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Legal and economic perspectives in the action-based analysis of Bitcoin

Well before getting “distracted” by the theoretical interpretation of Bitcoin for most of 2013 and probably well beyond, one of my central projects, still ongoing, has been to explicitly apply the action-based methodology of Ludwig von Mises and Hans-Hermann Hoppe to the philosophy of law. This is a project that had already been greatly advanced by the work of Stephan Kinsella, in my view, and I have tried to make this approach even more explicit and systematic, naming it action-based jurisprudence. This has led to some additional clarifications, foremost, what I consider a clearer differentiation between the respective natures and roles of legal theory and ethics, as well as clearer divisions between legal theory, legal practice, and (forthcoming) criminology.

I recently came across some interesting comments that reminded me of how this background influenced the way I approached understanding Bitcoin right from the beginning. Jorge Casanova in a thread in Spanish, referenced my 2011 paper, “Action-Based Jurisprudence” (links to that and related work here) and makes some good points, tying this to larger themes. The key insight is that phenomena under investigation are wholes and it is our own methods that illuminate different aspects of them (rather than the aspects being as separable as they might casually appear from attempting to reference only one field). He also cites, as I did, the example of money, which cannot be understood well without applying both economic and legal concepts (whether done explicitly or unconsciously):

[Google translated]: “There is a nature of money as a whole, with economic and legal implications, but inseparable from each other since the phenomenon (the money, or the bank if any) is absolutely inseparable from its legal and economic nature as a whole.”

A couple of years after writing that first action-based jurisprudence paper, I have just recently used legal status as the basis for proposing a new approach to monetary typology that can account for Bitcoin, which appeared for the first time in the video “Bitcoin Decrypted” Part III (December 2013). In this model, the most relevant thing about the category of “commodity money” is that it is a market good that requires no particular legal status that differs from that of any other good. Other types of monetary objects often rely on some form of legal status to prop them up, and this usually entails some degree of artificial legal privilege.

Another important factor in “commodity” is that a commodity good is one that is interchangeable with other units and is basically as easy to either buy or sell at the going market price. This is distinguished from other items, foremost specialty items, for which the relative positions of buyers and sellers differs widely. For most—non-commodity—goods, it is easy to go to a store and buy something, but much harder to turn around and sell it again. New cars, for example, famously take on a substantial price discount as soon as they are “driven off the lot.” On a commodity market, however, the relative positions of buyers and sellers are much closer in terms of the relationship between price spreads and relative ability to have transactions executed in a timely way.

In contrast to these two factors (a legal one and an economic one), it seems to have become more typically understood that the important thing about “commodity” in monetary thought is its apparent reference to the tangibility or materiality of historical commodity monies. However, I argue that this is turning out to be an incidental historical characteristic, rather than a theoretically fundamental one (See On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution” (PDF, 3 November 2013 revised edition).

It is interesting to note in this connection that tangibility is a type of physical characteristic. As such, it requires neither economic theory nor legal theory to define it. It can be defined in terms of the natural sciences, referencing certain physically measurable properties, or their absence.

Legal status, in contrast, must be understood on the back of some kind of legal theory, while degree of liquidity/marketability/saleability is an economic-theory conception. In sum, these two factors, legal status and liquidity, both properly belong to the (“praxeological” or action-based) social sciences, whereas questions of tangibility or materiality (or the identification of one metal as contrasted with another) are first of all natural-science questions. In the same sense, the identification of cryptographic properties such as those of cryptocurrencies is first of all a mathematical and cryptographic issue, likewise not a social-science issue, per se (only secondarily, in that acting people are reflecting such elements in their actions and value scales).


What follows is the original comment in Spanish for those who can read it or run it through an online translation widget, which seems to create something at least vaguely comprehensible in the case of Spanish to English (as opposed to the hilarity that ensues from Japanese to English machine translation):

No hay tal cosa como la economía por un lado y el derecho (o en un sentido más amplio el entorno institucional) por el otro. De hecho, resulta muy ilustrativo el sensacional trabajo de Konrad S Graf titulado “Action-Based Jurisprudence: Praxeological Legal Theory in Relation to Economic Theory, Ethics and Legal Practice” publicado en Libertarian Papers (Vol. 3, 2011)… y cuya primera parte me parece uno de los más brillantes razonamientos sobre teoría legal praxeológica que he leído hasta la fecha. En resumidas cuentas, Graf señala que la praxeología se divide en tres “niveles” (raíz, tronco y ramas, usando la metáfora de un árbol) y que las dos ramas fundamentales (cada una con varios elementos) son la teoría económica y la teoría legal, y señala además que hay determinados fenómenos (el primero de los cuales es el dinero y banca) que no pueden entenderse sin aplicar simultáneamente las implicaciones de ambas ramas, la económica y la legal. No es posible, al tratar el fenómeno monetario hablar de una naturaleza económica del dinero y de una naturaleza legal (o institucional) del mismo, ni tan siquiera en términos analíticos y teóricos. Existe una naturaleza del dinero como un todo, con implicaciones económicas y legales, pero indisociables entre sí pues el fenómeno (el dinero, o la banca en su caso) es absolutamente inseparable de su naturaleza jurídico-económica como un todo. Desde el momento mismo en que la praxeología no es solamente ciencia económica, sino que es ciencia de la acción humana en general (y a partir de los trabajos que venimos desarrollando personas como Josema C España y un servidor, estamos cada vez más cerca de hablar de todo un paradigma de filosofía primera incluso, lo que va aún más allá del método de una serie de ciencias en particular) no es posible disociar un elemento puramente económico del más general elemento de acción humana.


