Financial History to the Rescue: On Bitcoiners’ Many Troubles

This article is part of a series on bitcoin (and bitcoiners’) arguments about money and particularly financial history. See also:

(2): ‘Rothbard’s First Impressions on Free Banking in Scotland Were Correct’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-18)
(3): ‘The Harder Money Wins Out’, Joakim Book, NotesOnLiberty (2019-08-19)
(4): ‘Bitcoin’s Fixed Money Supply Is a Weakness’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-28)

It is unfair to expect technologically savvy bitcoiners to also be apt and well-read monetary economists. By no means do the skills and experiences of either have to overlap. Through the rise of Bitcoin with its explicit central banking challenge and attempt to become a worldwide currency, the subject matter of the two groups has unexpectedly clashed. All arguments that support or attack bitcoin is a head-first dive into monetary economics – sometimes exhuming centuries-long disputes among monetary economists and often blatantly distorts and overlooks money and banking arrangements of the past.

We can’t have that, can we.

One of the most delightful events in the libertarian world is the monthly Soho Forum debate run by Gene Epstein. Yesterday’s splendid showdown between Profs. George Selgin and Saifedean Ammous on the suitability of Bitcoin as a Medium of Exchange is bound to get some serious traction once the recording is on available only – look out for that!

A great debate for anyone interesting in monetary system and monetary economics more generally, this was probably the best and most entertaining of many Soho Forum debates I’ve watched. It’s a good format that forces speakers to engage and respond to one another’s arguments, which makes a two-hour conversation on something as technical and intricate as Bitcoin’s monetary role an absolute delight; even those of us deep into this nerdy rabbit hole can learn a lot and walk away with a trove of inspiration.

Channeling that inspiration into long-form, multi-part reviews of the relevant financial and monetary history is exactly what I’m going to do!

One question I often get regarding my research interests (banks, money and financial markets in the past) is the mildly offensive but absolutely correct question to ask: who the f— cares?! Bitcoin and the question of monetary regimes are perfect examples that make financial history relevant: the rise of crypto questions the fundamentals of monetary systems, systems that very rarely change. Naturally, the financial historian has an edge here, having a lot more nuanced knowledge about past monetary and financial arrangements and their operations. History becomes our (only) laboratory, to which the financial historian typically has a lot to contribute.

Moreso than other topics, fundamental questions of monetary regimes are explicitly pitted against other possible regimes – by their nature comparative and always informed by historical experience. It takes about two-and-a-half sentences before debates over money invoke some reference to financial and monetary history – as they should, since they illustrate how some (aspect of) a different monetary regime worked. Frustratingly enough, there’s a good chance that the speaker has mindboggingly little idea of what s/he’s talking about!

That’s where I like to come in. To a roomful of aspiring monetary economists at Cato’s Alternative Money University in July this year, Randall Wright‘s response to why he does monetary economics at all (“to debunk all this B-S!”) generalizes pretty well.

I’m gonna use this post to review some of the mistakes Saifedean made yesterday – and use it going forward as an updated collection of future posts on the topic, especially as I go through Saif’s promising book, The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking. The aim here is to respectfully clarify the parts of the Bitcoin arguments where I’d like to think that I have a comparative advantage – financial and monetary history – and to better develop my understanding of the monetary theory involved.

Here are some points that came up yesterday:

  • The Monetary Progression of ‘Harder Money’: the brilliance of the past is that almost any account, no matter how persuasive and compelling, is bound to run into inconvenient historical facts. The world is more nuanced than can be reasonably captured by pithy generalization (yes, I realize the irony here). In a piece attacking this bitcoiner’s creation myth earlier this year, I wrote:

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. […] Too bad that it’s not true. Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

