***Originally published in Freedom's Phoenix Magazine - April 13, 2012***
Republish, copy, and distribute at will.
Bitcoin - The Libertarian Introduction
What it is, how it's used, and why you should care.
Erik Voorhees - April 11, 2012
"When a state currency is challenged, the state itself is challenged,
and market forces move swiftly around sickly, depreciating inhibitors."
· What is Bitcoin?
· How does it work?
· Why is Bitcoin valuable?
· No really, WHY is Bitcoin valuable?
· How does one obtain it?
· Being careful with money
· What can one do with it?
· Bitcoin vs. The State
· Bitcoin and Disruption
· Useful Resources
There has been much talk about Bitcoin within libertarian and economic circles. It's becoming a buzzword, but like all new systems that break onto the public stage quickly, Bitcoin brings with it excitement, speculation, rumor, and downright confusion. To be sure, Bitcoin is complicated. After all, it's an entirely new global monetary system - both a currency and a payment network for that currency.
Like all powerful tools, it's important for those interested in using Bitcoin to spend some time engaging in the due diligence of education. Similar to a bicycle, once you know how to use Bitcoin, it will feel very easy and comfortable. But also like a bicycle, one could spend years learning the physics that enable it to operate. Such deep knowledge is not necessary to the actual rider, and in the same way one can enjoy the world of Bitcoin with little more than a healthy curiosity and a bit of practice.
This article is a primer on Bitcoin: an overview of the fascinating new phenomenon from the perspective of a humble libertarian who cares more about the ramifications for human liberty than about the technical protocol and brilliant science underlying the network.
The basics of Bitcoin are all covered here, ranging from a light technical overview to due diligence to monetary economics and theory. You'll also find an extensive list of resources to bring you up to speed on this most fascinating thing to happen in the realm of anarcho-capitalist technology since the internet itself.
What is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is two things: it is a digital currency unit and it is the global payment network with which one sends and receives those currency units. Both the currency unit and the payment network share the same name: Bitcoin.
As a currency unit, consider Bitcoin like other currencies. The world has euros, dollars, yen, gold and silver ounces, and now it has Bitcoin as well. The properties of the Bitcoin currency unit are as follows:
· There will never be more than 21 million in existence, and they are released over time at a declining rate (at the time of writing, about 8.5 million Bitcoins exist).
· As new coins are released on the set schedule, they are given at random to those who contribute computing power to securing the network. This is called "Bitcoin Mining" but it should more accurately be called "Bitcoin Auditing." Those who contribute more computing power to this work have better odds of receiving the new coins, but the rate of new coin creation never increases (in fact it diminishes over time until all 21 million coins exist). Inflation is thus pre-determined and ever-decreasing toward zero. The below graph shows the release schedule and inflation rate:
· Each Bitcoin is divisible by one hundred million. You can thus possess 0.00000001 Bitcoins.
· Bitcoins are perfectly fungible, they are divided and combined seamlessly in your account.
· It is theoretically impossible to make a fake Bitcoin (to fully understand why this is true, one needs to study cryptography and fairly advanced mathematics).
· As a currency existing in a perfectly free market, Bitcoins always have a market price. At the time of this writing, this price is about $4.80 each. Because Bitcoin is global, there are also market prices for Bitcoin in every major national currency from yen to Brazilian reals.
· Bitcoins are traded like other currencies on exchange websites, and this is how the market price is established. The most prominent exchange is MtGox.com
So those are the details of Bitcoin as a currency unit, but Bitcoin is also a payment network. As a payment network, Bitcoin replaces the function of banks (especially the Federal Reserve as money creation is not at the whim of any person nor group), inter-bank funding networks (like SWIFT and SEPA), payment processors (like PayPal) and remitters (such as Western Union). The entirety of these massive industries as they relate to the creation, storage, accounting, and transfer of money has been usurped by Bitcoin. If Bitcoin succeeds, it is likely that PayPal and Western Union would be removed from the marketplace. The Federal Reserve (and every central bank) would be made redundant. "Disruptive technology" is thus an understatement.