Hyper-monetization reloaded: Another round of bubble talk

‘Tis the season again when the Bitcoin exchange rate rises fast and “bubble” talk resumes among some journalistic and other Bitcoin skeptics. Around the height of the previous most dramatic Bitcoin exchange rate movements of March and April 2013, I posted an article called “Hyper-monetization: Questioning the ‘Bitcoin bubble’ bubble,” which was widely circulated at the time and still referenced now. What follows is a blend of brand-new material and thoroughly revised highlights from the earlier article.

The objective was, and is, not to give advice or make predictions, but to draw on theory to develop alternative perspectives on what exactly a “bubble” may or may not be in relation to the distinctive case of a brand-new rising-value medium of exchange. “Medium of exchange” is fancy economic jargon for something one can pay for goods and services with. I define a money as the common unit of pricing and accounting in a given context (see my “Bitcoin as medium of exchange now and unit of account later: The inverse of Koning’s medieval coins,” 14 September 2013).

Behind popular price-bubble discourse often lies a thinly or not-at-all veiled general debate on whether Bitcoin is a valid system. Some degree of bubble-talk functions as a pop proxy for this. In April, some Bitcoin critics were citing rapid price movements in support of the contention that Bitcoin, as such, was only a bubble. When this bubble popped, the story went, Bitcoin units would supposedly return to their “inherent” value, which they claimed to be…nothing.

Of course, Bitcoin failed to oblige them once again. Yet each time Bitcoin does not fulfill this pop empirical prediction, and instead eventually goes much higher in price later on, one nevertheless hears the same prediction repeated the next time around. In contrast, there are several ways to take a much longer-term view, one that is able to both account for price manias and also acknowledge the possibility that Bitcoin could be a valid system, and an ever more reliable one in the making.

Hyper-monetization reloaded

Many observers have likened the rise of Bitcoin to an asset bubble. Another less common word introduced in this context is hyper-deflation. Some say such a thing is horrible, others that it is great. I suggest a quite different interpretive concept to apply in addition: hyper-monetization.

I came across the term hyper-deflation, intended in a positive sense of rapidly rising value, when Bitcoin’s exchange rate was climbing fast from the low thirties to the high thirties over a few days in early March 2013. While a few specialists of a certain persuasion understand “deflation” to be a great thing for ordinary people, the word still has major problems. It has several possible definitions. It can refer to price-level changes or to quantity of money changes, depending on who is talking or when. It is assigned a quite negative interpretation in most conventional economics circles. Finally, it has a general public-relations problem. It just sounds depressing as a word. Whatever its real net effects on society might be, “deflation” just sounds like a bad thing no matter what. Which child most wants a deflated balloon?

The word hyper-monetization occurred to me as a more positive alternative to hyper-deflation, one that also provides an antonym to the catastrophic hyper-inflations that have repeatedly killed off fiat paper monies throughout history. The exact opposite of the death of an old money at the debt-dripping hands of state/bank alliance managers would be the birth of a new medium of exchange at the creative hands of the market.

The term de-monetization denotes the more general concept of a widely used medium of exchange ceasing to function as one. A total hyper-inflationary collapse is one way this can happen. Another is bimetallist legal-tender price-fixing schemes driving one precious metal, say silver, out of circulation in favor of another, say gold, or vice versa. Yet another historical example is when a pure fiat paper standard is created after monetary authorities permanently “suspend redemption” of legal tender notes into the precious metals that had been promised in exchange for such notes (that is, note-issuer default is “legalized”). Paper and account entries then remain as money, while the metals that had formerly “backed” them are de-monetized and trade as commodity assets, bought and sold in terms of what replaced them in the actual role of money. The rhetorical line from some well-meaning sound-money promoters that “gold is money” is simply untrue, except, of course, in regard to those times and places where it actually was.

The opposite process, “monetization” in this sense, denotes something that was not a money beginning to function as one. When euros took over the jobs of various European national currencies, euros were monetized and the previous national currencies de-monetized. The French franc and Italian lira do not now function as monies; they are historical relics.

Something that gains its own exchange value from scratch on the open market contrasts sharply with any such forced legal conversions. When a freely chosen unit monetizes through market processes, and does so quite rapidly, it might then reasonably be described as being in a process of “hyper-monetization” (for a detailed treatment of origin-of-money issues, see my recent paper, “On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution,” revised version, 3 November 2013, PDF).

A problem with the “bubble” bubble

Bitcoin’s high price volatility is unquestioned. However, it is unsurprising for at least two reasons. First, it is not widely understood as a technology and is in a very early stage of development. Second, its exchange value (market price) tends to react to news that highlights regime uncertainty. It should be noted that this is a type of “government failure” in that the scope and variability of policy uncertainty across multiple jurisdictions greatly increases market uncertainty.