  • The Lender-of-Last-Resort role privately provided: Many Austrians and opponents to fractional reserve banking routinely believe that banks holding less-than-100% reserve against their deposits must have a government backing them, providing emergency liquidity when such banks are inevitably run upon. This is completely false. I can point to many different historical instances that privately accounted for such risks, from private clearinghouses to insurance, to the option-clause debate in Scottish Free Banking and contingent/unlimited liability institutions.
  • …which leads us to Scottish Free Banking. There’s a famous quip by Rothbard (“Rothbard’s Law“) that describes the tendency for economists to specialize in the fields they’re worst at: Henry George specialized in land, where his writing is appalling; Milton Friedman on Money, where he’s awful etc. I usually say that the same thing applies for Rothbard whenever he writes on Financial History. Very bad. And yes, I will go through his article ‘Myth of Free Banking in Scotland’
  • Saif made a distinction yesterday between the “Medium of Exchange” and the “Payment Mechanism” involved that struck me as misleading, and I didn’t get a chance to finish my reasoning with him in person – so I’ll flush it out in a piece later on. Happily for all you Free Banking fans, it involves note-issuing Scottish banks and the bigger questions of redeemability and outside/inside money.

Some additional housekeeping from yesterday:

  • Saif: “There was no real estate bubble on the Gold Standard”.
    • Yes, Selgin said, the Florida 1920s housing bubble leading up to the Great Depression. No, Saif correctly objected, that wasn’t a real gold standard, but a central bank-planned Gold Exchange Standard.
      Ok, fine – I’d agree with Saif here. How about the 1893 Australian banking crisis? Classical Gold Standard, no central bank, but a property boom and bubble-like collapse nonetheless.
    • A response might be “but fractional reserve banking!” but a) that’s a topic I’ll delve into much more, and b) this is started to sound like a No True Scotsman fallacy…
  • Saif: “Central banks hold gold – they don’t trust each other enough to hold currency”
    • Saif probably misspoke here, since he couldn’t possibly believe this; looking at any central bank’s balance sheet would instantly dispell such beliefs. Central banks generally hold no more than 5-8% of their assets in gold, and often a lot more than that in foreign currency-denominated asset. The ECB holds about equal parts (7-8% of assets) in gold and foreign currency. I routinely follow the weekly changes in the Riksbank’s balance sheet and even after a more extreme QE programe than the Fed’s (as % of GDP), it holds more FX than it does SEK-denominated assets (and no more than 5% in gold). The Bank of England technically doesn’t actually have any gold at all on its balance sheet, but holds gold in storage at its vaults (on behalf of other countries and the UK Treasury).

Bear with me over the next few months, as I make my way through Saif’s book and engage with these thrilling debates. Feel free to interrupt/comment on Twitter at any point if you think I’ve made a factual/empirical error, error in reasoning or in relevance to Bitcoin.

And yes, keep in mind that this is a respectful inquiry into fascinating topics with people who agree on like 92% of everything. Feel free to call me out for unnecessarily snarky and offensive thing as we go along – and welcome to the party!

Nightcap

  1. Murray Rothbard on reparations for slavery Jeff Deist, Power & Market
  2. Outstanding analysis of Israeli politics Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  3. My book was arrested but I am free” Victor Sebestyen, New Statesman
  4. Breakfast has resisted globalization, until now Josie Delap, 1843

From the Comments: who is the conservative or libertarian equivalent of Nancy MacLean?

Rick posed a great question about Nancy MacLean awhile back. I haven’t been neglecting it. I’ve been thinking about it. Here it is:

Question for those more abreast than me: do conservatives or libertarians have an equivalent of Nancy MacLean? All sides have irresponsible pseudo-scholars, but how often do the various camps launch one of them to undue prominence instead of just ignoring them?

Michelangelo suggests Murray Rothbard as one example, and I had that thought as well, but that’s almost too obvious, and he’s been dead for a long time now.

Libertarians today are pretty firmly divided by the cosmos and paleos, so undue prominence is hard to get. When was the last time you saw Jason Brennan or Bryan Caplan praising the work of Justin Raimondo or Lew Rockwell?