How does it work?
But how does Bitcoin work, you ask? How does it replace the functions for which we've so long relied on (and been beholden to) governments, banks, and payment companies?
To use Bitcoin, you traditionally download the software (though you can also use an "ewallet" system, discussed later). The software acts as your "bank account." It stores a secret code on your computer, and this code enables funds to be spent from your bank account. In Bitcoin terminology, this bank account is called your "wallet." So your wallet sits on your computer, and as soon as one has this wallet software one can receive and send Bitcoins to other wallet-holders anywhere in the world. It is as fast and easy as sending an email (easier because you don't have to bother writing a message!).
You don't need a name, an address, a Social Security/Slavery number, or any personal information of any kind. Nobody "approves" you for Bitcoin. It's free and open-source software. You get it from Bitcoin.org.
Transactions are sent and accounts are secured using what's known as "public key cryptography." Every account has a public key and a private key - both of which are long strings of numbers and letters. Your wallet software knows your private key, and this allows it to send money. To send money to someone, you merely need to know their public key (basically their bank account number). If you have your private key plus their public key, a transaction can be created and the funds are deducted from your account and credited to the receiver's account, without anyone else having a say in the matter.
As mentioned, your account is merely defined as a long string of numbers and letters:
Thus, your account has no personal information attached to it. You do not need to divulge any information whatsoever in order to obtain a Bitcoin account. This means you can receive, store, and spend Bitcoins with relative anonymity. The anonymity is relative because if you post your address anywhere that can be attributed to you (like on your Facebook page), then of course one can see that the account belongs to you, and money going to it would not be anonymous.
Bitcoin therefore works as a peer-to-peer network upon which account holders can transfer Bitcoin currency between accounts instantly and with relative anonymity. So long as an account holder protects her private key, her funds remain perfectly secure and only she can send them to someone else (and nobody can stop her).
Why is Bitcoin valuable?
This is perhaps the most important topic to address, as nothing else matters if Bitcoin has no value. What makes Bitcoin worth anything? Isn't it just "fake"? Isn't it just a made-up pretend virtual currency? Many say, "I can't hold it, I can't see it, and thus it's artificial and not worth my time." Let's challenge this understandable initial reaction. Let's demonstrate why Bitcoin is valuable, and very much worth one's time.
Financial privacy has long been symbolized by the notorious "Swiss bank account." Yet, anyone with a Swiss bank account has to trust that bank, and as we've seen in the last couple years, "bank privacy" even in Switzerland is a myth - banks there have been bending over for the US government and divulging customer information. So imagine having a private, numbered Swiss bank account, but without having to bother with the Swiss bank itself. That is Bitcoin. Instead of placing your trust in a regulated bank governed by fallible humans, Bitcoin enables you to place your trust in an unregulated cryptographic environment governed by infallible mathematics. 2+2 will always equal 4, no matter how many guns the government points at the equation.
Bitcoin is thus the only currency and money system in the world which has no counter-party risk to hold and to transfer. This is absolutely revolutionary and you should read the preceding sentence again. Gold advocates will point out that physical gold bullion has no counter-party risk, but that is only true for storage in your own home. Store it in a vault or bank and you have counter-party risk. And sending gold? You have to trust all sorts of people if you wish to transfer your gold somewhere else or spend it across distance.
Bitcoin means complete ownership of money both in storage and transfer. Nobody can prevent you from having it. Nobody can prevent you from spending it. Even if one's home is broken into, or even if the government issues a "confiscation order" (as they did with gold in 1933), one's Bitcoins are perfectly safe. Try fleeing a country with $1,000,000 in bullion without the government knowing about it. Easier said than done. With Bitcoin, it's almost easier done than said - you could put $1,000,000 of Bitcoin on a USB drive, or even write the private key on a piece of paper, or just email the wallet file to yourself to be retrieved outside the country.
Starting to see the value? Never in the history of the world has an individual had this ability. It is unprecedented.
No really, WHY is Bitcoin valuable???
