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Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, October 14, 2015

bitcoin-minerOver the past couple of years I’ve fallen into a habit of infrequently pointing out the flaws, dangers, and threats to Bitcoin as a viable cryptocurrency. While I find the experiment in alternative currency intriguing, I’m just as intrigued by criticisms made against Bitcoin. Even if Bitcoin ultimately fails, it will provide numerous valuable lessons about peer-based innovation, and the criticisms that were warranted can help us avoid pitfalls in the future.

We won’t know, of course, which criticisms are valid or what will lead to the downfall of Bitcoin until after it happens (my guess is will be due to government regulation). But some criticisms are more interesting than others. Take, for instance, this point that I had never considered before: it takes a lot of energy (and money) to produce a single Bitcoin.

I was aware that the process of Bitcoin mining requires substantial computing power and therefore must use up some amount of electricity. It just never occurred to me, until economist John Quiggin’s recent article, how much energy (and money) were required:

The-Cdecker-Theft-modOver the last couple of years there has been a lot of criticism over the crypto-currency Bitcoin—some of which I’ve made myself (I think it is doomed as a currency but would be a great “alternative to Western Union”). But Neil Stevens at RedState recently made one of the most intriguing criticism’s I’ve heard so far: Bitcoin, if adopted widely, would be a grave threat to property rights.

There may be another cryptocurrency that isn’t hostile to our liberties, but Bitcoin is incompatible with freedom under the rule of law.

If our nation’s founders are to be believed, our government exists to protect life, liberty, and property. The reason it exists, and the way it has legitimacy, is that it serves the people to protect our fundamental rights. That’s how the rule of law is better than anarchy, because we can have laws against murder, slavery, and theft.

Recently in Virginia, a man was caught after stealing $2 million worth of gold. One of the jobs of police in this matter is to recover the stolen property, including through a pawn shop where the thief ran $340,000 worth of the precious metals.
If the man had stolen Bitcoin instead of gold, that would be out of the question. Money in the form of cash or a bank account, or tangible goods like gold or silver, can always have unlawful transactions reversed. Money can be sent back to the person it was stolen from. Property can be taken and returned to its rightful owner. But Bitcoin? Bitcoin advocates brag about how Bitcoin payments are irreversible. Anything the thief spent is gone forever, and anything the thief didn’t yet spend is meant to be gone forever.

Perhaps I’m missing something but I think there is a key flaw in Stevens’ argument: being foolish with one’s property is not a violation of property rights.

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, December 17, 2014

bitcoin-deadEarlier this year I declared that Bitcoin was (nearly) dead. But as The Princess Bride’s Miracle Max once explained, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.”

Right now, Bitcoin is only mostly dead. As an investment, it was the worst of 2014. As a currency, it was destroyed by the IRS by a single sentence (“For federal tax purposes, virtual currency is treated as property.”). All that really remains is for it to become a financial network. But then it will be likely killed (i.e., all dead) with one word: regulation.

As Henry Farrell explains, Bitcoin has only survived this long because the U.S. government hasn’t really considered it to be a viable financial network:

tkc1Christians colleges aren’t usually known for being on the cutting-edge of technology. But The King’s College, an evangelical college located in New York City, is leading the way by becoming the first accredited college in the United States to accept Bitcoin for tuition and other expenses:

“The King’s College seeks to transform society by preparing students for careers in which they help to shape and eventually to lead strategic public and private institutions. Allowing Bitcoin to be used to pay for a King’s education decreases our costs while simultaneously allowing our students to be a part of this exciting new technology,” said Dr. Gregory Alan Thornbury, President of The King’s College. CEO Brendan Diaz added, “Over the past year, the team has led the effort to enable U.S. colleges, universities and other major institutions to accept Bitcoin without incurring any currency risk. is proud to be working with The King’s College, and to be a part of pioneering the use of Bitcoin for education.”

Before commenting on their adoption of cryptocurrency for tuition, let me express my admiration for TKC. I’m a fan of the school’s president, Dr. Gregory Alan Thornbury, and our friend and Acton contributor Dr. Anthony Bradley, who is a professor of theology and ethics at the school. I applaud the college for being savvy enough to accept Bitcoins—and would advise students to be savvy enough not to pay their tuition with them.

The reason, as I’ve pointed out before, is that Bitcoins are no longer completely fungible.


bitcoin-wallBitcoin is dead, long live Bitcoin.

A few weeks ago the IRS killed off any chance that Bitcoin could become a mainstream currency. That’s probably for the best since it clears the way for it to become something much more important: the world’s first completely open financial network.

Timothy B. Lee has a superb article explaining why this could be transformative. Lee highlights one particularly helpful innovation:

One obvious application is international money transfers. Companies like Western Union and Moneygram can charge as much as 8 percent to transfer cash from one country to another, and transfers can take as long as 3 days to complete. In contrast, Bitcoin transactions only take about 30 minutes to clear, and Bitcoin transaction fees could be a lot less than 8 percent.

An “alternative to Western Union” doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? Now look at this graphic produced by The Daily Mail which shows how much money is being sent by migrants to their families back home.

bitcoin“For federal tax purposes, virtual currency is treated as property.”

With those ten words, the IRS has made it more difficult — if not impossible — for bitcoin and other virtual currencies from gaining widespread, mainstream acceptance as a currency for commercial transactions. Because they are now treated as property, virtual currencies are considered, like stocks, bonds, and other investment property, as capital assets and will be subject to capital gains tax.

But why does this hinder bitcoins use a currency? The answer is fungibility: Bitcoins are no longer completely fungible.

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, March 5, 2014

bitcoin-deadLast year I wrote a series of blog posts about what Christians should know about Bitcoin. In response, one astute reader pointed out an odd juxtaposition: my conclusion seemed to imply that Christians should avoid Bitcoin “at all cost” and yet the Acton Institute accepts donations in Bitcoin. “I really want to know the rationale behind this,” he said.

Well, the rationale is easy enough to explain: Not everyone at Acton agrees with me. Like other nerds who have an interest in the intersection of economics, liberty, and technology, many of us at Acton disagree about the merits of Bitcoin. (I’d offer to place a gentleman’s wager on the future of the crypto-currency, but they’d want to bet using Bitcoin. Either way – whether it increased in value or went defunct – I’d end up the loser.)

Opinions are still divided, but the evidence that Bitcoin is doomed to failure piles up almost every day. Over the 8 month span from October 2010 to June 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29. Later, when I wrote my series last April, a single Bitcoin was worth less than $100. Today, it is worth $660, and that’s after falling from a high of $1,100 in November 2013. A currency that can fluctuate from $0.06 to $1,110 in a three-year period is not a currency – it’s a speculative bubble.

Of course, we Bitcoin doomsayers have been waiting for the bubble to pop for some time now. We also tend to think that every new drop is a sign of it’s impending doom. Fellow naysayer Jonathan Last is sure, this time, that the end of Bitcoin is near: