EconoMatters

Bitcoin Debacle: The Myth of Virtual Money

Bitcoin is another scheme that simply does not match hyper-libertarian expectations.

Credit: Alexander Kirch - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Bitcoin is another scheme that simply does not match hyper-libertarian expectations.
  • The Mt. Gox disaster is like Citigroup failing -- and taking all it depositors money with it.
  • As with armies, money is one of those functions that is best left to government, no matter how imperfect.
  • It must gall libertarians that it’s Caesar’s face (& promise his image carries), not gold, that makes coins money.
  • Bitcoin is a lot less private and more expensive to use than advertised.
  • A 2013 study found some 45% of all Bitcoin exchanges closed, taking their depositors money with them.

Bitcoin believers were shaken to their digital souls when Mt. Gox, the world’s largest exchange, defaulted on $470 million worth of deposits and closed.

In the end, this Bitcoin is another scheme that simply does not match hyper-libertarian expectations.

At Mt. Gox, 7% of the global supply of Bitcoin has disappeared — and the largest exchange or bank is stiffing depositors. That would be the equivalent of Citigroup failing and taking all it depositors money with it.

As with armies, money is one of those functions that is best left to government, no matter how imperfect. The Mt. Gox failure is a potent reminder to recall that it’s not the gold, but the face of Caesar—the promise his image carries—that makes a coin money.

The virtual currency was supposed to provide a safer, more private and less costly alternative to money issued by governments. And now the world finds out that, lacking the imprimatur of a sovereign, the scheme is failing.

Fundamentally, money provides a secure place to keep one’s wealth. You can store your savings for later use at a government-guaranteed bank. This not only eliminates the inconvenience of barter, but is also a necessity for even the most rudimentary market economy.

In essence, money permits a nightclub singer to buy bread from a baker who gets his music from iTunes. All accept dollars, because the U.S. government declares – as do other governments with their currencies — those to be “legal tender for all debts public and private.”

What gives money its value are the goods and services that may be purchased and taxes paid within the sovereign jurisdiction of the issuing government.

The earliest currencies were coins, often with the face of the sovereign stamped on gold or silver to instill confidence. Yet, governments minted coins with non-precious metals, and the Chinese issued paper money more than two thousand years ago.

Not as advertised

The creators of Bitcoin and advocates of virtual currencies are fixated by the temptation of governments to print too much and destroy its value through inflation.

That monetary propaganda is all good and well. However, inflation is hardly a problem in the United States, Europe and Japan, and central banks in other countries hold dollars, euro and yen to back up their currencies.

Bitcoin is created by ordinary folks solving increasingly difficult mathematical problems defined by the virtual currency’s creator, and like gold, is naturally limited in supply. It is stored in virtual wallets on private computers, or deposited at exchanges like Mt. Gox.

Bitcoin exchanges function much like commercial banks – but, because they take the liberty of not submitting themselves to government approval and supervision, are not guaranteed for safety by the FDIC, Federal Reserve and similar regulatory agencies around the world.

There is no “Bitland” (yet?) where a government has declared it legal tender to buy goods and services and pay taxes. Lacking such a tangible connection to the real economy, it is very hard to value day-to-day, never mind next year.

Another golden pipedream

Bitcoin traded for $1,117 on December 4, and now commands only about half that amount. It is no place for your children’s college fund or retirement savings.

Bitcoin is hardly secure. A hacker can steal it from your digital wallet or an exchange that holds your deposits, just as pirates stole bank debit and credit card numbers from Target. And the government does not stand ready to back up Bitcoin exchanges that lose your money or identity to thieves.

A 2013 study found some 45% of all Bitcoin exchanges closed, taking their depositors money with them. So much for the harsh reality of libertarian pipedreams.

Bitcoin was supposed to be more private, because unlike commercial banks, its exchanges are not monitored by regulators, and its private payments system charges lower fees than do Visa and MasterCard.

However, personal and business transactions can be spied by hackers or government security agencies through its fairly open payments system. The government can subpoena your Bitcoin records or those of your exchange when it needs.

Factoring in such risks and potential intrusions, Bitcoin is a lot less private and more expensive to use than advertised.

Detractors of paper money have always been fixated by the absence of gold to back it up. But they all fail to recognize what really makes a currency accepted and secure—the government guarantee and the good sense of the sovereign not to abuse its franchise.

Case closed.

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  • William Mann

    Money is stolen everyday. Bitcoin is only the beginning stages and will have more growing to do before it is mature. I would not recommend putting your life savings into it, but if you have play money to invest, you could be rewarded.

    If they plan on regulating Bitcoin, you may want to start with all of the gift cards on the market and all the points rewards systems which have been around for many years. It’s all just a way to avoid paying the taxes.

    SecondLife has been around for years trading virtual currency for real money.

    Why pick on Bitcoin?

  • siddhartha1

    Professor Morici says “what really makes a currency accepted and secure (is) a government’s guarantee and the good sense of the sovereign not to abuse its franchise”.
    That is true.
    The problem is that there are very few governments in the world today that are solvent, and most have abused their franchise. In other words, governments have made themselves unreliable.
    So the rise of currencies such as Bitcoin is not at all surprising, specially in view of the fact that governments are busily working, as far and as fast as possible, to reduce the value of national currencies.