At this point, skeptics should say, "okay fine, you can store and spend Bitcoins without interference, but what gives them initial value? Why do they have a price?" It's a very good question, and even expert economists have struggled with the answer.
But really, the answer is simple. Bitcoins have value because A) they are useful and B) they are scarce. Combine those two attributes in any asset and you will discover it has a price. The moment the first Bitcoin was traded to someone in exchange for something else, an exchange rate (market price) was established. Subsequent exchangers agreed or disagreed with that rate, and made further trades accordingly. Bitcoin thus spontaneously developed a price, as do all things in an open market if they are sufficiently useful and sufficiently scarce.
Let's look at value a little further, because it's a contentious issue with Bitcoin. There are many (including Paul Krugman) who believe Bitcoin isn't worth anything and is no more than a speculative bubble fad.
I wouldn't expect Krugman to "get it," but wiser/real economists need only observe metals to start understanding why Bitcoins have value. After all, any strong advocate of gold or silver as money should hopefully understand why these metals should be money. The answer is that these metals tend to be chosen in an open marketplace as money, because their specific properties make them useful as a means of exchange. It is the properties of gold and silver—unique to these metals—which make them excellent money. They are scarce, fungible, uniform, transportable, have a high value-to-weight ratio, are easily identifiable, are highly durable, and their supplies are relatively steady and predictable. Contrast other goods like chickens, or seashells, or sand, and you discover that none of them are as good on the above attributes as precious metals. Chickens can't well be cut in half or recombined, seashells are not uniform, and sand is too plentiful to be used as money. Why not other metals... why don't we use iron as money? It's not scarce enough - you'd need carts of it at the store to go shopping.
As any Austrian economist can tell you, money is merely that commodity in an open market which best satisfies the properties necessary for useful exchange. Gold and silver take the cake every time a violent government doesn't get in the way... or at least, this is true historically. But, this doesn't mean that gold and silver are "perfect, infallible money." Indeed, there are practical problems. One can't easily divide and combine silver coins to make change. One can't easily send large values of gold across distance without hiring security and waiting for transport. One must pay storage fees, or risk theft at home. And, while difficult, it is possible to make fake gold and silver ingots and pass them off in trade as real.
So then it follows that if gold and silver are not perfect money (though admittedly the best we've had), perhaps mankind could discover or invent something that was even better. This is the Bitcoin experiment - the question of whether Bitcoin, with its specific attributes, is an even better form of money than what the marketplace currently enjoys (or in the case of state fiat, is forced to use). If the Austrians are right, and a marketplace tends to chose the medium of exchange which best works as money, and Bitcoin's specific attributes make it excellent money, then perhaps the marketplace will, over time, increasingly use it for such.
The answer so far, is yes. Bitcoin is finding more and more niches for early adoption, which further supports its market price, providing confidence to holders that it will retain value, and this further lends Bitcoin to be used for still more purposes. It's an organic and messy process, full of trial and error, potholes, brilliant innovations and terrible failures. But that's what an open marketplace is, no? Every day a more resilient economy is being built, and not at the point of a gun, but voluntarily - not by decree of Bernanke, but by spontaneous, self-interested private order.
Many have made the argument that "nothing backs Bitcoin." And this is true. Bitcoin cannot be redeemed for any fixed value, nor is it tied to any existing currency or commodity. But, neither is gold. Gold is not backed by anything - it is valuable because it's useful and scarce. Cars are not backed by anything, they are merely useful as cars and thus have value. Food is not backed, nor are computers. All these goods have value in proportion to their usefulness and scarcity, and one merely needs to see the usefulness of Bitcoin to understand why, without backing from any government nor corporation, without being tied to any fiat currency or existing commodity, it commands a price on the market and rightly so.
How does one obtain it?
When one understands why Bitcoins are useful and therefore valuable, one might wish to obtain some. But how? Well, how does one obtain any currency? There are two basic ways, either by selling goods and services for it, or by buying it at an exchange.
We'll examine buying at an exchange first. "Exchanges" are simply websites where buyers and sellers come together to trade one currency for another. If you have an account at an exchange, and fund the exchange with Bernanke Bucks, you can buy Bitcoins.
