Bitcoin is a fantasy. The Internet’s currency—a secure, private, decentralized type of money that makes possible anonymous and virtually costless transactions across borders—contains the seeds of its own destruction. More than anything else, it resembles a Ponzi scheme—and the wild claims made on its behalf reveal a great deal about a libertarian strain of thinking with deep roots in the American psyche.
As Farhad Manjoo relates in his entertaining (but dubious) foray into the market, bitcoin is the brainchild of a person (or persons) called Satoshi Nakamoto. Computer users can “mine” bitcoins by instructing their computers to solve complex problems generated by the bitcoin network. As more bitcoins are produced, the problems become more complex, requiring more computer power to solve them, and this limits the total number of bitcoins that can be created over time. Bitcoins are themselves simply strings of numbers. Once you own a bitcoin, you can transfer it to someone else (as a gift or to purchase goods) over the Internet. You can also convert it into dollars or other currencies on various exchanges. The Bitcoin network keeps track of where the bitcoins are located, so you cannot spend a single bitcoin over and over again by trying to transmit the identical code.*
The currency was launched in 2009. It has traded for less than 1 cent. As recently as a year ago, a bitcoin was worth less than $5; this week the price of a bitcoin reached $266, an increase of more than 1,000 percent over the last three months, but then yesterday plunged to $105 before finishing off at $165 last I looked. More than 11 million bitcoins circulate, and so their aggregate value is fluctuating between $1 and $2 billion—a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars in currency but not bad for the infant brainchild of an anonymous brain.
Bitcoin may be useful for certain types of transactions, especially illegal ones. But bitcoin’s defenders argue that the experiment has proved that a currency can come into existence and function without any government role, so designed as to make inflation impossible and bank transfer fees unnecessary. These features are supposed to make bitcoins irresistible for consumers. Meanwhile, stripped of the power to manipulate currencies to advance nefarious ends, governments will collapse, and we will live in an anarcho-utopia.
This is wrong, both theory and experience tell us. Bitcoin is not the first unregulated or private currency. Until central banks were invented in the 17th century, the money supply was unregulated even if governments did stamp coins. Other unregulated or private currencies have emerged from time to time—think of cigarettes in prison camps. Gold, silver, bank notes, and all kinds of other things have played similar roles. Paul Krugman wrote a famous Slate piece about a private currency that was invented to facilitate the exchange of services in a baby-sitting co-op.
Felix Salmon and many others have pointed out that a currency cannot succeed with a supply that is fixed, or if it grows too slowly. A currency is used to enter transactions; the more transactions there are, the more of the money you need. As the economy grows, a fixed-supply currency becomes worth more in terms of goods and services, and people begin to hoard it—expecting that if they wait a little longer, they will be able to buy more. Once hoarding takes over, circulation ends, and with it the function of the currency. Hoarding accounts for the large increase in the value of bitcoins; hoarding also sank Krugman’s baby-sitting scrip.
An even more fundamental problem with bitcoins, and indeed any private currency, is that there is no way to limit its supply. True, bitcoins cannot be manufactured beyond the limits set by Nakamoto. But there is no way to prevent future Nakamotos from creating bitcoin substitutes—say, bytecoin, or botcoin. If merchants are willing to accept bitcoins, they will be willing to accept the substitutes, especially as bitcoins become scarce and consumers scramble for substitutes. Nakamoto must have realized this because there are not enough bitcoins to substitute for the currencies around the world. The currency can only succeed if it is expanded or supplemented. But if there are no constraints on substitute digital currencies—and there aren’t—then the value of bitcoins will plummet as the subs begin to circulate. And once it becomes clear that there is no limit, people will realize that their holdings could become worthless at any moment, and demand for bitcoins and the other currencies will collapse, ending the experiment.
Unless a bitcoin has value as a currency, it has no value at all, and its price in dollars will fall to zero. A regular Ponzi scheme collapses when people realize that earlier investors are being paid out of the investments of later investors rather than from the returns on an underlying asset. Bitcoin will collapse when people realize that it can’t survive as a currency because of its built-in deflationary features, or because of the emergence of bytecoins, or both. A real Ponzi scheme takes fraud; bitcoin, by contrast, seems more like a collective delusion.
Given this, why all the enthusiasm for bitcoin? Partly, the technological ingenuity of the scheme, of course. And people have misinterpreted the run-up in price as a sign of success rather than failure. But more fundamentally, bitcoin unites futuristic left-wing Internet anarchism—the fantasy that the Web can provide the conditions for a governmentless society—with the cave-dwelling right-wing libertarianism of goldbugs who think a stable money supply can be established without government involvement. It is proof for both that government is not needed for much, or at all.
Yet history shows that private currencies always end in tears; if central banks sometimes abuse the trust we place in them, the alternatives are worse. The strangest feature of the bitcoin saga is that people who are so suspicious of government put their trust in Satoshi Nakamoto, who could be anyone, or anyones—eccentric academic researchers, mischievous Fed economists, DARPA, U.N. globalizers in black helicopters, a criminal syndicate, a bored 11-year-old Ukrainian genius. If Nakamoto is as amoral as he is ingenious, then he pocketed the early bitcoins and laughed himself to the bank.
Update, April 12, 2013: This sentence was revised to clarify how bitcoins are tracked. (Return to the revised sentence.)