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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.

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.

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.

Real Hero James U. Blanchard: You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down by Lawrence W. Reed

Great movements are marked by the dedication and accomplishments of steadfast individuals who make the most of every moment, every opportunity, and every available resource. When those great men and women pass from the scene, they leave behind untold numbers of friends and followers who derive comfort from their memory and inspiration from their deeds.

Such a man was James U. Blanchard III, who died on March 20, 1999, at the age of 56.

The causes to which he devoted ceaseless energy and with which his name will always be associated are liberty and sound money. Jim knew that neither is long safe without the other. Few American entrepreneurs in the second half of the 20th century did as much as he did to promote them both. The opening sentence of his family’s formal notice of his passing summed him up well: “James U. Blanchard III was a man who accomplished much against great odds and changed more people’s lives than he ever knew.”

I was privileged to know Jim Blanchard for the last 15 years of his life. For two years, I served as chief economist for his firm. I spoke at many of his conferences. I traveled with him to Brazil, Nicaragua, and Kenya. Though many others knew him better, it didn’t take much acquaintance with him for anyone to marvel at what a man in a wheelchair can get done if he puts his mind to it.

Jim was nearly killed in a tragic automobile accident at the age of 17 and was unable thereafter to walk. But if anything, his handicap only spurred him on.

Not once did I hear Jim bemoan his physical plight. If he talked about it at all, it was to relate how sitting in a wheelchair gave him time to read. In his 20s, he read voraciously. Introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand by a medical student friend, he became an unabashed defender of laissez-faire capitalism. Rand’s influence on Jim is perhaps best exemplified by the name he gave his oldest son: Anthem. Jim also became a devoted reader of the Freeman and of books by FEE’s founder, Leonard Read.

In 1974, Gerald Ford signed a bill that restored the right of Americans to own gold. The real hero of that moment was Jim Blanchard, who had formed the National Committee to Legalize Gold in 1971 and spearheaded a nationwide grassroots campaign. He knew that governments don’t like gold because they can’t print it. He saw gold ownership as a fundamental human right, a hedge against government mismanagement of money, and a first essential step down the long road to monetary integrity.

True to his spirit, some of Jim’s efforts were dramatic and unconventional. He arranged for a biplane to tow a “Legalize Gold” banner over President Nixon’s 1973 inauguration. He also held press conferences around the country at which he would brandish illegal bars of gold and publicly challenge federal officials to throw him in jail. These and many other stories about Jim’s colorful career can be found in his 1990 autobiography, Confessions of a Gold Bug.

Once gold became legal, Jim held his first annual investment conference in New Orleans. Expecting 250 attendees, he was stunned to see 750 show up. More than 40 years later, Blanchard’s New Orleans Investment Conference carries on and has drawn tens of thousands of individuals from all 50 states and dozens of nations. Investment advice comprised most of the 25 programs Jim assembled, but he always made sure that attendees were provided a hefty dose of sound-money and free-market ideas. His speakers included Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Robert Bleiberg, Walter Williams, and many other great economists. Ayn Rand’s last public appearance was at a Blanchard conference. (In October 2015, I’ll be speaking again at the conference myself.)

In the meantime, Jim’s original $50 investment to begin a coin business in the 1970s grew into a giant within the industry. When he sold the business 15 years later, it was a $115-million-a-year precious-metals and rare-coin company. He cofounded the Industry Council for Tangible Assets to combat unscrupulous business practices in the coin and bullion industry, and he helped to reverse several burdensome laws and regulations that afflicted American investors.

Jim’s adventurous instincts and love of liberty combined to put him on the front lines of important struggles around the world. On my return in 1986 from visiting with activists in the anti-communist underground in Poland, I went to Jim with a request. I advised him that for $5,000, pro-freedom forces in Warsaw could translate Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose into Polish and then print and distribute hundreds of copies throughout the country. He wrote that check on the spot, and many others for similar causes behind the Iron Curtain. Not content only to fund these worthy endeavors, he often transported illicit, pro-freedom literature himself when he visited communist countries.

One of Jim’s favorite foreign projects was assisting anti-communist rebel forces inside war-torn Mozambique in the 1980s and early 1990s. He once sent a colleague and me on a clandestine journey inside the country to live for two weeks with the rebels in the bush and help to spread a pro-freedom message. Once the war was over and Mozambique adopted policies friendly to private property and free markets, Jim pitched in to assist in reconstruction.

“I remember my father as the bravest and most adventurous person that I have ever known to this day,” Anthem recently told me.

He never let anyone tell him no. He was fearless in his belief in the goodness of the human spirit. He understood that the path to personal betterment is best shepherded by free enterprise, and [he understood] the importance of balance between natural rights and property rights protected by a responsible, accountable, made-as-limited-as-possible government.

If Jim were alive today, he would beam with pride in his son, who carries three famous names: Anthem Hayek Blanchard is founder and president of Anthem Vault, a Nevada-based company pioneering a gold-backed cryptocurrency called HayekGold after Nobel laureate and Austrian economist F.A. Hayek. (Browse through the news items on the company’s web page and you’ll learn more about the currency that wouldn’t even be legal today had it not been for the work of Anthem’s father.)

