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From Bitcoin Skeptic to Evangelist by Amanda B. Johnson

Bitcoin evangelist, FEE’s director of digital development, and Liberty.me founder Jeffrey Tucker was not always a Bitcoin believer. He initially struggled with how a non-tangible item could possibly qualify as money, much less “sound money.”

But Bitcoin’s persistence as a medium of exchange kept Tucker on a fiery path of research which eventually lead to a crypto-romance that everyone in the libertarian world is familiar with.

Bitcoin.com (BC): What and when was your first experience with Bitcoin?

Jeffrey Tucker (JT): It was 2011 when I first started receiving submissions on Bitcoin, to be published on an economics website. I couldn’t understand the technical details, and I was biased against it. I didn’t believe you could make money from code. So I turned them down. Big mistake.

And that’s where I stood until February 2013. A group of bitcoiners surrounded me and made me an owner. My doubts began to fade. I later spent some Bitcoin online. That experience converted me. Over the following months, I wrote a dozen or so articles on the topic.

I was surprised that I was pretty much alone in my opinions in my neck of the woods. I received a torrent of criticism.

Part of the problem for me intellectually is that while I was convinced Bitcoin was real, I didn’t really have a handle on the source of its value. It took me another year to figure out that puzzle. I’m finally satisfied that I’ve figured it out.

In the early days after actually becoming a Bitcoin owner, I finally had to ask myself whether I would believe my own theories or the evidence of my experience. I went with my experience, and that caused a shift in my own thinking.

I got a hard lesson in humility: markets are indeed smarter than intellectuals.

This is why no one should ever stop looking outside the window and observing the way the world works. Markets are our best teachers.

BC: As an economist, you report that you struggled with the ’moneyness’ aspect of bitcoin for two whole years. Briefly describe the Austrian theory of money, your initial response to Bitcoin’s having value as money, and the eventual conclusion you reached as to why it meets Austrian theories of money.

JT: I had long believed that the only possible money that could enter the world had to grow organically from bartered goods. As I began to reread in the market literature — Menger, Mises, Rothbard, Hayek — I realized that they never said this precisely. What they said is that money emerges from exchange involving goods with use value. It didn’t have to be barter, and it didn’t have to be physical goods. The source of value emerged from people actually using something, and that can be a good or a service.

This is where it clicked for me. The Blockchain has enormous use value.

Once that became obvious, the monetary marker that caused the Blockchain to work — namely Bitcoin — became the expression of that value, and hence money.

Further, I found that all these thinkers had anticipated that moneyness doesn’t happen overnight. It comes about gradually through entrepreneurial experience. Something can work as money in one place but not in another, for some transactions but not for all. This is precisely the experience of Bitcoin. It is following the same path as every other money in history. It is not different in that sense. Bitcoin brings the efficiency of advanced technology to one of the world’s oldest institutions.

BC: In your book Bit by Bit: How P2P is Freeing the World, you describe commercial transactions as literal acts of love. Explain.

JT: Love is the coming together of two people with volition and intention, and the results of love are always greater than the sum of the parts that go into creating it. The value of each is multiplied in the cooperation of spirits.

If one person defects, the love ends. It is the same with trade. We own. We exchange. The results are that each person is better off.

But in order to realize this enhanced state of being, you have to have the volition of each party engaged. That’s when the magic takes place. Even though nothing in the physical world has changed, you enter into a new state of mind where a new level of valuation exists. That’s a very beautiful thing, and the least appreciated merit of an exchange economy.

BC: Some have likened Bitcoin to a gun – a tool that’s just as useful for doing evil as doing good. Do you think this comparison is accurate? Why or why not?

JT: I suppose the same can be said of knives, rope, or bricks. It’s a bit of a trivial point. The main thing is that we need a monetary technology always. And we need one that is keeping up with technological trends.

Our national monies are extremely old fashioned, having been nationalized for 100 years, while our payment systems are half a century out of date. This is unsustainable. Bitcoin has been invented and won’t be uninvented. It is on an inexorable march toward mainstream acceptance.

BC: You seem to agree with Roger Ver that large modern wars have been the direct result of the monopolization of money by central banks. But many disagree that privatized money like Bitcoin will do anything to prevent wars. Why are they wrong?

JT: If Bitcoin is to prevent wars, a number of things need to happen. National monies will have to keep up their near universal use and surrender to cryptocurrencies. I can see this happening, but that future is way down the road. National monies will not entirely disappear of course, not under any scenario. They will always be used for taxes, always be spent by governments.

But reduced circulation of the dollar does make it less effective as a tool for funding large-scale spending programs via inflation. And let me say this too: there is no question that central banking and total war are linked.

BC: Bitcoin is in the larger category of distributed networks, which your book describes in detail. How do you see the world changing in light of the advent of the distributed network?

JT: Distributed networks change so much, perhaps everything. As capital, it is not owned by any one institution, which is amazing. And yet it puts massive economic power into the hands of the individual. The great economic debate really came down to: which is worse, big government or big corporations? That’s a terrible way to frame the debate but we weren’t able to avoid it.

Maybe that won’t be the main question in the future. Maybe the question will be: which is better, universal and distributed capital or centralized institutions of all sorts? We can win this one. It changes the political dynamic. Suddenly everyone has so much to lose from the continuation of monopolization policies.

BC: For those who’d like to understand more of the sound money and property rights theories (i.e. Austrian) as they apply to cryptocurrency, what further reading do you recommend?

JT: I would strongly suggest F.A. Hayek’s “Denationalization of Money” from 1974. I think that’s the best. Satoshi’s White Paper should be reread every few months. Then I would recommend Murray Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money?

This interview is reprinted from Bitcoin.com.

Amanda B.  Johnson
Amanda B. Johnson

Amanda is the writer and kindly host of The Daily Decrypt.

Everyone Is Talking about Bitcoin by Jeffrey A. Tucker

I’m getting a flurry of messages: how do I buy Bitcoin? What’s the best article explaining this stuff? How to answer the critics? (Might try here, here, here, and here.)

Markets can be unpredictable. But the way people talk about markets is all too predictable.

When financial assets go up in price, they become the topic of conversation. When they go way up in price, people feel an itch to buy. When they soar to the moon, people jump in the markets — and ride the price all the way back down.

Then while the assets are out of the news, they disappear from the business pages and only the savviest investors buy. Then they ride the wave up.

This is why smart money wins and dumb money loses.

Bitcoin Bubbles and Busts

It’s been this way for seven years with Bitcoin. When the dollar exchange rate is falling, people get bored or even disgusted. When it is rising, people get interested and excited. The challenge of Bitcoin is to see through the waves of hysteria and despair to take a longer view.

In the end, Bitcoin is not really about the dollar exchange rate. It is about its use as a technology. If Bitcoin were only worth a fraction of a penny, the concept would already be proven. It demonstrates that money can be a digital product, created not by government or central banks but rather through the same kind of ingenuity that has already transformed the world since the advent of the digital age.

When the Bitcoin white paper came out in October 2008, only a few were interested. Five years would pass before discussion of the idea even approached the mainstream. Now we see the world’s largest and most heavily capitalized banks, payment processing companies, and venture capitalists working to incorporate Bitcoin’s distributed ledger into their operations.

In between then and now, we’ve seen wild swings of opinion among the chattering classes. When Bitcoin hit $30 in February 2013, people were screaming that it was a Ponzi-like bubble destined to collapse. I’ve yet to see a single mea culpa post from any of these radical skeptics. It’s interesting how the incessantly wrong slink away, making as little noise as possible.

For the last year, the exchange rate hovered around $250, but because this was down from its high, people lost interest. What is considered low and what is considered high are based not on fundamentals but on the direction of change.

What Is the Right BTC Price?

The recent history of cryptocurrency should have taught this lesson: No one knows the right exchange rate for Bitcoin. That is something to be discovered in the course of market trading. There is no final answer. The progress of technology and the shaping of economic value knows no end.

On its seventh birthday, Bitcoin broke from its hiatus and has spiked to over $350, on its way to $400. And so, of course, it is back in the news. Everyone wants to know the source of the last price run up. There is speculation that it is being driven by demand from China, where bad economic news keeps rolling in. There has also been a new wave of funding for Bitcoin enterprises, plus an awesome cover story in the Economist magazine.

Whatever the reason, this much is increasingly clear: Bitcoin is perhaps the most promising innovation of our lifetimes, one that points to a future of commodified, immutable, and universal information exchange. It could not only revolutionize contracting and titling. It could become a global currency that operates outside the nation state and banking structures as we’ve known them for 500 years. It could break the model of money monopolization that has been in operation for thousands of years.

Technology in Fits and Starts

Those of us in the Bitcoin space, aware of the sheer awesomeness of the technology, can grow impatient, waiting for history to catch up to technical reality. We are daily reminded that technology does not descend on the world on a cloud in its perfected form, ready for use by the consuming public. It arrives in fits and starts, is subjected to trials and improvement, and its applications tested against real world conditions. It passes from hand to hand in succession, with unpredictable winners and losers.

Successful technology does not become socially useful in the laboratory. Market experience combined with entrepreneurial risk are the means by which ideas come to make a difference in the world at large.

Bitcoin was not created in the monetary labs of the Federal Reserve or banks or universities. It emerged from a world of cypherpunks posting on private email lists — people not even using their own names.

In that sense, Bitcoin had every disadvantage: No funding, no status, no official endorsements, no big-name boosters. It has faced an ongoing flogging by bigshots. It’s been regulated and suppressed by governments. It’s been hammered constantly by scammers, laughed at by experts, and denounced by moralists for seven straight years.

And yet, even given all of this, it has persisted solely on its own merits. It is the ultimate “antifragile” technology, growing stronger in the face of every challenge.

What will be the main source of Bitcoin’s breakout into the mainstream? Commentary trends suggest it will be international remittances. It is incredible that moving money across national borders is as difficult and expensive as it is. With Bitcoin, you remove almost all time delays and transaction costs. So it is not surprising that this is a huge potential growth area for Bitcoin.

The Economist takes a different direction. It speculates that Bitcoin technology will be mostly useful as a record-keeping device. It is “a machine for creating trust.”

One idea, for example, is to make cheap, tamper-proof public databases — land registries, say, (Honduras and Greece are interested); or registers of the ownership of luxury goods or works of art. Documents can be notarised by embedding information about them into a public blockchain — and you will no longer need a notary to vouch for them.

