A Libertarian Money

Some people claim that libertarians like cryptocurrencies like bitcoin because they do not rely in any way on government. Perhaps those people meant “anarchists” because libertarians (to be safe perhaps I should just refer to my own views though I know that they are widely shared by other libertarians) accept the critical importance of government in defining and protecting property rights and personal safety. Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies do not satisfy the requirements for a good libertarian money because they do not satisfy the requirements for good money. This note explains why this is so and defines what is good libertarian money.

Are Cryptocurrencies the Answer?

Economists note the incredible power of markets and market prices in directing our scarce resources (our labor, capital, and technology) to their best uses. But prices are expressed in terms of money. The presumption, and actual reality, is that within each market prices are expressed in terms of the same money. It would not facilitate our choices if apples were priced at $6 per bushel and oranges at 3 bitcoin per bag. Presently, virtually nothing is priced in bitcoin. In addition, sellers don’t generally accept payment in a currency other than the one in which the good’s price is expressed, thus very few sellers will accept bitcoin in payment. Moreover, you can only accept bitcoin in payment if you have a bitcoin account together with the software required (a bitcoin wallet).

None of these are insurmountable barriers to growth in the use of bitcoins, but they do require strong incentives for putting up with and/or overcoming them. I explained the basics of bitcoins value in the following blog in 2014: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”   One incentive would be to replace the established currency in a market (a country’s legal tender) that has very unstable value (think Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil at various times in their histories). Another would be the need for anonymity (as is achieved with paper currency) that an illegal drug dealer or a political dissident in a repressive regime might require and find convenient.

Bitcoin’s claim to eliminate the trusted third party (bank accounting systems) required by existing electronic (digital) payments with bank deposits, is particularly attractive to libertarians.  But this claim is a gross exaggeration. To prevent the double spending of the same bitcoin, each transaction must be verified by so called miners (third parties you don’t need to trust) which takes five to ten minutes and very large amounts of electricity to process as miners race to solve increasingly difficult mathematical puzzles. Also, all transactions are very public on block chains, though accounts may be held under pseudonyms and are thus described as pseudo-anonymous.

Though actual bitcoin transactions have been made easier via the development of software wallets, many assign their bitcoins to exchanges (trusted third parties).  “The future of bitcoin exchanges”  The loss of a bitcoin owner’s password to his account is fatal and final. Those bitcoins are lost forever. But more deadly to the use of bitcoin as money (unit of account and medium of payment) is the volatility of its value.  The price of a bitcoin has ranged from just under $30,000 to over $67,500 over the last year. It is currently $39,268. Thus, payments of bitcoin generally involve temporarily purchasing them with dollars or some other stable currency and then exchanging them back to dollars as quickly as possible after receipt. The costs of these exchanges are often overlooked when claiming that bitcoin transfers are cheaper than traditional means of electronic payments. Most buyers and sellers of bitcoin are indulging in a form of gambling.

The Libertarian Alternative

There are monetary regimes, however, that satisfy libertarian preferences for minimal government involvement and manipulation. The Constitution of the United States provides the authority for such a regime in Article I Section 8 “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;” The classical gold standard was such a system. However, its “rules” were diluted when taken over by central banks. Moreover, the practice of actually buying and storing gold distorted its market price and was costly, flaws that are avoided in the system I propose below.

In the U.S. today, as well as every other country in the world, there are thousands of private companies that create and offer their own currency. Most of them are banks. While that would seem to make libertarians happy, thousands of individual bank producers of money would not constitute an efficient monetary system without rules and mechanisms for linking them into what we think of as one currency–in our case the U.S. dollar.

While the dollars deposited in my bank are my bank’s liability, I am protected from the bank’s failure by deposit insurance. Your bank accepts my deposits in my bank because my bank credits your bank’s account with the Federal Reserve (by debiting its account with the Fed). In short, the deposits at thousands of different banks are accepted by every other bank because they are all ultimately claims on the Fed. This is similar to the gold standard in which the money created by thousands of banks were accepted everywhere because they were redeemable for a well-defined amount of gold.