Anthem says his father taught him “above all else” that true freedom can only be achieved once the world experiences a Hayekian choice in currency that technologies like bitcoin, HayekGold, and other virtual assets are wonderfully making a rapidly growing reality. I know Pop would be the most excited person in the world about all of these new technology developments enabling Austrian economics to flourish in a modern digital society.

Jim Blanchard overcame personal tragedy to become a powerful figure for liberty and sound money. His indomitable spirit lives on in all those who know that the noble causes to which he devoted his life require both hard work and eternal vigilance.

Video from FreedomFest: Remembering James U. Blanchard III with Lawrence Reed

RELATED ARTICLES:

Jim Blanchard’s 1990 autobiography, Confessions of a Gold Bug

Jim Blanchard’s 1984 interview of Austrian economist F.A. Hayek

Steve Mariotti’s 2014 interview with Anthem Hayek Blanchard


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.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

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.

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.

Decentralization: Why Dumb Networks Are Better

The smart choice is innovation at the edge by ANDREAS ANTONOPOULOS…

“Every device employed to bolster individual freedom must have as its chief purpose the impairment of the absoluteness of power.” — Eric Hoffer

In computer and communications networks, decentralization leads to faster innovation, greater openness, and lower cost. Decentralization creates the conditions for competition and diversity in the services the network provides.

But how can you tell if a network is decentralized, and what makes it more likely to be decentralized? Network “intelligence” is the characteristic that differentiates centralized from decentralized networks — but in a way that is surprising and counterintuitive.

Some networks are “smart.” They offer sophisticated services that can be delivered to very simple end-user devices on the “edge” of the network. Other networks are “dumb” — they offer only a very basic service and require that the end-user devices are intelligent. What’s smart about dumb networks is that they push innovation to the edge, giving end-users control over the pace and direction of innovation. Simplicity at the center allows for complexity at the edge, which fosters the vast decentralization of services.

Surprisingly, then, “dumb” networks are the smart choice for innovation and freedom.

The telephone network used to be a smart network supporting dumb devices (telephones). All the intelligence in the telephone network and all the services were contained in the phone company’s switching buildings. The telephone on the consumer’s kitchen table was little more than a speaker and a microphone. Even the most advanced touch-tone telephones were still pretty simple devices, depending entirely on the network services they could “request” through beeping the right tones.

In a smart network like that, there is no room for innovation at the edge. Sure, you can make a phone look like a cheeseburger or a banana, but you can’t change the services it offers. The services depend entirely on the central switches owned by the phone company. Centralized innovation means slow innovation. It also means innovation directed by the goals of a single company. As a result, anything that doesn’t seem to fit the vision of the company that owns the network is rejected or even actively fought.

In fact, until 1968, AT&T restricted the devices allowed on the network to a handful of approved devices. In 1968, in a landmark decision, the FCC ruled in favor of the Carterfone, an acoustic coupler device for connecting two-way radios to telephones, opening the door for any consumer device that didn’t “cause harm to the system.”

That ruling paved the way for the answering machine, the fax machine, and the modem. But even with the ability to connect smarter devices to the edge, it wasn’t until the modem that innovation really accelerated. The modem represented a complete inversion of the architecture: all the intelligence was moved to the edge, and the phone network was used only as an underlying “dumb” network to carry the data.

Did the telecommunications companies welcome this development? Of course not! They fought it for nearly a decade, using regulation, lobbying, and legal threats against the new competition. In some countries, modem calls across international lines were automatically disconnected to prevent competition in the lucrative long-distance market. In the end, the Internet won. Now, almost the entire phone network runs as an app on top of the Internet.

The Internet is a dumb network, which is its defining and most valuable feature. The Internet’s protocol (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol, or TCP/IP) doesn’t offer “services.” It doesn’t make decisions about content. It doesn’t distinguish between photos and text, video and audio. It doesn’t have a list of approved applications. It doesn’t even distinguish between client and server, user and host, or individual versus corporation. Every IP address is an equal peer.

TCP/IP acts as an efficient pipeline, moving data from one point to another. Over time, it has had some minor adjustments to offer some differentiated “quality of service” capabilities, but other than that, it remains, for the most part, a dumb data pipeline. Almost all the intelligence is on the edge — all the services, all the applications are created on the edge-devices. Creating a new application does not involve changing the network. The Web, voice, video, and social media were all created as applications on the edge without any need to modify the Internet protocol.

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. Applications that only have two participants only need two devices to support them, and they can run on the Internet. Contrast that to the telephone network where a new “service,” like caller ID, had to be built and deployed on every company switch, incurring maintenance cost for every subscriber. So only the most popular, profitable, and widely used services got deployed.

The financial services industry is built on top of many highly specialized and service-specific networks. Most of these are layered atop the Internet, but they are architected as closed, centralized, and “smart” networks with limited intelligence on the edge.

Take, for example, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the international wire transfer network. The consortium behind SWIFT has built a closed network of member banks that offers specific services: secure messages, mostly payment orders. Only banks can be members, and the network services are highly centralized.

