Are cryptocurrencies a new form of money and, if so, do they threaten state power?
Our friend Nic Carter has recently commented on these questions in dialogue with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. We would like to add our perspective and thoughts on this, as we believe there is value to be derived from discussing these matters in depth. For better and worse, we believe that blockchains such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Handshake (in which I am involved) have features that make them a novel threat to the powers that states derive from currency issuance — but only a very marginal threat. This fairly mild conclusion flows from more controversial premises.
Steven McKie is a founding partner and managing director at Amentum Capital, developer on HandyMiner and HandyBrowser for Handshake and host of the BlockChannel podcast. A version of this article first appeared on Amentum’s blog.
The New York Fed writers name three kinds of money: fiat money, money with intrinsic or commodity value and claim-backed money. Without getting lost in the weeds, we think this overcomplicates things. All money that we can think of falls into two categories: either it has intrinsic value (like edible grains) or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then its value comes from the supposition that someone else values it.
This mysterious “someone else” might be totally unspecified, as when we suppose someone will pay us for gold; or it might include a specific party, such as a state, that promises to take the money in exchange for, e.g., discharging tax obligations. Bitcoin, like gold in the post-gold-standard era, falls into the former category. It has no intrinsic value and nobody in particular has promised to exchange anything for it. We just guess that someone will.
But we should not be surprised that the world’s most popular kinds of money are the ones that states explicitly promise to honor. For states, such promises are an extremely important instrument of their power. For example, by only accepting dollars as tax payment, the United States obliges its hundreds of millions of people to make sure they have dollars handy. Because of this, everyone in the world knows they can sell their dollars to someone (i.e., to U.S. residents). Moreover, everyone knows that by accumulating dollars they gain certain leverage over the United States. This situation enables the United States to print its own money and in so doing, project its power around the world.
The power to print money also gives states another kind of power: It enables them to maximize their productivity. By increasing the money supply, they can pull more people on the margins of the economy into the productive process. But this comes at the cost of the scarcity of money and, because it puts the newly minted money directly into the pockets of the less-powerful, tends to decrease the power of those who have already accumulated a lot of money. Hence, artificial constraints of the money supply, like the gold…