The practical steps for doing this are as follows:
Step 2) Put money in the exchange by using an intermediary like Dwolla.com or (much faster with a small fee) BitInstant.com. Dwolla will link to your bank account and takes 3-5 days to move money from your bank to the exchange. BitInstant, comparatively, allows anonymous cash deposits up to $500 at a time and takes under an hour. These cash deposits are made by you at any major bank branch (you don't even need a bank account). Within 30-60 minutes of your cash deposit, BitInstant will credit your exchange account with your USD. You can literally have your first Bitcoins 30 minutes after reading this article.
Step 3) Once your funds are at the exchange, you can buy Bitcoins at the current market price. The coins then stay at the exchange in your account until you send them somewhere else (to your personal wallet or someone you'd like to pay, etc). If you want to sell Bitcoins for dollars, you simply do the process in reverse - send the Bitcoins to an exchange, sell them at market price, and transfer the USD to your bank.
The Bitcoin market is fully-liquid and operates 24/7 with no holidays. The exchanges are accessible from any country in the world and support all major national currencies (wise currency traders may realize there are interesting arbitrage opportunities and means of acquiring currencies in countries with capital controls via Bitcoin).
The other way to get Bitcoins is to sell goods and services for them, just like you sell goods or your labor for dollars. Being able to receive Bitcoins is as simple as putting your Bitcoin address on your webpage, and you get this address automatically once you have a Bitcoin wallet. There is no "sign up" or "approval" to be able to accept Bitcoin. You can be any age, and in any country. Just get the wallet software (from bitcoin.org) or use an "ewallet" such as Paytunia.com, and paste your Bitcoin address for the world to see. Anyone who knows your Bitcoin address can send you Bitcoins instantly.
For small businesses who would like a more advanced way to accept and track Bitcoin payments for website orders, there are a few good merchant solutions. Paysius.com is the best - it will plug into your site (using common shopping cart plugins) and enable your customers to select "Bitcoin" as payment during checkout instead of credit card or PayPal, etc. (this doesn't replace those methods, it merely gives your customers a new option). Further, because very few businesses can pay their salaries and suppliers in Bitcoin (yet), systems like Paysius give the business the ability to auto-convert incoming Bitcoins into normal USD and have that deposited in the company bank account. Fees are much lower than credit card processing, and Bitcoin payments have zero chargebacks or reversals (it's impossible to reverse a Bitcoin payment) so merchants can securely accept payment from any country with no more risk of reversal, which should be a welcome relief to those who have been burned by PayPal or credit card fraud. Other than Paysius.com, Bit-pay.com is another good option for merchants to accept Bitcoin.
So that's it - that's how you get Bitcoins. Just buy them, or sell stuff in exchange.
Being careful with money
This is where many people have justified concerns. Bitcoin requires a high degree of personal responsibility, and so users need to know the basic rules for using Bitcoin safely. The bad news is, if you screw up, you can lose money and never get it back. The good news is, with a few basic pointers and some practice, you can use Bitcoin extremely securely, without fear of loss. Do not get into Bitcoin without understanding these basic concepts:
Concept 1) Bitcoins are like cash and are thus stored in a specific physical place. This means, you must always be mindful of where your Bitcoins are, and what risks that location presents. For example, if your coins are on your computer, and you don't back them up somewhere else (yes, they can be backed up easily), and the computer crashes, your money is gone. There is no company you can call to complain about it... the money is lost forever. Similarly, if you store your coins with an online service (like an ewallet or exchange), then you are trusting that service to hold your coins safely. If you give your coins to someone who is not trustworthy, they can run away and you'll never get them back. You wouldn't give $100 cash to someone you don't trust. The same is true with Bitcoin. So if the coins are in your possession (on your computer or smartphone), you must be mindful of them, back them up, and keep your systems secure. If the coins are held for you by someone else, then you must be able to trust that party. This is the most important safety concept of Bitcoin.