Libertarians want a currency and monetary system that can’t be manipulated by the government (central bank).  The dollar is now a fiat currency (redeemable for nothing–except a claim on, i.e., deposit with, the Federal Reserve). Thus, its supply is determined by the Fed’s judgement of what is needed for “price stability and maximum sustainable employment.” We libertarians want a currency that we each individually control the supply of. In short, we want a currency with a hard anchor (which was the case for the gold standard) supplied according to currency board  rules (which historically were violated by central banks nominally anchored by gold). Currency board rules require the currency issuer to sell or repurchase its currency at its fixed price in response to public demand. Any number of private producers of dollars redeemable at an officially fixed price for a well-defined anchor (gold, aluminum, a basket of goods, etc.) would result in a money supply determined by the public that was consistent with and appropriate for its fixed price to the anchor and that was fully interchangeable. The central bank would be passive. It would have no monetary policy (beyond the fixed price for the anchor). This seems like libertarian heaven.

I led the IMF teams that established the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which follows currency board rules. I have written a book about that experience:   “One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”   or  “Amazon– One Currency for Bosnia” I also participated in Bulgaria’s adoption of currency board rules. The currencies of both countries are anchored to the Euro and their currency experiences have been outstanding. Their money supplies are basically regulated by market arbitrage. If the market exchange rate of the Bulgarian lev to the Euro rises above its official rate, it would be cheaper for the banks that issue lev to buy Euros from the Bulgarian National Bank thus reducing the supply of lev in the market and lowering its market price for Euro. See my blog on Bulgaria’s experience: “Bulgaria and the Chicago Plan

A Libertarian International Reserve Currency

What about cross border payments? In brief, cross border transactors have found it economical to price and settle transactions in a vehicle currency, usually the US dollar. The increasingly frequent deployment of sanctions enforced by restricting the use of the dollar has intensified the search for alternatives. See my more detailed discussion: “The Empire and the Dollar”  The search for alternatives to the dollar risks fragmenting the global market place as proposed by Russia’s Sergey Glazyev.  “A new global financial system”

The International Monetary Fund has already created such an alternative. An internationally established unit (anchor) is much less likely to be abused for national political purposes, but the IMF’s Special Drawing Right (SDR) suffers from some serious defects. However, these can be fixed. “Time for a New Global Currency”   Why the World needs a new Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor

The SDR can be “fixed” in two stages. The first is to develop the private sector’s uses of the SDR unit of account (invoicing oil and other globally traded commodities in SDRs, borrowing and lending denominated in SDRs, SDR bonds and bills, and digital SDR deposits–eSDRs). See my more detailed discussion:  “Promoting Market SDRs”  As with national currencies, where hundreds of individual producers of the national currency are made interchangeable by being claims on the central bank, the market SDRs of many competitive producers would be interchangeable as the result of being redeemable for the official SDR of the IMF.

The second stage would require a reform of the IMF’s official SDR. Rather than allocating them from time to time to all IMF members, they should be issued according to currency board rules. In addition, the valuation of the official SDR should be changed from its current basket of five currencies to a small basket of homogeneous, globally traded commodities. The IMF’s existing rules for periodically adjusting the SDR’s valuation basket are transparent and appropriate and should continue to be used. In one sense, this would reestablish an improved international gold standard like system. It would be improved by replacing a single commodity anchor with a small portfolio of commodities and its supply would be improved by adopting the market driven rules of a currency board.  “Free Banking in a Digital Age”

Bitcoin Excitement

Interest in bitcoin is growing. Its promotors are generally good guys wanting to provide the world a better payment system. Its users are often bad guys happy to move their ill gotten money pseudo anonymously (though the Feds tracked down and recovered some of the ransomware paid in bitcoin by Colonial Pipeline). 

Ezra Fieser reports in Bloomberg on a fascinating effort in the El Salvadorian village of El Zonte to expand the use of Bitcoin for making payments.  [“World’s biggest bitcoin experiment is a surf town in El Salvador”]  On June 9th, El Salvador approved President Nayib Bukele’s proposal to add Bitcoin to the U.S. dollar as legal tender in the country (El Salvador does not have its own currency).  El Zonte has no bank, thus storing money and making payments of it from a smart phone wallet would be very attractive.

