December 12, 2017

Bitcoin is an illusion, a mass hallucination, so one hears. It’s just numbers in cyberspace, a mirage, insubstantial as a soap bubble. Bitcoin is not backed by anything other than the faith of the fools who buy it and of the greater fools who buy it from these lesser fools. And you know? Fair enough. All this is true.

What may be less easy to grasp is that U.S. dollars are likewise an illusion. They too consist mainly of numbers out there in cyberspace. Sometimes they’re stored in paper or coins, but while the paper and coins are material, the dollars they represent are not. U.S. dollars are not backed by anything other than the faith of the fools who accept it as payment and of other fools who agree in turn to accept it as payment from them. The main difference is that, for the moment at least, the illusion, in the case of dollars, is more widely and more fiercely believed.

In fact, almost all of our U.S. dollars, about 90 percent, are purely abstract — they literally do not exist in any tangible form. James Surowiecki reported in 2012 that “only about 10 percent of the U.S. money supply — about $1 trillion of the roughly $10 trillion total — exists in the form of paper cash and coins.” (The number now appears to be about $1.5 trillion out of $13.7 trillion.) There is nothing stopping our banking system from creating more dollars whenever the mood strikes. Of the $13.7 trillion in the M2 money supply as of October 2017, $13.5 trillion was created after 1959—or, to put it another way, M2 has expanded by almost 50 times.

The U.S. dollar is what is known as a “fiat” currency. Fiat is Latin for “let there be,” as in fiat lux, let there be light; hence, fiat denarii, let there be lire, bolivars, dollars, and rubles. The temptation for leaders of nation-states to manufacture money has historically been practically irresistible. One evident result of this wantonness is inflation: The purchasing power of $1 in 1959 is now a little under 12 cents.

The bitcoin blockchain was created, in part, to address this historical weakness. After the 21 millionth bitcoin is mined, in around 2140, the system will produce no more.

Charlatans and thieves will forever try to game the various structures put in place to control and/or account for any monetary system and, indeed, any store of value (see: the crooks of the Panama and Paradise Papers, Bernies Cornfeld and Madoff, the London Whale, LTCM and BCCI, the clever and quiet thieves of treasures from the Gardner Museum in Boston, the 2008 financial crisis and associated bailouts, and the thefts at Mt. Gox, the DAO, and Tether). All stores of value are targets. And using any system of exchange — through fair means or foul — fortunes can and will be made and lost. And yet, surprising as it may sometimes seem, there are enough people acting in good faith to prevent monetary systems from collapsing entirely.

There are a few radical differences between cryptocurrencies and U.S. dollars. For example, the transactions conducted in the bitcoin system are recorded in an unfalsifiable ledger that relies not on the authority of banks or governments, but on the strength of a public computer network that (theoretically, at least) anyone is free to join. Also, again, the supply of bitcoins is ultimately fixed. The anonymity of cryptocurrency is not, perhaps, quite as bulletproof as the anonymity of (unmarked) cash.

Money itself is an illusion, a mass hallucination. You’re working hard to make it, grow it, and keep it, but even so, the only real thing about it is its symbolic power. Which is indeed awesome, considered from a certain angle.

Our shared understanding of the value of that green-tinted piece of paper, that Krugerrand, ether token, or pound coin, is all that counts. And that shared understanding has no fixed meaning; it’s in eternal flux. The “value” of all money, all stores of exchange, is unstable and abstract, even in the face of every attempt to secure it — say, with a set rate of exchange against various assets — or to regulate its flow by setting interest rates. Money is only a shifting network of agreements made in and on behalf of the hive, and that’s all it has ever been—a fragile thread in a web of human trust.

Consider the “flight capital” that refugees are forced to trade at a huge loss in order to cross a hostile border. That is money, but exactly what does it have in common with the invisible money that is your paycheck, a string of numbers colliding in the ether with the string of numbers that is your bank account? Maybe the price of avocados or coffee goes up or down between the time of the electronic collision in your bank and the day you go to the market. There are natural disasters in which people must suddenly become willing to pay vastly inflated sums for a few gallons of clean water. What, then, is “the value of a dollar”?

All the common arguments against cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, and the blockchain technology that undergirds them, invariably fail to take this fact — the provisional and fragile nature of ordinary money — into account. Cryptocurrencies cannot be understood even a little bit by anyone who thinks money is real, solid, or “backed by” anything other than human trust in institutions whose stability is always uncertain. A U.S. dollar is “backed by” “the full faith and credit of the United States.” But what exactly does this mean?