Financial-services firms are contemplating using blockchains as a record of who owns what instead of having a series of internal ledgers. A trusted private ledger removes the need for reconciling each transaction with a counterparty, it is fast and it minimises errors.

We Need Bitcoin 

No one knows for sure. What we do know is that we desperately need this as a tool to disintermediate the world, liberating us from the governments that have come to stand between individuals and the realization of their dreams.

In 1974, F.A. Hayek dreamed of a global currency that operated outside governments and central banks. If governments aren’t going to reform money, markets would need to step up and do it themselves. Bitcoin is the most successful experiment in this direction we’ve yet seen.

And that is true whether or not your friends and neighbors are talking about it.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

VIDEO: How Do We Get Rid of the Fed? by Jeffrey A. Tucker

When, if ever, will there be reform of the money system?

Smart people have been urging sound money — and calling for the restraint or abolition of the Federal Reserve System — for a century. It became apparent early on that this new machinery did not serve the cause of science, as promised, but rather the state and its friends.

Something needs to change.

The problem is this: interest groups benefit from the status quo. The largest banks, the top-tier bond dealers, a deeply indebted government, and myriad special interests all benefit from the power to print. They have an investment in discretionary monetary policy and in fiat money.

F.A. Hayek’s thesis in his 1974 essay “The Denationalization of Money” was that liberty won’t be safe as long as the central bank controls money. At the same time, nationalized money will never be reformed, because all the wrong people love the system as it is. Hayek’s solution: total privatization through displacing rather than reforming the Fed.

Still, the cries for reform are growing ever louder and ever more passionate.

As they should.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has emerged as the implausible center for the most important debate in economics and politics today. For 35 years, world central bankers have met there in August to discuss strategies and methods. In the past, they have met alone. This year, their monopoly on ideas was challenged head on.

I saw it as I stepped off the plane into the airport in Jackson Hole. There were the greeters from the Federal Reserve, welcoming dignitaries and big shots. Close by, there were greeters for the people who invited me: sound-money advocates for free markets, many influenced by the supply-side school. Our group was made up of economists, journalists, historians, and other independent intellectuals.

Then there was a third group made up of left-wing activists who want the power to print democratized — inflationists who see the Fed as their magical tool to bring about their dream of an egalitarian utopia.

The Sound Money Camp

The talks at our opposition conference were exceptional — the best two-day conference on gold and sound money I’ve attended. Speaker after speaker chronicled the problems with the Fed. The board of governors meets, and the whole world waits to see whether rates will go higher, lower, or stay the same.

Billions and trillions are held hostage to their whims, purportedly rooted in science but actually based on no more or less knowledge of the future than you and I have.

It is incredible how much our economic structures have become dependent on the whims of this group of unelected monetary dictators. But their main dependent is actually government itself. The Fed stands ready to print all the money government needs in the event of any crisis. That promise itself has meant the elimination of all fiscal discipline.

Politicians talk and talk about restraint, about cutting the budget, about bringing revenue in line with spending. But as long as the Fed is there, it’s all talk. There is no need for authentic discipline. In a strange way, the Fed has usurped even the power of the president and the Congress.

Consider the effects. Without a Fed, the US would have been far less likely to invade Iraq because the government would not have been able or willing to pay for it (at least without politically impossible tax hikes). And without that invasion, there would have been no rise of ISIS and no refugee crisis in Europe today. The crisis is giving both the radical right and left in Europe a huge political boost, displacing not only the establishment but the classical liberals, too.

The spillover effects are endless.

It’s been the same with every war in the last hundred years. They’ve all been underwritten by the power to print.

To see the relationship between the rise of Leviathan and the power of the central bank requires a few steps of logic, and some economic understanding. Even more difficult to comprehend is the relationship between the Fed and economic instability. When the Fed monkeys with interest rates, it distorts investment patterns, diverting resources from rational economic ends toward those with far less merit.

People think of the Fed as the benefactor who saved us from the housing crash. But to get at the truth, look at the history leading up to the crash. What provided the implicit bailout guarantee for the entire banking sector? What incentivized the reckless lending that goosed up housing prices for so long? However you ask the question, the answers point back to the central bank.

The institution that caused the problem cannot also be a reliable fix for the problem.

Can the System Be Reformed?

What reforms? At the conference I attended, there were many ideas, from gold-price rules to full privatization.

Solving the problem from the point of view of economics is not difficult: get rid of central banking.

The real problem is political: how do we get from here to there?

None of the existing presidential contenders are capable to forming two coherent sentences on the topic. In fact, they are more frightened by the subject of monetary policy than they are of the civil war in Iraq. And journalists don’t ask about the subject because their own economic ignorance exceeds even that of the candidates.

My own contribution to this conference was to discuss the innovation of cryptocurrency and bitcoin. Hayek had a glimpse of the possibility that private markets could reinvent money. He speculated that it could happen with the initiative of banks. What he could not have imagined was the invention of a distribution network and an open-source protocol that has no central point of failure. It is “owned” by everyone and no one. It is the basis of a monetary system for the world.

When? Not soon but eventually.

I sat on a panel with the mighty George Gilder, one of the truly prophetic voices over the last three decades. He rightly sees the potential of this technology, and he is super excited about it.

These monetary reformers who organized the event deserve congratulations for understanding the crucial role of digital technology in reforming money. I’m all for the gold standard, but never has the prospect of sensible monetary reform seemed more remote. Meanwhile, the reality of bitcoin is all around us.

Bonus: Here’s an outstanding interview with the author of the best single book on the topic in print today:

Jeffrey A. Tucker
Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

The Most Impossible Thing in “MI: Rogue Nation” by Jeffrey A. Tucker

There’s a scene in “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” that seems entirely plausible. The bad guy is transferring a huge amount of money, something like $1 billion. He has a hand-held device and clicks the button. We see a progress bar. The operation takes only a few seconds and then there is a ding. Done! Wow, impressive.

Surely, this is the way rich, powerful, well-connected people do it.

Actually, this is the most impossible thing that happens in the movie. It is more impossible than holding one’s breath for 3 minutes, more impossible than hanging onto the side of an airplane as it takes off and lands, and more impossible than riding a motorcycle at 120 miles an hour around curvy Moroccan roads and not crashing.

It can’t be done — not with any existing service. Viewers hardly question that it should be possible to move money that quickly. Sadly, it is not. Our money transmission technologies in real life are like the 1950s.

The only way to do what they did would be the use of a technology invented in 2009 but is still in extremely limited use, for now: cryptocurrency like Bitcoin operating on a distributed ledger. Otherwise, you are going to have to wait several weekdays, pay high fees, or have a trusted (credit-based) relationship with some third-party provider.

There is currently no way, using national money, to move a billion dollars from one person to another instantly. You can’t do it with a million dollars. There are better and worse ways to move thousands of dollars, but they all cost money, all require a trust relationship, and all take time. And there is no way to do this peer to peer using even $1 (except, of course, physically handing you a piece of paper in person).

National Currencies Limit Transfer Choice

Consider the most common way of moving money from me to you. It is ACH, which stands for Automated Clearing House. It moves a total of $40 trillion per year in 25 billion transactions, and is increasingly preferred over credit cards. It seems clean and, once you have verified accounts, works without a credit relationship.

However, it is slow. It takes at least one day and as much as four days, not including weekends. If you push on Thursday, the funds might not be there until Tuesday. It’s also expensive: 1-3%, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize you can get a nice car for how much it costs to move $1 million.

ACH is the most advanced, most common, most direct, most reliable method. And it is still terrible. It’s closely related to wiring money — an ancient method that uses Western Union (founded 1851!) or Moneygram (the new name for Travelers Express founded in 1940). These are very expensive services, though they are very fast.

PayPal is a mixed bag. If you have a balance or have it directly linked to your bank account, there are no fees, though there is a transaction limit of $10,000. If you are using a credit or debit card, the fees can be 3%. And the clearing time can be 3-4 business days, though if you have a balance in your account, the transfer is instant. This doesn’t really mean anything, though, because it takes 3-4 days to make the PayPal balance achieve liquidity outside of PayPal. If you are using it internationally, the fees go through the roof, regardless.

Other services improve on this record. Google Wallet is one of the best. It’s been known to be fast when it is linked up to your bank account. But you can’t know for sure. It could take several days. And there are strict limits to the amount to you can move. If you have more than $50,000 to send in a week, you are completely out of luck.

It is the same with Square Cash, except that this service absolutely requires a debit card hook up. It is mercifully free of fees, but you have to wait 30 days before your account is verified, and, until that time, you are limited to moving $1,000.

There is a fancy new application on Facebook that allows you to move limited amounts of money, and it is wonderful and exciting.

Except: it can take three to four days before your money movies via instant messaging. And Facebook doesn’t permit credit cards, debit cards, or other third-party payment systems.

SnapChat is experimenting with something similar.

There are many other services that are desperately trying to resolve the problem. Think of companies like Dwolla, which started in 2008 with such promise. But this company, just like PayPal and everyone else, bumped into a crazy system of regulations that forced compliance with every form of “know your customer” rules and navigating a highly regulated banking system with a money that is ultimately controlled by government and, therefore, moves digitally only according to its diktat.

Risks of Anachronistic Systems

Another big flaw is that any one of these trusted third parties can reverse, freeze, or seize the transaction funds and there’s nothing anyone can do to avoid this risk. For a billion dollar transfer, the risk of seizure, freezing, or reversal would be enormous and would last for months.

It’s not a surprise that innovation is difficult under these conditions. We can get ever fancier interfaces, ever more accessibility, ever friendlier ways of going about things. All of this is great.

But, in the end, transferring money from one person to the next bumps into the same problems: trust, fees, waiting times, dollar limits, and grave problems with international transfers. Each problem has a slightly different source. But they all add up to the weird reality that doing what would seem completely normal in 2015 — moving money instantly from here to there — is still exceedingly difficult.

How much further are we going to get into the digital age before our monetary and payment systems catch up? There is a crying need. Everyone knows it. This is why so many people are excited about Bitcoin.

Bitcoin blows up the current system through several critically new innovations. It combines a money and payment system into one single process, bypassing national monies altogether. It also bypasses the banking system completely through a ledger system that is open source and monitored through software. It also requires no trust, credit, or identity verification. If you have an Internet connection, and you hold some amounts of the currency, you can move that property from you to anyone else in the world without asking anyone’s permission.

The time for transaction processing is almost instant; the transaction clearing time can be several minutes. Compare that clearing time to 1-3 days for equity markets, 3-5 business days for a check or wire transfer, and 60-90 days for a credit card transaction.