Michael Peterson is the acknowledged father of efforts to establish bitcoin in El Zonte. The requirements for its use are apps for acquiring, storing, and paying bitcoin on smart phones and the proliferation of people and merchants with such apps willing and able to deal in bitcoin. Peterson “used Wallet of Satoshi, one of the many existing smartphone apps created for small transactions using Bitcoin, which is notoriously impractical—expensive and slow—for everyday purchases.  As more stores began asking how they could accept Bitcoin, Peterson decided El Zonte needed its own app. The Bitcoin Beach Wallet, which launched in September, similarly uses technology that allows for small transactions.” [Bloomberg, ibid]

Bitcoin ownership and transactions are recorded on blockchains that are replicated thousands of times around the world and publicly accessible. Blockchain is a slow and expensive approach to record keeping, but avoids the so called “trusted third party” of, say, a bank account ledger. Thus, work arounds have been developed for small payments that can be spent without the slow and cumbersome mining that prevents double spending for digital currencies on distributed ledgers (e.g., blockchain).  Despite the touted attraction of avoiding a “trusted third party”, most bitcoin users hold them with exchanges such as CoinDesk. These exchanges also facilitate finding sellers for those wishing to buy bitcoin and buyers for those wishing to sell them. Bitcoin traders no longer gather in park meetings that brought buyers and sellers together. [“The future of bitcoin exchanges”]

But the value of bitcoin has been highly unstable. On April 15 Bitcoin traded at $64,829.14, rising unevenly from virtually nothing starting in July 2010. On May 23, it traded for $31,248.42 and as I write this it is trading at $34,616.24, not exactly a stable value.

Thus, bitcoin has not been used to fulfill one of the key functions of money, i.e., to set prices. Though a growing (but still relatively small) number of establishments in El Zonte will accept bitcoin, they all price their goods and services in U.S. dollars. Thus, before bitcoin can be used for payment, an exchange rate (bitcoin equivalent of the required dollar amount) must be agreed. 

To succeed and be widely accepted and used as a currency, the value of bitcoin will need to become much more stable. In fact, to be competitive with the dollar or other sovereign currencies, bitcoin will need to become more stable than its competitors. Improving payment technology can be used for the dollar or any other currency, so the issue is the currency itself rather than the technology for paying it.  See the very successful example of M-Pesa in Kenya. That technology is very unlikely to rely on the clunky blockchain. Even Facebook’s Libra (now called Diem) only pretended to use blockchain, stating that it intended to switch to blockchain in the future. [“Bitcoin, cybercurrencies, and blockchain”]

As explained in my first article on bitcoin written over seven years ago [“Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”] the value of bitcoin or any other currency results from the matching of its supply with its demand at a particular value. Achieving that equilibrium requires either an adjustment in its supply or in its value. Widespread use of bitcoin for payments (rather than just speculative investments) will create demand to hold it for future payments. Bitcoin’s supply is totally predictable. It is growing gradually to a maximum of 21 million units by the year 2040. The supply is currently 18.74 million. Thus, its value depends on what happens to its demand for payments.

While the demand for money (dollars or whatever) tends to be relatively stable in relation to income over moderate periods of time, it is subject to seasonal and other temporary short-term fluctuations.  In the search for a rule based monetary policy, Milton Friedman proposed that the money supply should grow at a constant rate (e.g., 3 to 5%) over time to match the increase in the demand for money as income grows.  But short-term (even day to day) fluctuations in money demand would have resulted in very volatile interest rates in order to keep money demand in line with the steadily increasing supply. Central banks around the world have generally targeted interest rates instead to allow short run adjustments in supply to short-run changes in demand. But setting and adjusting the policy interest rate can be tricky as well.