With that being said, I think libertarians nowadays tend to launch intellectual fads into undue prominence, rather than scholars. Stuff like Open Borders or signaling or my personal favorite, non-intervention in foreign policy, tend to hold a prominence in libertarian circles that I find ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, find your nearest Cato Institute scholar on Twitter and ask him (yes, him) if his pet policy project has any potential flaws in it…

Nightcap

  1. South America’s other ‘Easter Island’ Christopher Baker, BBC
  2. The narrative of homophobia in Africa Nsubuga Ssemugooma, Africa is a Country
  3. Young Murray Rothbard: an autobiography Murray Rothbard, Mises Institute
  4. Rebuilding a fragile political order Nathaniel Peters, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Fear for the future of classical liberalism John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  2. Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial Mary McDonough, Commonweal
  3. Troll epistemology Jonathan Rauch, National Affairs
  4. Murray Rothbard was right Justin Raimondo, Antiwar.com

A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.

Catalonia: a philosophical case for Secession

Yesterday, the Catalan government has overwelmingly voted for independence from Spain and to establish an independent republic. 70 were in favour, 10 were against, and 2 votes were blank. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the central governments of Spain and many other countries. Nonetheless, the Catalan case may inspire the other independence movements in Europe.

In this post I’d like to provide a philosophical case for the ethical right of secession based on a libertarian perspective of self-ownership. My argument is exclusively theoretical, although a discussion on how secession could be achieved practically would be interesting as well. I may save that for a post in the future.

Below, you can find a map of other places in Europe with strong secessionist movements:

Structure of my argument

My argument is deductive and runs as follows:

  1. People have the right of self-ownership in accordance with the non-aggression principle, and based on the natural rights philosophy put forward by the political philosopher Murray Rothbard;
  2. If people have the right of self-ownership, they also have the right of voluntary association, voluntary formation of communities, and the right to choose their own leaders;
  3. Sometimes the state that the individual belongs to, violates the rights of the individual to the extent that the individual does not feel associated with it anymore;
  4. Under such circumstances the individual may perceive the state as an unacceptable aggressor, and he is justified to revolt by separating himself from the state. He can form communal associations to secede as a new political unit;
  5. There is no limit to secession. Provinces have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household.

The right of self-ownership and property rights

In For a New Liberty (1973), Murray Rothbard deduces natural law from the essential nature of human beings. He writes that it is in man’s nature to use his mind in order to select values, ends and the means to attain these ends so that he can “act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life”. He furthermore contends that it is absolutely “antihuman” to interfere violently with a man’s “learning and choices” as “it violates the natural law of man’s needs”. Therefore, man’s nature should be protected through his right of self-ownership. This right asserts that man has the absolute right to “own” his body and “to control that body free of coercive interferences”. This right includes the practice of such essential activities as thinking, learning, valuing, and choosing ends and means without any coercion, since such activities are necessary for the enhancement of man’s life.

From this natural right follows the right to do anything with one’s body, including the right to form free associations and communities, and the right not to be violated in one’s self-ownership. Thus, one has the right to associate oneself with the leader of one’s choice, but not the right to impose a leader unto someone else. Likewise, people should be free to join and to leave communities voluntarily.

In addition to the right of free association, people also have property rights. Rothbardian property rights are directly derived from self-ownership rights, and are based on the Lockean homesteading theory. It states that since man owns his person, he owns his labour, and therefore he also owns the fruits thereof. John Locke (1689) has put homesteading theory in the following way:

… every man has a property in his own person. … The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state of nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Given that man has the right of self-ownership, and that he must employ natural objects for his survival, then the sculptor has the right to own the product he has made through the mixing of his labour. In other words, by producing something with one’s energy through the utilization of unowned nature, one has, as Rothbard calls it, “placed the stamp of his person upon the raw material”. One therefore rightfully owns the product. Any violation of self-ownership and property rights should hence be regarded as an act of aggression.