The costs associated with moving cryptocurrency are negligible. For example, in December 2014, there was an $81 million transaction that cost just $0.40 to conduct. That compares to the $2.4 million or so this same transaction would cost using conventional payments systems and national monies.

This is a huge benefit of Bitcoin but only one feature of a larger innovation. Cryptocurrency completely rethinks the way we bundle, title, move, and verify all kinds of information. The potential applications for this technology are awesome to consider. It’s not just about money, though that would be significant enough. The spillovers affected titling, securities, and all forms of contracts.

The headlines over Bitcoin today are all about the fallout from the failure of one firm, Mt. Gox, an early mover in the space that mishandled its business. It’s just another in a long series of blows Bitcoin has endured in the 6 years of its existence. And yet, when you look at it today, you see an innovation that has been tested, survived, and thrived.

Bitcoin is Mission Impossible — an innovation that finally moves money into the 21st century — coming true.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Is Politics Obsolete? How People Outpace Politicians by Max Borders and Jeffrey A. Tucker

Hillary Clinton talks of cracking down on the gig economy. Donald Trump speaks of telling American corporations where they can and can’t do business abroad. Bernie Sanders says we have too many deodorant choices. They all speak about immigrants as if it were 1863.

What the heck are these people talking about?

More and more, that’s the response many people have to the current-day political speeches and rhetoric. It’s a hotly contested election, somewhat like 2008, but this time around, public engagement is low, reports Pew.

That’s no surprise, really. Whether it’s the leftists, the rightists, or everyone in between, all of these politicians seem to be blathering about a world gone by — one that has little to do with the 21st century. If they’re not tapping into people’s baser instincts of fear and nativism, they’re dusting off 20th-century talking points about creating “good jobs.”

Maybe there was a time when the political culture seemed to keep up with the pace of innovation. If so, those times are long gone. The rhetoric of electoral politics is exposing the great rift in civic life.

The tools we use every day, the technologies we love, the way we engage each other, the means by which our lives are improving are a consequences of innovation, markets, community, and globalization — that is, by the interactions of free people. Not by politics. And not by the systems politics creates.

The political election is a tired old ritual in which we send our hopes and dreams away to distant capitals. Why do we outsource them to politicians, lobbyists, and bureaucrats: people who are trapped in a system that rewards the worst in people? What’s left of governance is logrolling, spectacle, and unwanted interference in the lives of everyone else.

Politicians seem more concerned with putting the genie of innovation and entrepreneurship back in the bottle than doing anything meaningful. After the election, we try our best to ignore them and get on with life.

Politicians seem more concerned with putting the genie of innovation and entrepreneurship back in the bottle than doing anything meaningful.

In 2012, US voters reelected Barack Obama, and now we’re gearing up to elect someone else. Candidates will talk about their visions and their wonderful plans for the country. But in the last three years, virtually none of the incredible, beautiful upheaval we’ve seen has had anything to do with the presidency or with anyone politician’s plans.

In fact, when you think about what government has done for us in recent years, only one new program comes to mind: Obamacare. Opinions vary on whether that program has been deeply disappointing or an unmitigated disaster.

Now, take a step back and observe the evolution of commercial society and how it is bringing us unprecedented bounty. The digital sector of emergent, market-generated, people-driven, technology-fueled innovation is fulfilling human aspirations and spreading useful services to people in all walks of life. National borders seem ever more arbitrary. Surprises await us around every corner. Our political systems can claim credit for none of it.

And yet, we are once again being asked to turn to politicians to drive progress.

Consider how much our lives and technologies have changed since the last presidential election. Smartphone ownership has gone from 300 million to 2 billion, meaning that most of the population of the developed world — and large parts of the rest — now have access to a wireless supercomputer in their pockets. As a result, we are more in touch than ever.

There are now dozens of ways for anyone to keep in contact with anyone else through text messaging and video, and most of the services are free. Transportation in cities has fundamentally changed due to ridesharing and app-based systems that are outcompeting municipal taxis. Traditional travel lodging has been disrupted through mobile applications that turn every empty room into a hotel, and finding permanent lodging is easier than ever. You can find the ratings for any service or establishment instantly with a click or a tap, long before you purchase. You can feasibly shop for and buy a house without ever having stepped inside of it.

Cryptocurrency is becoming a viable alternative to national monies, and payment systems on distributed networks are being customized for peer-to-peer exchanges of property titles.

The mass distribution and availability of mobile applications with maps means that you are never lost, and, moreover, that you can be intensely aware of everything around you, wherever you are or wherever you are planning to be. Extended families that are spread out over large geographic regions can stay constantly in touch, chatting and playing games.

The way we help our neighbors and communities is improving. We can contribute to charitable causes with just a click. We are closer to our neighbors and their needs — whether it’s a missing cat, a call for a handyman, or childcare for Saturday night. We can be on the lookout after a break-in and share video of the perpetrators instantly.

The way we consume music has fundamentally changed. We once bought CDs. Then we downloaded particular tracks and albums. With Internet everywhere, we now stream a seemingly endless variety of genres. The switch between classical and indie rock requires only a touch. And it’s not just new music we can access, but vast archives and recreations of music dating to antiquity. Instantly.

Software packages that once cost thousands are now low-cost downloadable apps. Many of us live in the cloud now, so that no one’s life is ruined by a computer crash. Lost hardware can be found with built-in tracers — even stealing computers is harder than ever.

Where we work no longer matters as much. 4G LTE means a powerful Internet connection wherever you are, and WiFi on airlines means staying in touch even while above the clouds. Online document signing means total portability and the end of the physical world for most business transactions. You can share almost anything — whether grocery lists or whole writing projects — with anyone and work in real time. More people than ever work from home because they can.

News is now crowdsourced through Twitter and Facebook — or through mostly silly sites like BuzzFeed. There are thousands of competitors, so that we can know what we want to know wherever we are. Once there was only “national news”; now a news event has to be pretty epic to qualify, and much of the news that we are interested in never even makes old-line newspapers.

Edward Snowden revealed ubiquitous surveillance, escaped prosecution, and now, thanks to technology, has been on a worldwide speaking tour, becoming the globe’s most famous public intellectual. This is despite his having been censored and effectively exiled by the world’s biggest and most powerful state. He has a great story to tell, and that story is more powerful than any of the big shots who want him to shut up.

Pot has been effectively legalized in many American cities, and the temperature on the war against it has dropped dramatically. When dispensaries are raided, the news flies all over the Internet within minutes, creating outrage and bringing the heat down on the one-time masters of the universe. There is now a political risk to participating in the war on pot — something unthinkable even 10 years ago. And as police continue to abuse their power, citizens are waiting with cameras.

Oil prices have collapsed, revealing the fallacy of peak oil. This happened despite pressure in the opposite direction from every special interest, from environmentalists to the oil industry itself. The reason was again technological. We discovered better and cheaper ways of drilling, and, in so doing, exposed vastly more resources than anyone thought accessible.

At the very time when oil and gas seemed untouchable, we suddenly saw electric cars becoming viable options. This was not due to government mandates — regulators tried those for years — but due to some serious innovation on the part of one remarkable company. It’s not even the subsidies, such as they are, that are making the difference; it’s the fine-tuning of the machine itself. Tesla even took it a step further and released its patents into the commons, allowing innovation to spread at a market-based pace.

We are now printing houses in one day, vaping instead of smoking, legally purchasing pharmaceuticals abroad, using drones to deliver consumer products, and enjoying one-day delivery of just about everything.

In the last four years, the ebook became a mass consumer item, outselling the physical book and readable on devices within the budget of just about everyone. And despite attempts to keep books offline, just about anything is now available for download, putting all the world’s great literature, in all major languages, at our fingertips.

Here we go again, playing “let’s pretend” and electing leaders under the old-fashioned presumption that it is politics that improves the world and drives history forward.

And speaking of languages, we now have instant access to translation programs that allow us to email and even text with anyone in a way he or she can understand regardless of language. It’s an awesome thing to consider that this final barrier to universal harmony, once seen as insuperable, is in the process of melting away.

These are all ways in which the world has been improved through markets, creativity, and free association. And yet, here we go again, playing “let’s pretend” and electing leaders under the old-fashioned presumption that it is politics that improves the world and drives history forward.

Look around: progress is everywhere. And it is not because we are electing the “right people.” Progress occurs despite politics and politicians, not because of them.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Who Is Building the Private, Peer-to-Peer Marketplace? An Interview with Sam Patterson

Sam Patterson (sam@samuelrpatterson.com) is an author and technology enthusiast from Virginia. He has written about decentralized technologies such as bitcoin and OpenBazaar. Sam recently cofounded a company called OB1 to help build the decentralized marketplace OpenBazaar.

The Freeman: Your project, OpenBazaar, has been awarded $1 million in seed funding so far. Congratulations. What is it, and what does it do?

Patterson: OpenBazaar is an open source project to create a decentralized marketplace online where anyone in the world can buy or sell any goods or services with anyone else in the world, for free, using bitcoin. A few of the core project members (including myself) recently started a company called OB1, which received the funding in order to hire full-time developers and make OpenBazaar a reality.

Online commerce today is mostly centralized; companies own websites where users visit to buy and sell things. Those companies charge fees, monitor their users’ data, and censor their transactions based on their own rules and on behalf of the government.

OpenBazaar is different. Instead of relying on a centralized third party, trades occur directly between buyers and sellers. Users install peer-to-peer software on their computers, similar to bitcoin or BitTorrent, and this connects them to other users running the same software. They transact in bitcoin. Since there’s no middleman, there are no fees, no collection of data, and no censorship of trade.

The Freeman: Some people will object to OpenBazaar by saying it’s not transparent — that it will help criminals thrive. How do you answer such charges?

Patterson: Some have inaccurately labeled us as an evolved Silk Road — an underground drug marketplace. This is absolutely false, for many reasons. The Silk Road was centralized and run by a small group for profit. It catered to a specific group of people who traded in illicit goods.

In contrast, OpenBazaar is a decentralized marketplace, not run for profit. It doesn’t cater to any group, or any type of trade, but is open for all users to buy and sell anything they want with each other. It’s a much bigger vision than these narrow dark markets.

We expect that use of OpenBazaar will reflect markets in society. There will be some users who engage in activity that is morally or legally objectionable, but the vast majority of users will be engaging in positive and constructive trade. We don’t know exactly how people will use OpenBazaar to better their lives, but we believe that it will, and we can’t wait to see it happen.

The Freeman: What are the implications of this kind of technology for the world’s poorest people?