It means that if you take one dollar to the U.S. Treasury and ask them to redeem it, they will: They’ll give you…one dollar. Or four quarters, if you want, probably.

The unfortunate fact is that monetary crises in unstable governments like those of Greece, Venezuela, and Spain have already precipitated a number of spikes in the crypto markets. When the Cypriot government sought to resolve the country’s 2013 banking crisis by subjecting its citizens’ bank deposits to a nearly 7 percent haircut, the price of bitcoin shot up, likely because, at that point, many southern European holders of euros with debt-ridden governments surmised that bitcoin might represent a more reliable home for their money than the Cypriot banks could provide. Spanish bank depositors must have wondered: Would their own banks be next?

Our existing financial institutions are deeply flawed, in short, and permanently prone to corruption, and this was so long before bitcoin was a gleam in its mysterious inventor’s eye. Satoshi Nakamoto made a point of stating it plain as day in the so-called genesis block that started bitcoin rolling: “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.” Bitcoin was a politically motivated project from the first, a new system explicitly built to provide a tamperproof digital means of exchange on which a better alternative to our existing banking systems might be based.

The theory behind all cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, is that the records produced by a distributed computer network can be made tamperproof, thus theoretically guaranteeing the soundness of a currency better than governments can. And so far, despite some substantial bumps in the road, the blockchain system on which bitcoin is built has at least partially proved this theory. A million or more bitcoins have been stolen since 2009, but the underlying system’s distributed ledger, the accounting system on which bitcoin is based, has so far remained stable and incorruptible.

The many thefts and ripoffs that occurred in the early days of bitcoin call to mind the movie The Treasure of Sierra Madre, a fine drama of greed and corruption set during the 1920’s. There can be no question that the prospect of instantaneous wealth, almost close enough to touch, can drive people insane. Note, however, that the propensity of greed to produce crime and insanity did not cause the value of gold to evaporate.

The real caveat here is that the incorruptibility of the bitcoin ledger survived, not only because of the system’s distribution, not only because of its clever cryptographic safeguards, but because of the good faith and good sense of individual developers who shepherded the project through its wobbly-legged infancy. Without the sangfroid of Gavin Andresen, who was effectively bitcoin’s sole steward during many of its early moments of crisis, the project might easily have died. Even today, the various forks and growing pains still bedeviling the bitcoin system are providing a kind of stress test. At present (this is just my opinion) the relative untrustworthiness of bitcoin’s core devs, who are thought by many to be strategizing for their own benefit, may be inflicting lasting damage not only to the cause of bitcoin, but also to the promise of blockchain technology in general.

As a separate issue, cryptocurrency speculators ran the risk of getting fleeced, early on, because of the difficulties in (1) creating safe storage, and (2) developing systems for getting ordinary money in and out of cryptocurrency safely. Because of disasters like the theft of around 800,000 bitcoins from the Mt. Gox exchange, which was discovered in 2014, the whole ecosystem of cryptocurrency got kind of a bad rap. The public impression was that bitcoin itself was somehow hacked, when in fact it was the largest exchange that was hacked. Rather like the central Bank of Bangladesh was deprived of $63 milion in its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year.

Saying that “bitcoin is a fraud” because bad actors have ripped people off is exactly like saying “the financial services industry is a fraud” because Jamie Dimon’s company is crooced. Bitcoin was used on the dark web to buy and sell drugs! Well…most hundred-dollar bills bear traces of cocaine, so if you object to hundred-dollar bills on that account, please, send your surplus my way. Does the fact that it’s used in criminal transactions delegitimize cash? No. The truth is that money is tainted in its very nature.

Soon enough, the blockchain system now in use to guarantee bitcoin transactions will morph and meld with other systems, because its value is incalculable. Investors from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road have already invested significant amounts of money, time, and effort in blockchain-based businesses. Everywhere human beings need to know for sure whether or not something really happened, blockchain technology can be programmed to give us incorruptible information about it. Whatever the defects in the system Satoshi Nakamoto launched in 2009 — and they are still substantial — he proved that there really is a way for people to create foolproof, guaranteed records of human transactions, entirely without reliance on outside authorities such as banks or governments. There’s no going back from that.

The fight for stability in any currency is always in the process of being lost, because wherever there is a chance to game or forge a transaction, human nature is such that some will try to cheat. Even the limited and precarious stability we have in developed countries requires vigilance and work on the part of countless principled people, and there’s never certainty. The struggle to preserve the illusion that money is real is never over, and it never can be.