The ideal monetary regime is to fix the value of currency to something (such as gold, or a basket of currency as in the case of the IMF’s SDRs, or a small basket of widely traded commodities) and then allow the public to adjust the supply to match its changing demand for that fixed value. Such a system follows currency board rules. The central bank passively supplies or redeems its currency in response to the public’s demand at the fixed price. Such a system has been adopted by several countries as is described in detail in my book on the creation of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  [“One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”]

Even under the most favorable conditions of widespread use for payments, bitcoin would suffer the weakness of the Friedman rule. With no elasticity to its supply, a holder of bitcoin wanting to sell some would have to offer a price that another holder would be willing to accept and visa versa. Its value would remain volatile (though less so). It is hard to imagine bitcoin ever succeeding as a widely used currency. https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/06/10/cryptocoins-are-proliferating-wildly-what-are-they-all-for?frsc=dg%7Ce

Bitcoin, Cybercurrencies and Blockchain

What would we do without money/currency? Money is the unit in which we express prices (making it easer to compare the relative cost of things) and the asset with which we pay for our purchases and debts. A good currency has a stable value relative to goods and services (low or zero inflation) and is universally (or very widely) accepted in payment. The U.S. dollar receives high marks by these criteria. Bitcoin, however, fails miserably in all of these respects.

Why would anyone want to hold a highly volatile “currency” whose value one year ago was $1,230, then rose to $19,343 on December 16, 2017, dropped to $6,915 February 5 of this year and is now $9,364 (March 10, 2018). In addition, bitcoin is not accepted in payment almost anywhere? See my earlier explanation of bitcoin: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”

Bitcoin is better characterized as a security – an investment asset. It’s sort of like an option on a lottery, except that a lottery promises to pay something to the lucky person(s) holding the ticket. Bitcoin doesn’t promise to pay out anything to anyone. Its value is simply what you can get someone else to pay you for a bitcoin you want to sell. Buying bitcoin is a bet that its value will rise for some reason while you own it. Its ideological appeal for some is that it exists and functions totally independent of government; and its economic appeal is that it allows the transfer of funds (illegally gained or not) without much chance of being detected. For an excellent review of these points see Peter Morici’s: “Bitcoin-investors-have-reason-to-worry”.

Even if bitcoin had a well-behaved value and was widely accepted, the engine for maintaining and delivering it, a permissionless distributed public ledger of all bitcoin transactions linked together in blocks attached to an ever growing chain (blockchain), is deeply flawed. Records of who owns bitcoins and all transactions involving them are maintained in a database (ledger) copied to everyone with a bitcoin address (account). The system is open to everyone (permissionless) and not dependent on trusting any participants. Each bitcoin transaction is directly between the seller (or payer) and the buyer (payee) peer-to-peer without passing through a central registry such as would be maintained by a bank. Given the ease with which electronic data can be copied, preventing the spending of the same money multiple times when it openly exists in thousands of copies one as official as the other (the so-called double spending problem) in an environment where no one is trusted by design is the main challenge that blockchain ledgers need to overcome.

The majority of payments today are made by digitally transferring the ownership of digital records of money, i.e. electronic transfers of bank deposits. Our deposits of money with banks, which are a bit over half of so-called narrow money in the U.S. (M1= Currency outside of banks + demand deposits in banks), exist as digital records in each bank’s central deposit registry. Banks are so called trusted third parties responsible for insuring that our deposits are not touched and moved without our permission and are responsible for resolving any disputes or problems with regard to our deposits.

If we are paying money to someone who has their account in the same bank, we can go on line and transfer the money from our account to theirs in a millisecond without a service charge. These central registries are fortified with very robust protocols that insure their safety. The process is a bit more complicated if we are making a payment to someone whose account is in a different bank and there is scope for the speed, efficiency and cost of such interbank payments to be improved.

Blockchain’s claim to eliminate the need for trusted third parties by transferring ownership (e.g. of bank balances) directly peer to peer and publishing copies of the ledger containing the record of our transactions and resulting ownership in hundreds of nodes (our computers) around the world. The objective of a system that eliminates the need to trust anyone to safeguard your money from double spending necessitates some very complex and costly operations to substitute for a trusted third party.