Patterson: Most of the existing centralized market platforms that I mentioned earlier don’t focus on the developing world, or even if they do, the payment methods used aren’t accessible for many of the world’s poor. Bitcoin requires no credit checks to use; an Internet connection and computer are all that’s needed. OpenBazaar is the same as bitcoin in this sense. It costs nothing to join and use, and the trade is direct between buyers and sellers; there are no middlemen to take a cut. We hope that by lowering the barriers to entry for online trade, OpenBazaar and bitcoin will bring millions of new users into the online economy.

The Freeman: What are the implications of this kind of technology for most of our readers — that is, wealthier Westerners?

Patterson: Establishing a protocol, client, and network for people to directly engage in trade with each other allows for more efficient transactions. Sellers on eBay who use PayPal regularly pay up to 10 percent fees on each sale. Those are 0 percent on OpenBazaar.

OpenBazaar is also more private. Instead of the centralized platforms getting all the information about your buying or selling habits, now that information is only available to the parties you directly engage with.

Also, if some of your readers are already bitcoin users, OpenBazaar is the first decentralized platform for them to spend their decentralized money. Many value decentralized technology simply because it takes power away from the gatekeepers in our world.

The Freeman: How do you market OpenBazaar? How do you build culture around it?

Patterson: We haven’t needed to market OpenBazaar so far. The bitcoin community is very excited to see it built. Once we look to go beyond bitcoin users and into the broader e-commerce space, then we’ll need to consider how to market ourselves. Likely, it will be around the lack of fees, which is compelling to retailers who have small margins.

Our culture is one that supports free trade and voluntary interactions in society. The ability to engage in trade directly with someone in person is a great thing, and it’s a shame that hasn’t been possible online — until now.

The Freeman: How flexible, robust, and “anti-fragile” is this system — especially with respect to predatory states who will likely try to foil its development?

Patterson: OpenBazaar is very robust, similar in design to bitcoin or BitTorrent. Because it’s run locally on users’ computers, there’s no central point of failure to attack. We don’t anticipate that OpenBazaar will face opposition from governments any more than other online platforms have; they have the same tools at their disposal to go after individual storeowners. But they cannot take down the whole system at once, unlike the existing platforms.

The Freeman: When will OpenBazaar be ready to use?

Patterson: We plan on publishing the first full release in November this year. The code is open source so developers can view it any time at our Github.

The Freeman: Thank you for speaking with us, Sam.


The Freeman

The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.

Paul Krugman Is Clueless about Bitcoin by Max Borders

In this video clip, Paul Krugman demonstrates once again that prizes don’t make you an expert on everything. Indeed, his poor prognostications happen so frequently that one wonders if Krugman is an expert on anything. I don’t say that to be unpleasant. If you’re going on TV and enjoying a lavish lifestyle by pretending to know what you’re talking about, shouldn’t you be held to a higher standard?

Let’s pass over for a moment how woefully wrong Krugman was about the Internet. What about the internet of money?

Krugman first says: “At this point bitcoin is not looking too good.”

It is true that investment often follows the Gartner hype cycle. So bitcoin has indeed fallen from great heights and is probably just now making its ascent out of the “trough of disillusionment.”

But so what? There is nothing inherently wrong with bitcoin. In fact, some very savvy, patient people are building an unbelievable set of technologies within and around the blockchain. And if you believe Gartner, most really interesting tech goes through this cycle.

Let’s look back at the Internet. When the dotcom bubble and subsequent burst looked like this:

Do we conclude that because in 2002 the Internet wasn’t “looking so good” that TCP/IP was not viable? That would have been a very short-sighted thing to say, particularly about a system that is a robust “dumb network“ like the internet.

Bitcoin is also a dumb network. But don’t let the “dumb” part fool you, says bitcoin expert Andreas Andronopoulos. “So the dumb network becomes a platform for independent innovation, without permission, at the edge. The result is an incredible range of innovations, carried out at an even more incredible pace. People interested in even the tiniest of niche applications can create them on the edge.”

Then Krugman goes on to ask, “Why does a piece of paper with a dead president on it have value?” Answering his own question he says “Because other people think it has value.”

And this is not untrue. But the problem with this line of thinking is — subjective value notwithstanding — the value of money is also contingent. You might say the value of fiat money is too contingent — especially upon political whims, upon the limited knowledge of the folks at the Federal Reserve, and upon the fact that its unit of account is no longer anything scarce, such as gold.

By contrast, bitcoin has standard of scarcity programmed into it. So, bitcoin is in limited supply, thanks to a sophisticated algorithm.

In a fully decentralized monetary system, there is no central authority that regulates the monetary base. Instead, currency is created by the nodes of a peer-to-peer network. The bitcoin generation algorithm defines, in advance, how currency can be created and at what rate. Any currency that is generated by a malicious user that does not follow the rules will be rejected by the network and thus is worthless. (To learn more about this algorithm, visit “Currency with a Finite Supply.”)

Perhaps you don’t trust this algorithm. Certainly Paul Krugman does not. That’s okay, because digital currencies compete, so you can find one you do trust. One crypto currency is backed by gold and funnily enough, it’s called “the Hayek” after the Nobel laureate who wrote about competing private currencies.

Now, what shall we make of the magic of the dollar? Krugman says it is “the fact that you can use it to pay taxes.” That’s sort of like saying that the Internet works because of eFile. Let’s just assume Krugman was kidding.

But Krugman thinks, without irony, that bitcoin “levitates.” That is to say, he’s okay with the idea that the dollar has value because other people value it, but he’s not okay with the idea that bitcoin has value because other people value it, which is a rather curious thing to say in the same two-minute stretch. He goes on to argue that bitcoin is built on libertarian ideology, and that it doesn’t do anything that digitizing the dollar hasn’t done.

And that’s when we realize that Krugman doesn’t have any earthly clue about bitcoin.

But Freeman columnist Andreas Antonopoulos does:

Open-source currencies have another layer that multiplies these underlying effects: the currency itself. Not only is the investment in infrastructure and innovation shared by all, but the shared benefit may also manifest in increased value for the common currency.

Currency is the quintessential shared good, because its value correlates strongly to the economic activity that it enables. In simple terms, a currency is valuable because many people use it, and the more who use it, the more valuable it becomes.

Unlike national currencies, which are generally restricted to use within a country’s borders, digital currencies like bitcoin are global and can therefore be readily adopted and used by almost any user who is part of the networked global society.

What Krugman also fails to appreciate is that bitcoin and the bitcoin network is disintermediated. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s direct and peer-to-peer. This elimination of the mediating institutions — banks, governments, and credit card companies — means bitcoin transactions are far, far cheaper. But that also means these institutions could be far less powerful over time. And that’s precisely why it’s being adopted most quickly by the world’s poorest people and countries with hyperinflation.

Hey, look, I understand. In many ways, Krugman is a twentieth-century mind. Keynesian. Unhealthy obsession with aggregates and dirigisme. He believes in big central solutions to problems that robust, decentralized systems are far better equipped to tackle. And he’s not terribly plugged into tech innovation. In fact, here’s that well-played Internet quote in case you forgot:

The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law” — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other!

By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.

To grok the power decentralization, you have to have a twenty-first century mind.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Money Will Be Digital — But Will It Be Free? by Andreas M. Antonopoulos

Bitcoin offers a glimpse into the future of money — a purely digital form of money that is individual, private, global, and free (free as in speech, not as in beer). Bitcoin is often compared with the existing banking system, juxtaposing its futuristic capabilities with the slow, antiquated, and cumbersome world of wire transfers, checks, “banking hours,” and restrictions.

But the future will not be a choice between “old money” and cryptocurrency. Instead, it will be a choice between two competing visions of digital money: one based on freedom and choice, the other based on control and surveillance, a dystopian totalitarian system of control from which no one can escape.

We are now at the crossroads, and we must choose the future of currency wisely.

Cash, checks, and other forms of tangible money have been gradually disappearing for decades. We are now rapidly moving toward a cashless society where all money is purely digital. In the past, cash payments were expected and preferred; credit transactions were suspect. But as we turned into a debt-based society, cash became the oddity. The inscription “for all debts public and private” no longer rings as true. Today, if you try to buy a car with cash, you’ll be treated with extreme suspicion. Large amounts of cash are now associated with criminal activity and the definition of “large” is getting smaller each day. This is how we arrive at a cashless society: by making cash itself suspect, then criminal.

The transition from cash to digital money is not just a change in form. It is a transition from transactions that are private, person-to-person, and decentralized to transactions that are monitored, intermediated, and under centralized control. In the last two decades, digital payments have become a powerful surveillance tool. Citizens who are concerned about their government monitoring their telephone calls are simultaneously oblivious to the fact that every transaction they make with a plastic card or an online payment network can be scrutinized without suspicion of a crime, without warrants or any form of judicial oversight. Most national governments, under the guise of counterterrorism laws, have empowered their law enforcement and intelligence agencies with unfettered access to financial data. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that these powers are used far more broadly every day, increasingly removed from the originally stated intent.

What a strange world we now live in. Total surveillance of every citizen’s transactions, without any basis or suspicion, is not just normal but presented as a virtue, a form of patriotism. Using cash or wishing to retain your financial privacy is inherently suspect, a radical position, soon to be a crime.

A future where all payments are trackable is terrifying, but a world with centralized control over transactions would be even worse. Digital currency with centralized control means the eradication of property as a right. Instead, your money exists only as a database entry where the balance is controlled entirely by a third party.

By managing the payment networks, a government has effective control over all participants, including banks, corporations, and individuals. Already, banks are extorted into adopting global financial blacklists for fear of being disconnected from networks like the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) and Automated Clearing House (ACH). This web of control is expanding and is used more and more frequently as a weapon of geopolitics.

The future of digital central currencies will make this control entirely individualized and easy to target. Attended the “wrong” protest? Your bank balance is now zero. Bought a suspicious book? Expect a visit from the police. Annoyed someone in power? They can trawl through your transactions until they find something juicy enough to leak.

Your movements can be tracked, your friends identified, your political affiliations analyzed and cross-correlated to your reading habits. No part of your life is private when every form of money is digital and every transaction can be tracked, blocked, seized, and deleted. Your life savings are yours only as long as you don’t offend someone in power. When money is centrally controlled, ownership of anything is a privilege the government can revoke. Property is not an inalienable right, but an advantage afforded to the those who acquiesce to the system. Combining surveillance of communications with complete control over money will result in tyranny the likes of which the world has never known.