Concept 2) Wherever you keep your Bitcoins, they will be protected with passwords. If coins are on your computer in your wallet file, and someone learns your wallet password and they obtain your wallet file, then they can spend your coins! Similarly, if you keep coins with a service provider, and someone learns your login information, they can steal your coins. Use strong passwords whenever you deal with Bitcoin (more than 12 characters) and keep them always in a safe place. Funds are not protected by government-mandated and taxpayer-subsidized FDIC insurance - a Bitcoin bank cannot just type in digits into your account to replenish funds stolen by your own carelessness with your password.
Concept 3) When coins are on your own computer (meaning you're using the wallet software from bitcoin.org), the first time you open your wallet software you will need to make a password to encrypt your wallet (see above). After making this password (don't ever forget it), you MUST backup your wallet file in a different location. This file is where your money is stored. The file name is "wallet.dat" and backing it up is as simple as copying the file and putting it somewhere else. To find your wallet.dat file:
On Windows, you must first tell your computer to "Show hidden files and folders" - look up how to do this online. Then, you can find your wallet here:
C:Documents and SettingsYourUserNameApplication dataBitcoin (XP)
C:UsersYourUserNameAppdataRoamingBitcoin (Vista and Windows 7)
If you're on a Mac, you can find it here:
Put this wallet.dat file on a USB drive in your safe or mail it to your parents. Burn it to a CD and put it in a bank safety deposit box. Put it on a different computer. You can even email the file to yourself. Better yet, do two or three of the above. You only need to back up the wallet file once at the beginning (you don't need to do it every day or week, etc), and you should do it before you've received any money. Back it up, keep it safe, and the likelihood of you losing your Bitcoins will be lower than you dying in a car crash. If you don't back it up, the likelihood of you losing your coins is almost guaranteed.
Concept 4) Liberty advocates love free markets. But, with freedom comes responsibility. Bitcoin exists in a free market. It is not regulated, tracked, or overseen by anything other than cold hard mathematics. Thus, the companies and organizations you find in Bitcoinland are often unregulated and private. A Bitcoin-based company doesn't even need to be registered as a company anywhere, because it doesn't need a business checking account or an IRS extortion number (known as an EIN). While this means Bitcoin enables truly free trade on a global scale, it also means Bitcoin users need to be careful and prudent. Don't buy things from companies or websites you don't trust. You may never see your money again, and there is no way to "reverse" a payment. With Bitcoin, reputation and history are everything. If you wouldn't give cash to a stranger in an alleyway, don't give Bitcoins to a stranger online. Enjoy the free market, and be a responsible adult.
Concept 5) Remember that Bitcoin should still be considered an experiment. As resilient as the system has proven to be, it is still new. The value of a Bitcoin could drop to zero tomorrow. This means under no circumstances should people invest money in Bitcoin which they cannot afford to lose. Bitcoin is a highly volatile commodity with an extremely uncertain future. Grandmothers should not be putting retirement money into Bitcoin (nor in US dollars, for that matter).
What can one do with it?
The short answer is that you can do anything, but you might have to build it first! Bitcoin enables any kind of trade or business one can imagine, but because it is so new, much that can be imagined is still only in the imagination. Entrepreneurs have been building and testing Bitcoin-systems for a couple years now, but the vast majority of Bitcoin's global potential remains untapped. Every liberty-minded entrepreneur should be considering this point.
As for what's currently available, the most basic thing one can do with Bitcoin is buy products and services from anyone who accepts Bitcoin. A partial list can be found here: https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Trade There is also the booming illicit drug market known as Silk Road, where almost any substance imaginable can be purchased for Bitcoin. Accessing Silk Road requires further security precautions such as the use of Tor, which is beyond the scope of this article.
Next, donations are made very efficient via Bitcoin. Groups from Wikileaks to indie film companies and animal shelters accept Bitcoin donations. Bitcoin works great for donations because micro-transactions are possible (you can't send $0.10 to a charity via PayPal, because the fees are larger than $0.10... but with Bitcoin you can). If you want to accept donations for anything, put a Bitcoin address on your website. It costs you nothing. Want to donate to Wikileaks? Here's their address:
Like to gamble? Bitcoin lets US players actually play poker online. The government can't stop the payments, after all. Sites such as SealsWithClubs.eu are gaining popularity, with larger casinos being built.