The state

The state is nonetheless a social institution that has historically interfered most often with people’s self-ownership and property rights. Max Weber has recognized it as an institution with a territorial monopoly of compulsion in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1919). Hoppe, in Democracy – the God that failed (2001), asserts that every government will use this monopoly to exploit its citizens in order to increase its wealth and income.

“Hence every government should be expected to have an inherent tendency toward growth”. (Hoppe)

State exploitation happens in the form of expropriation, taxation, and regulation of private property owners. A state at best respects the rights of individual sovereignty and private property, but because its functioning is dependent on the expropriation of its citizens’ wealth there is a natural conflict between the state and its citizens. According to Franz Oppenheimer (1908), the state can impossibly finance itself without its productive citizens. It can only take that what has already been produced, and therefore it can only exist as a result of the “economic means”. However, this confiscation often involves state violence and aggression as nearly no one is willing to give up on his property voluntarily.

Under such circumstances, it is understandable that conflicts may arise between citizens and the state; sometimes resulting in citizens’ feelings of dissociation from their governments.

Secession

Frédérik Bastiat maintains in The Law (1850) that if everyone has the right to “his person, his liberty, and his property”, then

“a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”

Following Bastiat’s reasoning, I believe that citizens who feel dissociated can then revolt and opt for secession as a form of self-defense against state aggression on their self-ownership and property. Any state that does not recognize its citizens’ rights of secession does not sufficiently recognize the sovereignty of its people. Secession is a powerful means of political action to show the people’s discontent with their leaders. If secession would be impermissible, then the people who want to disassociate themselves from the state have the following three options:
(1) continue living under the oppressive state rule;
or (2) revolt against the state;
or (3) emigrate to another state.

By doing (1), the people continue living under perpetual state aggression, and their sovereignty is continually violated.

If the people choose option (2), then there will be severe and costly consequences which can involve war and destruction of private property. In addition, there are also no guarantees that the revolt against the state will be successful. For these two reasons, this option seems to most secessionists to be the least preferable of the three.

The people can alternatively choose (3) and emigrate to another state. This alternative is often used as an argument against secession under the presumption that those who are unhappy within one particular state, should simply emigrate. However, the cost of emigration can be so significantly high that it is unfeasible. One has for example the costs of finding information on the procedure of emigration, becoming accepted by the other state, finding a new workplace etc… The state can also exert barriers of emigration through tedious bureaucratic processes and passport controls, which makes emigration even more unattractive.

Who are morally justified to secede?

Following man’s right of free association, the answer should be: anyone, as long as it happens on a voluntary basis. Even though most secessionist movements are built on a common ethnicity or common cultural heritage, such precepts are not necessary to justify secession. Moreover, secessionists should not be prescribed any form of social organization as they should be free to choose their own form of government. This means that a multitude of social organizations are possible, including those that are currently non-existent. By being epistemologically modest of what governmental form is best, communities are allowed to experiment and find their own form of government. This will eventually add to our understanding of human social organizations.

Lastly, it is important to note that if secession is ethical, ultimately based on the principle of self-ownership, then it follows that the individual has the right to secede as well.

This right cannot be exclusively granted to groups, because only individuals can have ownership of their own bodies. Self-ownership cannot be shared, just like the mind cannot be shared. The mind is an attribute, inherent only to individuals, and collectives only derive their rights from the rights of their individual members. Therefore the right of self-ownership must necessarily imply the right to practice unlimited secession.

As Rothbard would assert, provinces should have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household. This logical consequence is anarchism.

Conclusion

In setting forward a natural rights defense of self-ownership, I have concluded that individuals have the right to free association and property rights. Unfortunately, states sometimes violate these rights to the extent that its people do not want to be associated with their state anymore. Under such circumstances they retain the right to secede. Secession should however not only be limited to communities. Single individuals also bear the right to secede, since only individuals can possess self-ownership, and since groups can only derive their rights from its individual members.