Totalitarian surveillance of money is toxic to democratic institutions, and the power of surveillance erodes the social contract and corrupts those in power. There cannot be self-determination, freedom of expression, freedom of association, or freedom of conscience in a society where every penny you spend is monitored and controlled.

Even if you believe that your government is benevolent and will only use these extreme powers against “terrorists,” you will always live one election away from losing your freedoms. Even the supposedly benevolent governments in liberal democracies are already using their power over money to harass journalists and political opponents, while allowing their friendly bankers to finance tyrants, warlords, and militias across the world.

Bitcoin offers a fundamentally different future for currency. Bitcoin is digital cash; its transactions are person-to-person, private, and decentralized. It combines the best features of cash with the convenience, speed, and flexibility of a digital medium.

Bitcoin enables an alternative future of personal freedom and privacy that revokes the surveillance-state developments of the last few decades and reintroduces financial emancipation through the power of mathematics and cryptography. Through its decentralized global network, Bitcoin provides no central point to control, no position of power to enable censorship, no ability to seize or freeze funds through a third party without due process, no control over funds without access to keys.

Lacking a center of control, bitcoin resists centralization. Lacking concentration of power, it resists totalitarian domination. Lacking identifiers, bitcoin promotes privacy and makes total surveillance impossible. Disregarding political borders as network-irrelevant, it eschews nationalism and geopolitical games. Dispersing power, it empowers individuals.

Bitcoin is a protocol of free commerce, just as the Internet’s transmission control protocol/Internet protocol, or TCP/IP, is a protocol of free speech. Bitcoin’s design can be replicated to create myriad forms of decentralized money, all superior to the dystopian future we are otherwise headed for.

We can live in a world where money operates like any other medium on the Internet, free from control or interference. In a decentralized digital future, money will be controlled by individuals, banking will be an “app,” and governments will be as powerless to stop the flow of money as today they are powerless to stop the flow of truth.

In this future, money will be a tool of freedom from tyranny, an escape hatch from corrupt banks, a haven from hyperinflation. Four to six billion people without access to international financial services will be able to leapfrog the banking system and connect to the world economy directly. Individuals will not have to choose between directly controlling their own money and participating in a global financial network. They will enjoy global peer-to-peer finance, where trusted third parties and endless lines of bankers and intermediaries are things of the past.

While the future of currency is undoubtedly digital, it can take two radically different forms. We can live in a financial panopticon, a straitjacket of surveillance and tyranny. Or we can live in an open society where our privacy is protected by cryptography, not subject to the whim of every petty bureaucrat — where our digital money is global, borderless, anonymous, and controlled by the individual. The choice between financial freedom and financial tyranny is a choice between fundamental freedom and tyranny. Choose financial freedom: choose freedom.


Andreas M. Antonopoulos

Andreas M. Antonopoulos is a technologist and serial entrepreneur who advises companies on the use of technology and decentralized digital currencies such as bitcoin.

Greeks Prepare to Be Pillaged by Jeffrey A. Tucker

In the world of banking, a “holiday” means you can’t get your money. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen that happen in any developed world economy, but that is exactly what the Greek government is doing, starting now, to stop a massive bank run.

Greece owes the International Monetary Fund a payment of $1.5 billion, due tomorrow, from the last time the government was bailed out. But, of course, governments can’t make wealth, and the money didn’t just magically materialize. They have to beg, borrow, and steal to get it, and Greece has finally found those limits.

Athens had hoped that it could once against tap the European Commission. But drained and fed up, other governments refused to extend yet another loan to Greece unless they agreed to reform their bloated and corrupt welfare state.

Unfortunately for Greeks, the ruling coalition in Greece swept into power in January on the platform of stopping “austerity” and rolling back budget cuts. They balked at the EU’s (and especially Germany’s) conditions for the next round of bailout money.

As a result, Athens has really and truly run out of money, and they will default on their debts starting tomorrow — and the European Central Bank has said it will cut off emergency credit to Greek banks if the government fails to pay its debts.

The news that no deal would be reached sent bank depositors into a panic, and thousands have been lined up at ATMs all over the country since Friday.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that he was closing all banks for at least a week as a way to stem the tide. Many ATMs are empty; the rest, by government order, will only dispense €60 per person per day. The government is now imposing capital controls to stop cash from leaving the country.

One thing needs to be said about this frantic authoritarian approach: It never works. Bank closings add to the atmosphere of panic. They are often followed by an announcement that the government is going to devalue or outright steal people’s money. Whatever trust remains in the system is drained away along with the value of the currency.

But there’s another factor in play, for the first time. People are looking at Bitcoin as a way to store and move money.

There is now a Bitcoin ATM in Athens that is reportedly doing a brisk business. Redditors are sharing tips. And, of course, the exchange rate of Bitcoin is on the move again.

This past week, I was out of touch of the news entirely because I was at the New Hampshire liberty retreat, Porcfest. There you can buy almost anything with Bitcoin, so I was checking the price often. I noticed the upward price pressure, and I had an intuition that something serious was happening.

Sure enough, this morning I was awakened by a call from Russia Today. They wanted me on a two-hour segment today to talk about the meltdown in Greece. I turned them down because I haven’t followed it closely enough (though that doesn’t usually stop most commentators!).

But when I looked into it, I suddenly understood: Sure enough, Bitcoin is on the move for a reason.

Many price watchers are predicting another spike in the exchange rate if Greece actually defaults and leaves the euro. Maybe, maybe not. It actually doesn’t matter. The exchange rate can be anything; it doesn’t affect the utility of having access to a global currency and payment system that is outside regional banking systems — one that can’t be closed, controlled, confiscated, or devalued at the whim of desperate regimes.

Cryptocurrency is here to stay. It is the world’s new safe haven, displacing the role that gold once played. The reasons are rather obvious: Bitcoin is more liquid than gold. It takes up no space, weighs nothing, and is more secure. Once you are an owner, nothing can take away what you own — and you don’t have to rely on a third party such as a gold warehouse or a bank (or a government) to take care of your money.

Given all of this, there is supreme irony in the announcement made by the Greek central bank last year that consumers should be wary of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is vastly more safe and reliable than any national currency, including the euro and the dollar.

There is no government anywhere that would decline to shut the banks if their ruling class feared financial meltdown. That’s what’s happening in Greece. That could happen in any European country, and it could happen (and has happened) in the United States, too.

In the end, government regards itself as the ultimate owner of all a nation’s currency and the wealth it carries.

It’s wise to have another option, and people have long known that. The question is: What is that option? Today, not for the first time, and not for the last, Bitcoin is here to save the day.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.

Driverless Money by George Selgin

Last week I was contemplating a post having to do with driverless cars when, wouldn’t you know it, I received word that the Bank of England had just started a new blog called Bank Underground, and the first substantive post on it had to do with — you guessed it — driverless cars.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried that Bank Underground had stolen my fire. The post, you see, was written by some employees in the Bank of England’s General Insurance Supervision Division, whose concern was that driverless cars might be bad news for the insurance industry.

The problem, as the Bank of England’s experts see it, is that cars like the ones that Google plans to introduce in 2020 are much better drivers than we humans happen to be — so much better, according to research cited in the post, that “the entire basis of motor insurance, which mainly exists because people crash, could … be upended.”

Driverless cars, therefore, threaten to “wipe out traditional motor insurance.”

It is, of course, a great relief to know that the Bank of England’s experts are keeping a sharp eye out for such threats to the insurance industry. (I suppose they must be working as we speak on some plan for addressing the dire possibility — let us hope it never comes to this — that cancer and other diseases will eventually be eradicated.)

But my own interest in driverless cars is rather different. So far as I’m concerned, the advent of such cars should have us all wondering, not about the future of the insurance industry, but about the future of…the Bank of England, or rather of it and all other central banks.

If driverless cars can upend “the entire basis of motor insurance,” then surely, I should think, an automatic or “driverless” monetary system ought to be capable of upending “the entire basis of monetary policy,” as such policy is presently conducted.

And that, so far as I’m concerned, would be a jolly good thing.

Am I drifting into science fiction? Let’s put matters in perspective. Although experiments involving driverless or “autonomous” cars have been going on for decades, until as recently as one decade ago, the suggestion that such cars would soon be, not only safe enough to replace conventional ones, but far safer, would have struck many people as fantastic.

Consider for a moment the vast array of contingencies such a vehicle must be capable of taking into account in order to avoid accidents and get passengers to some desired destination. Besides having to determine correct routes, follow their many twists and turns, obey traffic signals, and parallel park, they have to be capable of evading all sorts of unpredictable hazards, including other errant vehicles, not to mention jaywalkers and such.

The relevant variables are, in fact, innumerable. Yet using a combination of devices tech wizards have managed to overcome almost every hurdle, and will soon have overcome the few that remain.

All of this would be impressive enough even if human beings were excellent drivers. In fact, they are often very poor drivers indeed, which means that driverless cars are capable, not only of being just as good, but of being far better —  90 percent better, to be precise, since that’s the percentage of all car accidents attributable to human error.

Human beings are bad drivers for all sorts of reasons. They have to perform other tasks that take their mind off the road; their vision is sometimes impaired; they misjudge their own driving capabilities or the workings of their machines; some are sometimes inclined to show off, while others are dangerously timid. Occasionally, instead of relying on their wits, they drive “under the influence.”

Central bankers, being human, suffer from similar human foibles. They are distracted by the back-seat ululations of commercial bankers, exporters, finance ministers, and union leaders, among others. Their vision is at the same time both cloudy and subject to myopia.

Finally, few if any are able to escape altogether the disorienting influence of politics. The history of central banking is, by and large, a history of accidents, if not of tragic accidents, stemming from these and other sorts of human error.

It should not be so difficult, then, to imagine that a “driverless” monetary system might spare humanity such accidents, by guiding monetary policy more responsibly than human beings are capable of doing.

How complicated a challenge is this? Is it really more complicated than that involved in, say, driving from San Francisco to New York? Central bankers themselves like to think so, of course — just as most of us still like to believe that we are better drivers than any computer.

But let’s be reasonable. At bottom central bankers, in their monetary policy deliberations, have to make a decision concerning one thing, and one thing only: should they acquire or sell assets, and how many, or should they do neither?

Unlike a car, which has numerous controls — a steering wheel, signal lights, brakes, and an accelerator — a central bank has basically one, consisting of the instrument with which it adjusts the rate at which assets flow into or out of its balance sheet. Pretty simple.

