Monetary Progression and the Bitcoiner’s History of Money

In the world of cryptocurrencies there’s a hype for a certain kind of monetary history that inevitably leads to bitcoin, thereby informing its users and zealots about the immense value of their endeavor. Don’t get me wrong – I laud most of what they do, and I’m much looking forward to see where it’s all going. But their (mis)use of monetary history is quite appalling for somebody who studies these things, especially since this particular story is so crucial and fundamental to what bitcoiners see themselves advancing.

Let me sketch out some problems. Their history of money (see also Nick Szabo’s lengthy piece for a more eloquent example) goes something like this:

  • In the beginning, there was self-sufficiency and the little trade that occurred place took place through barter.
  • In a Mengerian process of increased saleability (Menger’s word is generally translated as ‘saleableness’, rather than ‘saleability’), some objects became better and more convenient for trade than others, and those objects emerged as early primative money. Normally cherry-pick some of the most salient examples here, like hide, cowrie shells, wampum or Rai stones.
  • Throughout time, precious metals won out as the best objects to use as money, initially silver and gradually, as economies grew richer, large-scale payments using gold overtook silver.
  • In the early twentieth century, evil governments monopolized the production of money and through increasingly global schemes eventually cut the ties to hard money and put the world on a paper money fiat standard, ensuring steady (and sometimes not-so-steady) inflation.
  • Rising up against this modern Goliath are the technologically savvy bitcoiners, thwarting the evil money producing empires and launching their own revolutionary and unstoppable money; the only thing that stands in its way to worldwide success are crooked bankers backed by their evil governments and propaganda as to how useless and inapt bitcoin is.

This progressively upward story is pretty compelling: better money overtake worse money until one major player unfairly took over gold – the then-best money – replacing it with something inferior that the Davids of the crypto world now intents to reverse. I’m sure it’ll make a good movie one day. Too bad that it’s not true.

Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

First, governments have almost always defined – or at least seriously impacted – decisions over what money individuals have chosen to use. From the early Mesopotamian civilizations to the late-19th century Gold Standard that bitcoin is often compared to, various rulers were pretty much always involved. Angela Redish writes in her 1993 article ‘Anchors Aweigh’ that

under commodity standards – in practice – the [monetary] anchor was put in place not by fundamental natural forces but by decisions of human monetary authorities. (p. 778)

Governments ensured the push to gold in the 18th and 19th centuries, not a spontaneous order-decentralized Mengerian process: Newton’s infamous underpricing of silver in 1717, initiating what’s known as the silver shortage; Gold standard laws passed by states; large-scale network effects in play in trading with merchants in those countries.

Secondly, Bills of Exchange – ie privately issued debt – rather than precious metals were the dominant international money, say 1500-1900. Aha! says the bitcoiner, but they were denominated in gold or at least backed by gold and so the precious metal were in fact the real outside money. Nope. Most bills of exchange were denominated in the major unit of account of the dominant financial centre at the time (from the 15th to the 20th century progressively Bruges, Antwerp, Amsterdam and London), quite often using a ghost money, in reference to the purchasing power of a centuries-old coins or social convention.

Thirdly, monetary history is, contrary to what bitcoiners might believe, not a steady upward race towards harder and harder money. Monetary functions such as the medium of exchange and the unit of account were seldomly even united into one asset such as we tend to think about money today (one asset, serving 2, 3 or 4 functions). Rather, many different currencies and units of accounts co-emerged, evolved, overtook one another in response to shifting market prices or government interventions, declined, disappeared or re-appeared as ghost money. My favorite – albeit biased – example is early modern Sweden with its copper-based trimetallism (copper, silver, gold), varying units of account, seven strictly separated coins and notes (for instance, both Stockholms Banco and what would later develop into Sveriges Riksbank, had to keep accounts in all seven currencies, repaying deposits in the same currency as deposited), as well as governmental price controls for exports of copper, partly counteracting effects of Gresham’s Law.

The two major mistakes I believe bitcoiners make in their selective reading of monetary theory and history are:

1) they don’t seem to understand that money supply is not the only dimension that money users value. The hardness of money – ie, the difficulty to increase supply – as an anchoring of price levels or stability in purchasing power is one dimension of money’s quality – far from the only. Reliability, user experience (not you tech nerds, but normal people), storage and transaction costs, default-risk as well as network effects might be valued higher from the consumers’ point of view.

2) Network effects: paradoxically, bitcoiners in quibbling with proponents of other coins (Ethereum, ripple, dash etc) seem very well aware of the network effects operating in money (see ‘winner-takes-it-all’ arguments). Unfortunately, they seem to opportunistically ignore the switching costs involved for both individuals and the monetary system as a whole. Even if bitcoin were a better money that could service one or more of the function of money better than our current monetary system, that would not be enough in the presence of pretty large switching costs. Bitcoin as money has to be sufficiently superior to warrant a switch.

Bitcoiners love to invoke history of money and its progression from inferior to superior money – a story in which bitcoin seems like the natural next progression. Unfortunately, most of their accounts are lacking in theory, and definitely in history. The monetary economist and early Nobel Laureate John Hicks used to say that monetary theory “belongs to monetary history, in a way that economic theory does not always belong to economic history.”

Current disputes over bitcoin and central banking epitomize that completely.

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