For bitcoin, so called, miners are given increasingly difficult mathematical problems to solve to establish that the latest blockchain transaction is unique rather than a copy. The first miner to solve the problem cryptographically stamps the digital transaction record as genuine (in effect notarizes it) adding a new block of transactions to the chain and distributes it publically to all nodes. The winning miner is rewarded with new bitcoin (for as long as they continue to be created). Not only is the manpower and computer capacity required for this competition enormous, but the electricity consumed in bitcoin mining is now greater than is consumed in all of Ireland. https://powercompare.co.uk/bitcoin/

It takes around ten minutes to confirm the authenticity of a bitcoin transaction on average. Ten minutes standing at the check out counter waiting for your payment to be confirmed is an unacceptable eternity. “A familiar critique of Bitcoin is that “it does not scale” in the sense that, as it is currently implemented, the network is not capable of supporting a global payments system that requires many thousands of transactions per second. At the moment, this is true; Bitcoin can support up to 7 transactions per second as compared to the 2,000 transactions per second typically processed by Visa (with the potential to scale to an estimated 56,000 per second).” “The-bitcoin-scaling-debate”

Moreover, most bitcoin users don’t have the IT sophistication to operate and manage their own copy of the blockchain and thus deposit their bitcoins (or other cyptocurrencies) with exchanges that manage transactions for them. These trusted third parties in all but name are in effect banks (though they do not lend your bitcoins to others while waiting for you to use them). “Every-disadvantage-has-its-advantage-reviewing-blockchain”

To participate in the bitcoin system (to buy, use or sell bitcoin, to take the example of the best known cybercurrency) you must register to obtain an address (account). It is a closed system in that you can only deal in bitcoin with other registrants (account holders). If a central bank, for example, issued a digital version of its currency, it would also be a closed system in the same way. Participants would need to be registered with it (i.e. open accounts with it) in order to participate and could only use this Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) with other account holders.

When problems arise or views differ on whether and what changes might be desirable in the permissionless blockchain world, there is no one responsible to address it. There is no trusted third party to take responsibility. The bitter disputes among bitcoin “leaders” and its several hard forks (breaking off different versions of bitcoins) illustrate the seriousness of this problem.

The claim is often made that even if blockchain-DLT systems are fatally flawed as the vehicle for making payments, the blockchain technology may have revolutionizing uses for other public records such as property ownership and its transfers. However, the blockchain has so many serious disadvantages that even this more limited claim is very doubtful. “Blockchain Demystified”

To address or minimize these serious drawbacks of Distributed Ledger Technology, cryptocurrencies (there haven’t been any other applications of blockchain after ten years talking about it) have been rapidly moving away from the purer, permissionless, Proof of Work version used by bitcoin to more restricted and limited permissioned, Proof of Stake approaches. None of these to date are as efficient and secure as centralized ledges of the sort used by our banks. “What-if-blockchain-is-useless?”  “Ten-years-in-nobody-has-come-up-with-a-use-case-for-blockchain”

This is not to say that exciting things aren’t happening in the ownership registry area. Digitizing ownership records introduces dramatic economies in tracking ownership and transfers of ownership. Automating many or all of the steps involved in real estate sales with the use of digitized smart contracts can significantly shorten the time and cost of the many steps (mortgage loan agreement and disbursement, collateral confirmation, settlement, title transfer, etc.). “A-pioneer-in-real-estate-blockchain-emerges-in-Europe.” In addition, a number of central banks are considering issuing digital versions of their currencies. These will probably use central registries rather than blockchains. “Central Bank Digital Currency: Bordo-Levin.” But does blockchain technology have any advantages to outweigh the many disadvantages that can’t be achieved quicker, cheaper and more securely with central registries operated by trusted third parties. Probably not. Project Jasper of the Bank of Canada concluded that: “the versions of distributed ledger currently available may not provide an overall net benefit when compared with existing centralized systems for interbank payments.  Core wholesale payment systems function quite efficiently.”  https://www.bankofcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/fsr-june-2017-chapman.pdf    “SWIFT says blockchain not ready”