And the flow itself? Here, to be sure, things get more complicated. What “target” should the central bank have in mind in determining the flow? Should it consist of a single variable, like the inflation rate, or of two or more variables, like inflation and unemployment? But the apparent complexity is, in my humble opinion, a result of confusion on monetary economists’ part, rather than of any genuine trade-offs central bankers face.

As Scott Sumner has been indefatigably arguing for some years now (and as I myself have long maintained), sound monetary policy isn’t a matter of having either a constant rate of inflation or any particular level of either employment or real output. It’s a matter of securing a stable flow of spending, or Nominal GNP, while leaving it to the marketplace to determine how that flow breaks down into separate real output and inflation-rate components.

Scott would have NGDP grow at an annual rate of 4-5 percent; I would be more comfortable with a rate of 2-3 percent. But this number is far less important to the achievement of macroeconomic stability than a commitment to keeping the rate — whatever it happens to be — stable and, therefore, predictable.

So: one goal, and one control. That’s much simpler than driving from San Francisco to New York. Heck, it’s simpler than managing the twists and turns of San Franscisco’s Lombard Street.

And the technology? In principle, one could program a computer to manage the necessary asset purchases or sales. That idea itself is an old one, Milton Friedman having contemplated it almost forty years ago, when computers were still relatively rare.

What Friedman could not have imagined then was a protocol like the one that controls the supply of bitcoins, which has the distinct advantage of being, not only automatic, but tamper-proof: once set going, no-one can easily alter it. The advantage of a bitcoin-style driverless monetary system is that it is, not only capable of steering itself, but incapable of being hijacked.

The bitcoin protocol itself allows the stock of bitcoins to grow at a predetermined and ever-diminishing rate, so that the stock of bitcoins will cease to grow as it approaches a limit of 21 million coins.

But all sorts of protocols may be possible, including ones that would adjust a currency’s supply growth according to its velocity — that is, the rate at which the currency is being spent — so as to maintain a steady flow of spending, à la Sumner. The growth rate could even be made to depend on market-based indicators of the likely future value of NGDP.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any challenges yet to be overcome in designing a reliable “driverless money.” For one thing, the monetary system as a whole has to be functioning properly: just as a driverless car won’t work if the steering linkage is broken, a driverless monetary system won’t work if it’s so badly tuned that banks end up just sitting on any fresh reserves that come their way.

My point is rather that there’s no good reason for supposing that such challenges are any more insuperable than those against which the designers of driverless cars have prevailed. If driverless car technology has managed to take on San Francisco’s Lombard Street, I see no reason why driverless money technology couldn’t eventually tackle London’s.

What’s more, there is every reason to believe that driverless money would, if given a chance, prove to be far more beneficial to mankind than driverless cars ever will.

For although bad drivers cause plenty of accidents, none has yet managed to wreck an entire economy, as reckless central bankers have sometimes done. If driverless monetary systems merely served to avoid the worst macroeconomic pileups, that alone would be reason enough to favor them.

But they can surely do much better than that. Who knows: perhaps the day will come when, thanks to improvements in driverless monetary technology, central bankers will find themselves with nothing better to do than worry about the future of the hedge fund industry.

Cross-posted from Alt-M.org and Cato.org.

George Selgin

Inside the Mind of the Man Who Could Be Bitcoin’s Creator by Max Borders

In political science terms medieval Iceland has been called an “anarchy,” but it is more realistic to describe it as a very peer-to-peer kind of government. — Nick Szabo

Many observers think Nick Szabo is the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, creator of Bitcoin. Szabo, you see, is a coding wizard who had already created an earlier digital currency called “bitgold.” Could bitgold have been a practice run?

What’s more interesting is that Szabo has written extensively on the history of law. In particular, he writes about Anglo-Saxon emergent law, which collided eventually with the “master-servant” law of Justinian’s Rome. And Szabo argues that what we have today in the United States is but the shrinking vestige of common law operating within a growing body of Byzantine statutes.

All this might sound esoteric, but it has profound implications for cryptocurrencies, smart contracts, digital property titles, dispute resolution, and other potential applications of the blockchain at the heart of bitcoin — especially if Szabo is, in fact, the developer who set about writing source code for peer-to-peer law.

Szabo wrote in 2006,

Here’s my paper on private jurisdiction in English history. Franchise jurisdiction played a crucial but unheralded role in the history of English law and politics. Some private jurisdictions existed in Anglo-Saxon times but they grew in importance in the Norman and Angevin periods, and in the corporate form remained an important part of the British Empire until the 20th century.

A franchise, such as a corporation, a jurisdiction, or a right to collect certain tolls or taxes, was a kind of property: an “incorporeal hereditament.” English property law was very flexible; as a result franchise jurisdictions came in a wide variety of forms.

One can see how Szabo would have appreciated that flexibility as a developer.

Of course, some of these aspects of the common law (law by many) are still with us, but they have been overtaken in many quarters by edict (law by one) or especially by statute (law by few).

So what happened?

The Anglo-Norman legal idea of jurisdiction as property and peer-to-peer government clashed with ideas derived from the Roman Empire, via the text of Justinian’s legal code and its elaboration in European universities, of sovereignty and totalitarian rule via a master-servant or delegation hierarchy. By the 20th century, the Roman idea of hierarchical jurisdiction had largely won, especially in political science where government is often defined on neo-Roman terms as “sovereign” and “a monopoly of force.”

Indeed, as I wrote in “The End of Politics,”

Once-great empires soon grew up amid the detritus of war. The clan-king became a god-king. The administration of empire required more layers of hierarchy, which meant delegating power to satraps and governors. The emperor would issue commands to subordinates and those commands would be carried out by those on down the chains of command. Patronage relationships became the norm. The order of man lording power over man took on religious dimensions. Values such as loyalty, honor, obedience, and patriotism firmed up the hierarchy, and without such values, the structure could be weakened either from internal dissent or from better organized enemies.

Hierarchy became more elaborate over time as each layer was added, and hierarchy persisted, apparently, as humanity’s dominant social technology.

This militaristic law is so ingrained in our understanding now that it’s difficult for most of us to imagine life outside of it. Our understanding is of wise stewards minding the upper echelons of statecraft, while the rest of us team and hustle in the relatively peaceful interstices the regulatory state provides for us. It’s hard to conceive of alternative forms of governance and law doing better, and when people drop the A word with respect to these alternative forms, people can’t get past their own connotations.

Most of us have been thoroughly inculcated with this Hobbesian rationale. For example, just in debates among classical liberals, there are those convinced that persistent peace requires a final arbiter — one whose final word quashes conflict and whose law is made absolute through enforcement. And when it comes to alternatives, our failure of imagination has given rise to some of the most predatory regimes in history. As Szabo writes,

Our experience with totalitarianism of the 19th and 20th centuries, inspired and enabled by the Roman-derived procedural law and accompanying political structure (and including Napoleon, the Csars, the Kaisers, Communist despots, the Fascists, and the National Socialists), as well as the rise of vast and often oppressive bureaucracies in the “democratic” countries, should cause us to reconsider our commitment to government via master-servant (in modern terms, employer-employee) hierarchy, which is much better suited to military organization than to legal organization.

Indeed, we should reconsider our unreflective commitment to such hierarchies, because law and society are not only possible without them, but could be more robust, peaceful, and prosperous without them. But how do we move beyond those hierarchies?

The person who designed the basic protocols of the blockchain understood the power of “dumb networks” as opposed to Byzantine codes. As Szabo writes,

Fortunately, franchise jurisdiction has left permanent influences on modern governments, including on the republican form of government in general and the United States Constitution, federalism, and procedural rights in particular. It also left a record of a wide variety of forms of law and government that can provide us with alternatives to the vast employee hierarchies wielding coercive powers that have given rise to modern oppression.

Likewise, the inventor of bitcoin is helping us imagine a different sort of world. I wrote the following in part two of “The End of Politics”:

The architecture of the Web has already shown the world what’s possible in terms of upgrading our democratic operating system (DOS). This is true both in the sense that our new social technologies are like our online technologies, and in the sense that our online technologies enable new social technologies to emerge. Little platoons are already emerging on the spine of the blockchain, for example. And just as Lyft and Uber are showing taxi cartels how it’s done (or as Kickstarter is showing the NEA how it’s done, or as Bitcoin is showing the Federal Reserve how it’s done) new parallel governance structures will soon show State hierarchies around the world how it’s done.

What might the world look like when this process is further along? It’s hard to predict. But the network architectures show the way.

All of this was my rather roundabout way of saying that we’re already weaving together new law and using it, without permission.

Echoing legal scholar Bruce Benson’s Enterprise of Law, writer and venture fund manager Michael Gibson leaves us with an even brighter glimpse of the future in “The Nakamoto Consensus”:

It turns out there’s only one thing that guarantees production of good laws. The people bound by the laws have to agree to be bound by them. Not hypothetically or tacitly, as in some imaginary will of the people or behind a veil of ignorance. Consent must be real, transparent, and continuous. No law can bind a single person unless that person consents to be bound by that law. All laws must be strictly opt in. Lawmakers could be saints, devils or monkeys on typewriters — doesn’t matter. The opt out–opt in system lets only good laws survive. Bad laws are driven out of production.

Bad laws can only inflict harm and destroy wealth up to the cost to opt out of them. We can underthrow the state one contract at a time.

This single insight — articulated so well by Gibson — is what surely informed Nick Szabo and inspired Satoshi Nakamoto.

But if the “underthrow“ of Leviathan lies ahead, it will be thanks not only to encryption technology but also to understanding the beauty, flexibility, and robustness of emergent law. Smaller jurisdictions created by forking the code or by allowing people to vote with their boats are enough to reduce the costs of exit.

Szabo writes,

The overall goal of Juristopia is to improve the most important functions of government (especially defense and the abatement of public nuisances) while preventing the corruption, oppression, war, genocide, and other abuses that have so often come with police powers and taxation. Those evils have been particularly prone to occur when those powers are bundled into a locus of sovereignty, a la the personal totalitarianism of the Justinian Code, Bodin, and Hobbes or the parliamentary totalitarianism of Bagehot. These traditions of legal procedure, assuming political relationships are a matter of delegation rather than of property, have given us almost all of the worst in Western history: the Caesars, the Tsars, Napoleon, the Kaisers, the communist dictators, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler among others — based on the profoundly false and destructive assumption, derived from the legal procedure of the Roman Empire, that there must be “one person” who is “responsible” for all politics and law — a person or (for Bagehot) small organization sitting at the top of a vast pyramid of principal-agent, usually boss-employee, relationships.