The SWIFT network is just one of dozens of single-purpose, tightly controlled, and closed networks offered to financial services companies such as banks, brokerage firms, and exchanges. All these networks mediate the services by interposing the service provider between the “users,” and they allow minimal innovation or differentiation at the edge — that is, they are smart networks serving mostly dumb devices.

Bitcoin is the Internet of money. It offers a basic dumb network that connects peers from anywhere in the world. The bitcoin network itself does not define any financial services or applications. It doesn’t require membership registration or identification. It doesn’t control the types of devices or applications that can live on its edge. Bitcoin offers one service: securely time-stamped scripted transactions. Everything else is built on the edge-devices as an application. Bitcoin allows any application to be developed independently, without permission, on the edge of the network. A developer can create a new application using the transactional service as a platform and deploy it on any device. Even niche applications with few users — applications never envisioned by the bitcoin protocol creator — can be built and deployed.

Almost any network architecture can be inverted. You can build a closed network on top of an open network or vice versa, although it is easier to centralize than to decentralize. The modem inverted the phone network, giving us the Internet. The banks have built closed network systems on top of the decentralized Internet. Now bitcoin provides an open network platform for financial services on top of the open and decentralized Internet. The financial services built on top of bitcoin are themselves open because they are not “services” delivered by the network; they are “apps” running on top of the network. This arrangement opens a market for applications, putting the end user in a position of power to choose the right application without restrictions.

What happens when an industry transitions from using one or more “smart” and centralized networks to using a common, decentralized, open, and dumb network? A tsunami of innovation that was pent up for decades is suddenly released. All the applications that could never get permission in the closed network can now be developed and deployed without permission. At first, this change involves reinventing the previously centralized services with new and open decentralized alternatives. We saw that with the Internet, as traditional telecommunications services were reinvented with email, instant messaging, and video calls.

This first wave is also characterized by disintermediation — the removal of entire layers of intermediaries who are no longer necessary. With the Internet, this meant replacing brokers, classified ads publishers, real estate agents, car salespeople, and many others with search engines and online direct markets. In the financial industry, bitcoin will create a similar wave of disintermediation by making clearinghouses, exchanges, and wire transfer services obsolete. The big difference is that some of these disintermediated layers are multibillion dollar industries that are no longer needed.

Beyond the first wave of innovation, which simply replaces existing services, is another wave that begins to build the applications that were impossible with the previous centralized network. The second wave doesn’t just create applications that compare to existing services; it spawns new industries on the basis of applications that were previously too expensive or too difficult to scale. By eliminating friction in payments, bitcoin doesn’t just make better payments; it introduces market mechanisms and price discovery to economic activities that were too small or inefficient under the previous cost structure.

We used to think “smart” networks would deliver the most value, but making the network “dumb” enabled a massive wave of innovation. Intelligence at the edge brings choice, freedom, and experimentation without permission. In networks, “dumb” is better.

ABOUT ANDREAS 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.

Bitcoin Technology: A Festival of the Commons

Open-source currencies create new property paradigms by ANDREAS ANTONOPOULOS:

Open-source technologies such as bitcoin are a combination of open-source software, common technology standards, and a participatory decentralized network. These layers create a three-tiered commons where innovation contributed by users adds to the common platform, which makes it better for everyone.

But for the last few hundred years, we have generally thought of goods as best belonging to the private domain. Consider that, in economic terms, the “tragedy of the commons” is a market-failure scenario where a shared public good is overexploited. In this scenario, each user has an incentive to maximize his or her own use until the good is depleted.

The example used to illustrate this economic theory is a grassland (a “village commons” in British English) that is unregulated and overgrazed by cattle until it deteriorates to a muddy field. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual self-interest combined with a large economic externality (the cost to the commons) create a market failure for all.

The opposite of the tragedy of the commons is called a “comedy of the commons,” but I prefer to use the term “festival of the commons,” which conjures a better visual example: a grassland used to hold a community festival that benefits everyone. The comedy of the commons was first stipulated as an economic theory governing public goods such as knowledge, where individual use of the common good does not deplete the good but instead adds to it.

The sharing economy, which consists of open-source software (for example, Linux), participatory publishing (Wikipedia), and participatory networks (BitTorrent), creates conditions where increased participation adds to the good’s underlying value and benefits all participants. In such cases, the underlying good is knowledge, software, or a network, and its availability is not depleted by individual use.

Software applications are themselves open-sourced and add to the commons, offering new capabilities for all subsequent innovators. Enhancements to the protocol bring new features across the entire network, allowing the ecosystem to build new services around them. Finally, as more users adopt the technology and add their resources to the P2P network, the scalability and security of the entire network increases.

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.

The underlying festival-of-the-commons effect created by open-source software, shared protocols, and P2P networks feeds into the value of the overlaid shared currency. While this effect may be obscured in the early stages of adoption by speculation and high volatility, in the long run, it may create a virtuous cycle of adoption and value that become a true festival of the commons.

The festival is now open. Who will join it?

ABOUT ANDREAS 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.

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.