Want to send money to friends or family overseas? Use Bitcoin. Instead of paying Western Union $40, just send Bitcoins for free. Remittance markets are one area where Bitcoin really shines, because it passes across borders instantly and with no possibility of regulation nor interference. Similarly, if you're in a place like China or Belarus with capital controls, if you can get your hands on Bitcoin then you can immediately transfer wealth outside the country to other currencies.
Want gold or silver to store value acquired via Bitcoin? Try a site like Coinabul.com
Work with freelancers or have a business that pays people in other countries? Use Bitcoin. After all, Bitcoin enables "under the table" payments to anyone, anywhere. Paying a contractor in Italy or India is now as easy as sending an email.
Want to protect wealth or move it privately? Bitcoin transcends all borders and regulations. No longer do you need to have your wealth sitting in an account that can be frozen or seized.
Basically, anything you can do with "money" generically, you can do with Bitcoin - yet you now have no governmental restriction upon that activity. If you're a merchant, why not start accepting Bitcoin as payment? It's easy to integrate if you use a system like Paysius.com.
If you think Bitcoin could be used in a creative new way, then go build the system! Just as few people understood the power of the internet in the early '90s, the same is true with Bitcoin. And just as with the internet, it is attracting builders and entrepreneurs all over the world.
Bitcoin vs. The State
Now we get to the more fun part, which is especially relevant to any libertarian discussion of Bitcoin. This is the manner by which Bitcoin supersedes government control. "Okay," people say, "so Bitcoin is new and the government doesn't regulate it yet, but they will!" Unfortunately for the government, they cannot. No person nor group of people can defy the laws of mathematics upon which Bitcoin is built.
But first, let's look at the ways the government could interfere with the Bitcoin system.
Private websites on a hosted server can be taken down by the government. We saw this in amazing clarity recently when MegaUpload was taken down by the US government, even before any trial or finding of criminal activity had been accomplished. It should be assumed that the government can take down any site it wishes, with or without the legal cover of legislation like SOPA and PIPA (which merely give legal blessing to powers already assumed and demonstrated). So this means that any website that dealt in Bitcoins could be removed and shut down. The exchanges would be the first target.
Yet, even here the government runs into trouble, because websites can be mirrored, copied, and hidden very easily. Taking down Bitcoin websites would be like cutting the heads of a Hydra - for each successful severance, publicity and the profit motive would compel more sites to spring up (case in point: how many file sharing sites exist, other than MegaUpload?).
In fact, certain sites have proven impossible for the government to take down altogether. Take the example of The Silk Road, which is a brazen website selling illicit drugs. US Senator Chuck Schumer expressed angst in this regard, though he's pitifully impotent to remove the site because it exists on what's known as the "dark web," on servers hidden via cryptography. If the above-ground Bitcoin websites are shut down, the below-ground sites will flourish. And every time a high profile site is taken down, Bitcoin would get free publicity around the world.
So taking down websites is an inadequate strategy if the government wishes to impede Bitcoin. What else could they do?
Within one country, at least, a government could prohibit individuals and businesses from openly accepting Bitcoins (and if this happened in the US, it'd be the ultimate sign that the Supreme Court had fully abandoned its proper responsibilities). Suppose the US Government did ban the acceptance of Bitcoin: it would mean Bitcoin could only be accepted in secret. This would harm the economy significantly, but wouldn't come close to stopping Bitcoin (and indeed, unless every government did this, Bitcoins could be openly accepted in other countries leading to capital flight which would pressure governments not to outlaw it in the first place).
But what about the more obvious attack method - can't the government just "shut down" Bitcoin transfers? Amazingly, no. Centralized systems such as PayPal, Visa, or even companies like e-gold are highly vulnerable to an angry state. The thugs must merely break down the door, confiscate the servers, and throw the owners in jail. This is why any centralized system must ultimately bend to the government's will, acquiescing to money-laundering and
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