Although it discards totalitarian political structure and legal procedure, our proposed form of government is based on historically proven legal mechanisms. With the clarity of legal procedure it avoids the vague nonsense that often passes for political philosophy. Much of the political structure of Juristopia is based on highly evolved common law mechanisms such as property and contract, but these are used in the same basic manner as in the common law, rather than as misleading analogies or mere labels.

Let’s hope this process unfolds before the hierarchies grow too authoritarian in response.

Whether Nick Szabo is Satoshi Nakamoto I cannot say. But at the very least, Szabo was part of a community from which Nakamoto drew knowledge and inspiration. And that community was built on great ideas that are finally being given expression in ones and zeros.


Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Rome: Money, Mischief, and Minted Crises by Marc Hyden & Lawrence W. Reed

Ancient Rome wasn’t built in a day, the old adage goes. It wasn’t torn down in a day either, but a good measure of its long decline to oblivion was the government’s bad habit of chipping away at the value of its own currency.

In this essay we refer to “inflation,” but in its classical sense — an increase in the supply of money in excess of the demand for money. The modern-day subversion of the term to mean rising prices, which are one key effect of inflation but not the inflation itself, only confuses the matter and points away from the real culprit, the powers in charge of the money supply.

In Rome’s day, before the invention of the printing press, money was gold and silver coin. When Roman emperors needed revenue, they did more than just tax a lot; like most governments today, they also debased the money. Think of the major difference between Federal Reserve inflation and ancient Roman inflation this way: We print, they mint(ed). The long-term effects were the same—higher prices, erosion of savings and confidence, booms and busts, and more. Here’s the Roman story.

Augustus (reigned 27 BC – 14 AD), Rome’s first real emperor, worked to establish a standardized system of coinage for the empire, building off of the Roman Republic’s policies. The silver denarius became the “link coin” to which other baser and fractional coins could be exchanged and measured. Augustus set the weight of the denarius at 84 coins to the pound and around 98 percent silver. Coins, which had only been sporadically used to pay for state expenditures in the earlier Republic, became the currency for everyday citizens and accepted as payment for commerce and even taxation in the later Republic and into the imperial period.

Historian Max Shapiro, in his 1980 book, The Penniless Billionaires, pieces various sources together to conclude that “the volume of money he (Augustus) issued in the two decades between 27 BC and 6 AD was more than ten times the amount issued by his predecessors in the twenty years before.” The easy money stimulated a temporary boom, leading inevitably to price hikes and eventual retrenchment. Wheat and pork prices doubled, real estate rose at first by more than 150 percent. When money creation was slowed (late in Augustus’s reign and even more for a time under that of his successor, Tiberius), the house of cards came tumbling down. Prices stabilized but at the cost of recession and unemployment.

The integrity of the monetary system would remain intact until the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD). He is better known for murdering his mother, preferring the arts to civic administration, and persecuting the Christians, but he was also the first to debase the standard set by Augustus. By 64 AD, he drained the Roman reserves because of the Great Fire of Rome and his profligate spending (including a gaudy palace). He reduced the weight of the denarius to 96 coins per pound and its silver content to 93 percent, which was the first debasement of this magnitude in over 250 years. This led to inflation and temporarily shook the confidence of the Roman citizenry.

Many successive emperors incrementally lowered the denarius’s silver content until the philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180 AD), further debased the denarius to 79 percent silver to pay for constant wars and increased expenses. This was the most impure standard set for the denarius up to this point in Roman history, but the trend would continue. Aurelius’ son Commodus(reigned 177-192 AD), a gladiatorial wannabe, was likewise a spendthrift. He followed the footsteps of his forebears and reduced the denarius to 104 coins to the pound and only 74 percent silver.

Every debasement pushed prices higher and gradually chipped away at the public faith in the Roman monetary system. The degradation of the money and increased minting of coins provided short-term relief for the state until merchants, legionaries, and market forces realized what had happened. Under Emperor Septimius Severus’ administration (reigned 193-211 AD), more soldiers began demanding bonuses to be paid in gold or in commodities to circumvent the increasingly diminished denarius. Severus’ son, Caracalla (reigned 198-217 AD), while remembered for his bloody massacres, killing his brother, and being assassinated while relieving himself, advanced the policy of debasement until he lowered the denarius to nearly 50 percent silver to pay for the Roman war machine and his grand building projects.

Other emperors, including Pertinax and Macrinus, attempted to put Rome back on solid footing by increasing the silver content or by reforming the system, but often when one emperor improved the denarius, a competitor would outbid them for the army’s loyalty, destroying any progress and often replacing the emperor. Eventually, the sun set on the silver denarius as Rome’s youngest sole emperor, Gordian III (238-244 AD), essentially replaced it with its competitor, the antoninianus.

However, by the reign of the barbarian-born Emperor Claudius II (reigned 268-270 AD), remembered for his military prowess and punching a horse’s teeth out, the antoninianus was reduced to a lighter coin that was less than two percent silver. The aurelianianus eventually replaced the antoninianus, and the nummus replaced the aurelianianus. By 341 AD, Emperor Constans I (reigned 337-350 AD) diminished the nummus to only 0.4 percent silver and 196 coins per pound. The Roman monetary system had long crashed and price inflation had been spiraling out of control for generations.

Attempts were made to create new coins similar to the Neronian standard in smaller quantities and to devise a new monetary system, but the public confidence was shattered. Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 AD) is widely known for conducting the largest Roman persecution of Christians, but he also reformed the military, government, and monetary system. He expanded and standardized a program, the annona militaris, which essentially bypassed the state currency. Many Romans were now taxed and legionaries paid in-kind (with commodities).

Increasingly, Romans bartered in the marketplace instead of exchanging state coins. Some communities even created a “ghost currency,” a nonexistent medium to accurately describe the cost and worth of a product because of runaway inflation and the volatility of worthless money. Diocletian approved a policy which led to the gold standard replacing the silver standard. This process progressed into the reign of Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine (reigned 306-337 AD), until Roman currency began to temporarily resemble stability.

But Diocletian did something else, and it yielded widespread ruin from which the Empire never fully recovered. In the year 301 AD, to combat the soaring hyperinflation in prices, he issued his famous “Edict of 301,” which imposed comprehensive wage and price controls under penalty of death. The system of production, already assaulted by confiscatory taxes and harsh regulations as well as the derangement of the currency, collapsed. When a successor abandoned the controls a decade or so later, the Roman economy was in tatters.

The two largest expenditures in the Roman Empire were the army, which peaked at between 300,000-600,000 soldiers, and subsidized grain for around 1/3 of the city of Rome. The empire’s costs gradually increased over time as did the need for bribing political enemies, granting donatives to appease the army, purchasing allies through tributes, and the extravagance of Roman emperors. Revenues declined in part because many mines were exhausted, wars brought less booty into the empire, and farming decreased due to barbarian incursions, wars, and increased taxation. To meet these demands Roman leaders repeatedly debased the silver coins, increasingly minted more money, and raised taxes at the same time.

In a period of about 370 years, the denarius and its successors were debased incrementally from 98 percent to less than one percent silver. The massive spending of the welfare/warfare state exacted a terrible toll in the name of either “helping” Romans or making war on non-Romans. Financial and military crises mixed with poor leadership, expediency, and a clear misunderstanding of economic principles led to the destruction Rome’s monetary system.

Honest and transparent policies could have saved the Romans from centuries of economic hardships. The question future historians will answer when they look back on our period is, “What did the Americans learn from the Roman experience?”

(For more on lessons from ancient Rome, visit www.fee.org/rome).

Marc Hyden is a political activist and an amateur Roman historian. Lawrence W. Reed is President of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Marc Hyden

Marc Hyden is a conservative political activist and an amateur Roman historian.

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

Bitcoin Truly “Disrupts” Argentina

Bitcoin is supposed to be the latest disruptive technology. But whenever you hear someone use the buzzword “disruptive,” turn on your B.S. detector. Sure, technologies can be vaguely transformative, and that’s fine as far as it goes.

But the original concept of disruptive innovation is narrower. This term of art came from Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen, who meant something very specific.

“Disruptive innovation,” according to Christensen, “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up-market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

Remember, that’s the “bottom” of a market, and by that, Christensen means not wealthy. (This distinguishes a disruptive tech from other transformative innovations, like computers and cell phones, which started at the top.) And the not-wealthy can sometimes be desperate to escape to a better system.

When it comes to Bitcoin, even the New York Times Magazine has figured this out:

Bitcoin proponents like to say that the currency first became popular in the places that needed it least, like Europe and the United States, given how smoothly the currencies and financial services work there.

It makes sense that a place like Argentina would be fertile ground for a virtual currency. Inflation is constant: At the end of 2014, for example, the peso was worth 25 percent less than it was at the beginning of the year. And that adversity pales in comparison with past bouts of hyperinflation, defaults on national debts and currency revaluations.

Less than half of the population use Argentine banks and credit cards. Even wealthy Argentines fear keeping their money in the country’s banks.

And the disruption is already happening: “Argentina has been quietly gaining renown in technology circles as the first, and almost only, place where Bitcoins are being regularly used by ordinary people for real commercial transactions.”

That satisfies the bottom of the market criterion. Whether it’s Argentines struggling with hyperinflation, or sub-Saharan Africans living under dictators and warlords, the developing world is likely to embrace bitcoin simply because it’s so much better than the failed banking and currency systems they’ve been locked in for so long.

“There are an estimated 2 billion ‘unbanked’ in the world,” says Bitnation CEO Susanne Tarkowski Templehof, “who don’t have access to global financial markets. To set up a bank account is difficult and expensive. Just like the developing world have leapfrogged in many other technologies, like mobile, etc., they’re likely to leapfrog in when it comes to financial technologies, as well — why shouldn’t they?”

Why shouldn’t they, indeed?

The beauty of the market process is that its gales of creative destruction almost always leave the world better off. And nowhere is it more important than for the people of the world who are longing for a chance at the freedom to build a better life for themselves.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

How Far Can the P2P Revolution Go? Will the sharing economy replace the State? by Jeffrey A. Tucker

How far can the peer-to-peer revolution be pushed? It’s time we start to speculate, because history is moving fast. We need to dislodge from our minds our embedded sense of what’s possible.

Right now, we can experience a form of commercial relationship that was unknown just a decade ago. If you need a ride in a major city, you can pull up the smartphone app for Uber or Lyft and have a car arrive in minutes. It’s amazing to users because they get their first taste of what consumer service in taxis really feels like. It’s luxury at a reasonable price.

