually is a singularity is because its adoption is, in fact, growing exponentially. There are at least two exponential curves we can see. One is Google Trends, where bitcoin has crystal clear exponential growth. And another is its value in USD, where again the growth is clearly exponential. Although these quantities are not the same thing as adoption, they are probably proportional to adoption. 2.5 years ago, there was one user of bitcoin. We may estimate that there are somewhere between 104 and 105 users of bitcoin at present. Thus, in another 2.5 years, there will be somewhere between 108 and 1010 users. Since there aren’t even 1010 people on the planet, we may estimate that adoption will be ubiquitous in approximately three years.
This incredibly rapid exponential growth is being powered by the fact that people around the world are quickly learning about it. Thus, the exponential growth can only last until it saturates the world, at which point it will continue growing only at the rate that humanity grows (which is also exponential, but much slower). At present, there is no reason to think the growth will stop before that. There are no credible attack vectors at all; not even government (the US government or any other) can stop it, because the economic incentives are too large. A War on Bitcoin would have exactly as much efficacy as the War on Drugs: none. Bitcoin is susceptible to DOS attacks, but that would only slow its growth, not stop it. The only credible threat to bitcoin is quantum computers, because bitcoin relies on classical, rather than quantum, cryptography. But that threat is many years away. Bitcoin will be ubiquitous by then.
What will happen?
Bitcoin will take over as the currency of the internet. It will also take over as a store of value; why earn a measly, less-than-inflation interest rate in a savings account when you can have steady appreciation of value if you just keep your money in bitcoin? People will spend less and save more because they know if only they do that, they will be richer in the future. Companies will no longer produce things of no value, because no one will buy them. The world will become more efficient, because there will be less waste. Everyone will realize how much they lose by spending money on valueless things. There will be a more equitable distribution of wealth, because no one can inflate (or, to use a less charitable term, counterfeit) bitcoin at their whim.
Bitcoin will also take over any fiat currencies that inflate too rapidly (think Zimbabwe, Argentina, or any other country that presently has or will have a rapidly inflating currency). Central banks will be under enormous pressure to stabilize their currencies or become obsolete. Many banks will collapse. Many fiat currencies will become worthless. Probably, all fiat currencies will become worthless eventually, because it is only a matter of time before the central banks fall into the temptation of inflating their currencies just a bit too fast.
How to proceed
Since bitcoin appreciates in value very rapidly during the singularity phase, you should convert all of your liquid assets to bitcoin as quickly as possible. Do not keep any cash, savings, or checking beyond what you need to pay for goods and services that cannot yet be paid for with bitcoin. The more things you can buy with bitcoin, the more bitcoin you should keep.
Stop wasting money on excessively expensive meals, televisions, cars, and anything else that loses value quickly or instantly. Instead, put your money into bitcoin. You will be much richer that way. You may think having less stuff is less fun, but actually the pleasure of financial freedom far, far outweighs any losses.
During the singularity phase, you should also take out loans to buy bitcoin, since bitcoin appreciates far more rapidly than interest on any fiat currency loan. When bitcoin gets near saturation, which is the end of the singularity, you should pay off the loans, because at that point the rate of appreciation will probably be a lot closer to the interest on the loans, and you may not be able to reliably earn money that way anymore.
You may also be tempted to convert other assets to bitcoin. If you are invested in anything that is likely to be bitcoin-unfriendly, like a bank, it would be wise to convert those assets into bitcoin. However, if you are invested in companies that actually produce value, those companies will thrive after the singularity, so it is not necessarily a good idea to convert those assets to bitcoin.
If you own assets where the ownership of those assets is certified by a country that is likely to collapse after the singularity, such as if you owned land in a country where the currency is rapidly inflating, you should consider converting those assets to bitcoin, or risk losing it when your country’s government collapses.
If you own a business, you should start accepting bitcoin as quickly as possible to maximize your ownership of the bitcoin economy. If you don’t own a business, consider starting a bitcoin business. See my previous post to learn more about bitcoin startups.
The economy is going to change very dramatically in a matter of three or so years. You are likely to be doing a significant amount, if not all, of your economic activity in bitcoin very soon. The change will be as dramatic as, say, computing or the internet, except that it will happen much faster. The change will be for the better, since it is more convenient to use bitcoin than fiat currencies for digital payments. Fiat currencies may stick around if they do not hyperinflate; they will probably still be useful for buying coffee. The most interesting change is that we will all become more motivated and productive, since we will see very clearly how our work ethic affects how rich we are. And the world as a whole will be significantly more efficient, since it will be extremely difficult to finance huge wastes of money, like wars.
Personally, I have invested most of my savings into bitcoin, and am in the process of figuring out precisely how much more it is wise to invest. I have not yet taken out any loans to buy bitcoin, because that decision is too hard to swallow (I may yet do it if I can stomach it—Falkvinge did.) I have also begun producing bitcoin businesses which I am hoping will support me after I graduate. (My bitcoin savings alone will actually probably be enough to support me, but I will be richer if I work too.) Most of the other ideas I had about what to do with my life after graduation have gone into the toilet—I will probably do something with bitcoin.
In the future, books that summarize the history of money will have a line that says, “and then came bitcoin.” It is the economic singularity. And we are living in it now.