If your sink is leaking, you can click TaskRabbit. If you need a place to stay, you can count on Airbnb. In Manhattan, you can depend on WunWun to deliver just about anything to your door, from toothpaste to a new desktop computer. If you have a skill and need a job, or need to hire someone, you can go to oDesk or eLance and post a job you can do or a job you need done. If you grow food or make great local dishes, you can post at a place like credibles.co and find a prepaid customer base.

These are the technologies of the peer-to-peer or sharing economy. You can be a producer, a consumer, or both. It’s a different model — one characterized by the word “equipotency,” meaning that the power to buy and sell is widely distributed throughout the population. It’s made possible through technology.

The emergence of the app economy — an emergent order not created by government or legislation — has enabled these developments, and they are changing the world.

These technologies are not temporary. They cannot and will not be uninvented. On the contrary, they will continue to develop and expand in both sophistication and in geographic relevance. This is what happens when technology is especially useful. Whether it is the horseshoe of the Middle Ages or the distributed networks of our time, when an innovation so dramatically improves our lives, it changes the course of history. This is what is happening in our time.

The applications of these P2P networks are enormously surprising. The biggest surprise in my own lifetime is how they have been employed to make payment systems P2P — no longer based on third-party trust — through what’s called the blockchain. The blockchain can commodify and title any bundle of information and make it transferable, with timestamps, in a way that cannot be forged, all at nearly zero cost.

An offshoot of blockchain-distributed technology has been the invention of a private currency. For half a century, it has been a dream of theorists who saw that taking money out of government hands would do more for prosperity and peace than any single other step.

The theorists dreamed, but they didn’t have the tools. They hadn’t been invented yet. Now that the tools exist, the result is bitcoin, which gives rise to the hope that we have the makings of a new international currency managed entirely by the private sector and the global market system.

These new P2P systems have connected the world like never before. They hold out the prospect of unleashing unprecedented human energy and the creativity that comes with it. They give billions of people a chance to integrate themselves into the worldwide division of labor from which they have thus far been excluded.

With 3-D printing and computer-aided design files distributed on digital networks, more people have access to become their own manufacturers. These same people can be designers and distribute the results to the world. Such a system cuts out every barrier that stands between people and their material aspirations — barriers such as product regulation, patents, and excise taxes.

It’s time that we begin to expect the unexpected. What else is possible?

Entrepreneurs are already experimenting with an Uber model of delivering some form of health care online. In some areas, they will bring a nurse to you to give you a flu shot. Other health services are on the way, causing some to speculate on the return to at-home medical visits paid out of pocket (rather than via insurance).

What does this innovation do for centralist solutions like Obamacare? It changes the entire dynamic of service provision. The medical establishment is already protesting that this consumer-based, one-off service approach runs contrary to primary and preventive care — a critique that fails to consider that there is no reason why P2P technology can’t provide such care.

How much can things change? To what extent will they affect the structure of our political lives? This is where matters get really interesting. A feature of P2P is the gradual elimination of third parties as agents who stand between individuals and their desire to cooperate one to one. We use such third parties because we believe we need them. Credit card companies serve a need. Banks serve a need. Large-scale corporations serve a need.

One theory holds that the State exists to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It’s the ultimate third-party provider. We elect people to serve as our representatives, and they bring our voices to the business of government so that we can get the services we want. That’s the idea, anyway.

But once government gets the power to do things, it expands its power in the interest of the ruling elite. The taxicab monopoly was no more necessary than the government postal service, but the growth of P2P technology has increasingly exposed the reality of how unnecessary the State as a third-party mediator really is. The post office is being pushed into obsolescence. It’s hard to see how the municipal taxi monopoly can survive a competitive contest with P2P technology systems.

Policing is an example of a service that people think is absolutely necessary. The old perception is that government needs to provide this service because most people cannot do it for themselves. But what if policing, too, could employ P2P technology?

What if, when there is a threat, whether to you or to others, you could open an app on your phone and call the private police immediately? You can imagine how such a technology could learn to filter out static and discern threat level based on algorithms and immediately supplied video evidence. We already see the first attempts in this direction with the Peacekeeper app.

Rather than a tax-funded system that has become a threat to the innocent as much as the guilty, we would have a system rooted in consumer service. It might be similar to the private security systems used by all businesses today, except it would apply to individuals. It would survive not through taxation but subscription — voluntary and noncoercive.

How much further can we take this? Can courts and laws themselves be ported to the online world, using the blockchain for verifying contracts, managing conflicts, and even issuing securities? The large retailerOverstock.com is experimenting with this idea — not for ideological reasons but simply because such systems work better.

And here we find the most compelling case for optimism for the cause of human liberty. These technologies are emerging from within the private sector, not from government. They work better to serve human needs than the public-sector alternative. Their use and their growth depend not on ideological conversion but on their capacity to serve universal human needs.

The ground really is shifting beneath our feet, despite all odds. It is still an age of leviathan. But based on technology and the incredible creativity of entrepreneurs, that leviathan no longer seems like a permanent feature of the world.

20121129_JeffreyTuckeravatarABOUT JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Jeffrey Tucker is a distinguished fellow at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events.

Sending Money Home: Technology or Bureaucracy? by Iain Murray

Remittances are helping poor people globally, but regulators loom.

Some of the world’s poorest people depend on the money they receive from relatives working in developed countries. In fact, this money dwarfs the world’s official foreign aid budget, and the gap is increasing.

In 2011, total private flows of aid totaled $680 billion—almost five times the $138 billion official figure. As I noted in 2005, “the future of aid to developing countries is private.”

This increase in private aid is great news for all concerned. Except, perhaps, for bureaucrats, who are loath to let good deeds go unpunished. World Bank and United Nations bean counters are denouncing remittance transfer fees as exploitative. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued a rule to crack down on supposed fraud and exploitation affecting the existing remittance-transfer infrastructure. Its most important provision is the right to cancel a money transfer within 30 minutes of its being initiated. Proposals to cap the fee charged by remittance firms have also been agreed to internationally.

Critics claim that high transfer fees are the result of a so-called market failure. Yet, markets in remittances are frequently overregulated. Many African governments have exclusive deals with money transfer companies, which operate as national monopolies, free from competitive discipline. And there are other regulatory pitfalls that drive up prices. A Western Union spokesman told The Guardian

Our pricing varies between countries depending on a number of factors, such as consumer protection costs, local remittance taxes, market distribution, regulatory structure, volume, currency volatility and other market efficiencies. These factors can impact the fees and foreign exchange rates offered by corridor and service type.

All this suggests the remittance market needs less regulation. Proper competition, lower taxes, less restrictive “consumer protection” measures (which quickly become outdated), and less red tape in general would all likely increase the flow of funds between individuals.

Such a solution would be inconceivable for global bureaucrats. Indeed, their house organ, The New York Times, last week recommended that the industry should be not only nationalized, but internationalized, with the World Bank taking on the role of remittance service provider, a role the Times actually described as “critical”:

The World Bank could pool deposits from banks and nonbank money transfer agents and parcel them to recipient banks, using its formidable certification protocols to verify that the money is coming from and going to legitimate parties. Such pooling could also reduce exchange fees, a big cost to migrants. Equally important, the World Bank could use its relationships with regulators around the world to enhance the remittance system’s integrity.

Technology is already solving many of the problems faced by the money transfer industry, making the industry obsolete in the process. For example, in the central Asian republic Kyrgyzstan, which relies heavily on remittances—accounting for 31 percent of its GDP, mostly from within the former Soviet Union—an Italian entrepreneur named Emanuele Costa is able to promote bitcoin as an alternative to the expensive, heavily regulated money transfer firms. 

Costa can do this because Kyrgyzstan is notably less oppressive and more free-market-oriented than its neighbors, and it has much less regulation than is typical in the area. He regularly hosts meetups to explain the currency to potential recipients and has installed a bitcoin ATM at a pizzeria (which, as Eurasianet notes, has been “bombarded with calls” since it publicized its existence).

In Kenya, meanwhile, a bitcoin startup called BitPesa offers money transfers “twice as fast and 75% cheaper” than traditional competitors. Kenya is an especially interesting place for this innovation to happen, as it was the scene of a “cell phone revolution” that allowed its telecommunications market to work around a serious case of government failure. As a result, most Kenyans now use a form of mobile wallet on their cell phones.

The potential for bitcoin to revolutionize the global remittance industry is hard to overstate. It largely cuts out the middleman, reducing the fees and charges some view as exploitative. Converting to local currency would be the most significant charge for most users. Bitcoin facilitates the establishment of trust through its “blockchain” public ledger, potentially reducing fraudulent transfers to near zero (although there is always the chance of someone stealing a wallet key). Taxes, at the moment, are minimal. 

For these reasons, bitcoin represents the best hope to ensure that all of the $680 billion in remittances goes to the people who need it. That might be why in America, bitcoin is most popular among Hispanics, who send more money abroad than any other group.

Yet, roadblocks remain. If Kyrgyzstan joins Moscow’s customs union as expected, bitcoin’s days may be numbered there, as Russian officials have taken a dim view of anonymous payment vehicles. Meanwhile, in the UK, where many Kenyan remittance senders live and work, banks are wary of taking bitcoin businesses on as clients. As BitPesa’s founder told The Guardian:

Most UK banks won’t let Bitcoin businesses open bank accounts. These businesses want to be licensed, but UK banks shy away, just like Barclays cut Somalia off the map. 

British banks are highly regulated and probably fearful of what regulators might do to them if they did business with companies that present “reputational risk”—as defined by regulators, of course.

In the United States, the CFPB rule mentioned above could threaten to make bitcoin illegal for remittance purposes. The average time for a Bitcoin transaction to go through is around eight minutes, and reversing a transaction is impossible unless an escrow service is used. It is possible that the rule may not apply to a decentralized network like bitcoin, but in its short existence, the CFPB has not become known for reading its powers narrowly.

Regulators could wind up killing off the solution to problems created by, well, regulators. If they are serious about reducing costs and decreasing the potential for fraud in remittances, they will stand aside and let bitcoin develop in this role. If the choice is between a distributed, autonomous cryptocurrency network approved by the people who need the remittances most, or a combination of policies approved by The New York Times, the World Bank, and international regulators, Public Choice economics suggests that the technological option faces a long struggle ahead.

ABOUT IAIN MURRAY

Iain Murray is vice president at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is courtesy of FEE and Shutterstock.