Something else to consider in relation to the eternally-recurring “Bitcoin is a bubble” claim is that in a normal asset bubble, certain key factors differ. To whichever height the prices of typical bubble assets such as houses climb, a given house remains the same good in a physical sense as when it exchanged for less money. In the case of a monetization event, in contrast, the actual utility of the trading unit—which is mainly its utility as a trading unit—may actually rise. This is due to monetary network effects, named in reference to the value that comes from the extent of the network of people willing and able to deal in a particular trading unit.

To imagine how this special case of medium-of-exchange utility growth might differ from an ordinary asset bubble in, for example, housing, it would be as if not only the prices of houses were rising during a buying rush, but in addition, their actual sought-after qualities as physical houses were improving as well. Such fantastic houses might sprout new rooms with no one building them. New paint jobs might appear mysteriously overnight without any painters having visited.

For a medium of exchange, a rising general usability for facilitating the purchase of goods and services (separate from the relative value of each unit) is not directly tied to its exchange rate against other monetary units. Still, this aspect is likely to positively influence such exchange rates. Conversely, rising exchange rates, if they generate news and wider attention, can then lead to enhanced network effects through increased recognition, creating a network-growth cycle.

For those who have been following Bitcoin news closely, for months on end there have been seemingly daily announcements of new ways and places for consumers to spend bitcoins, new or improved wallet services to manage bitcoins, new or improved payment processor services to receive bitcoins, and new exchanges at which to buy and sell bitcoins—all on a global basis. Bitcoin payment processor BitPay announced in September that it had 10,000 merchant customers, up 10x from 1,000 a year earlier. In the past 12 months, the number of wallet accounts listed at the popular My Wallet service has risen 13.9x from 38,460 to 534,575. These are just two specific services and do not reflect horizontal expansion in the number of competing services or the direct use of the Bitcoin network to facilitate transactions on the part of consumers and merchants using directly controlled software without intermediated assistance from service companies.

“Is” a bubble versus “is in” a bubble phase

Bitcoin does have its manias and crashes. The hyper-monetization concept seems useful especially in a longer-term perspective for addressing the view that Bitcoin is nothing more than a speculative bubble. The most insistent proponents of this view elaborate along these lines: “Bitcoin has no ‘intrinsic’ value and is therefore ultimately destined to fall to its ‘inherent’ value, which is zero.

However, claiming that Bitcoin is a bubble (total dismissal of the system as such) is quite different from claiming, perhaps helpfully, that Bitcoin’s exchange rate may be showing signs of being in a temporary bubble phase or mania at a given point in time. That said, every significant rise in price cannot just be reflexively attributed to a mania. There is certainly more to this story and there are many specific matters of degree and interpretation. Among these is recognizing that a young currency such as this would naturally vary in price quite a bit more as it is being discovered in waves than later after it has gained more widespread adoption.

At a theoretical level, unlike a simple asset bubble mania, the more people begin using or expanding their use of a particular medium of exchange, the more its actual utility rises, and the more valuable it actually is in this function from the point of view of its users. The exchange value of a medium of exchange unit is related to, among other things, each holder’s expectations of being able to use the unit in future exchanges. How many people will accept the unit, how readily, and for what?

At least when it comes to the aspect of monetary network-effect growth in any season, ‘tis the more the merrier.


Expanded "On the origins of Bitcoin" paper with empirical supplements, other revisions

This is the 0.2 upgrade to my paper, “On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution,” first released on 23 October 2013.

This expanded and revised version replaces the previous one from 11 days ago, but I expect this current version in this format to now hold steady. If you have kindly included the older file in an online reference collection, please consider replacing it with this one.

The changes are summarized in an included initial note to readers of the previous version. The most notable single change is the addition of two new sections as empirical supplements. They provide interpretations of patterns of events by “Bitcoin Year” (Appendix A) and a single five-year price-formation chart (Appendix B). Discussions in the main text of the precise timing of the first clear pattern of medium-of-exchange use have been clarified somewhat on this basis.

Download PDF:

On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution (03.11.2013, expanded and revised)


Strong positive response to "On the origins of Bitcoin"

The positive response to my recent paper, “On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution” (23 October 2013), has been quite a surprise. Within the first hour, I had received word that the 30-page PDF had already been loaded onto an iPad in Texas and laser-printed in Brazil. Pretty soon, it had been posted on Reddit (r/bitcoin), where it was described as a “treatise.”

In less than the first two days, there have been nearly a thousand visitors to this link on my website. The paper has generated cascading retweets and tweets of recommendation and appreciation that total about 50, as far as I can estimate. Tuur Demeester, editor of the MacroTrends investment newsletter, has been tweeting quotes from it.

The highlight has to be a tweet from Jon Matonis, executive director of the Bitcoin Foundation, Forbes contributor, payments industry veteran, and long-time advocate for non-political currency options: “Konrad Graf earns his place in Bitcoin economic history.”

Well, with that, it must be time to call it a good week.


Link updated from 23.10.2103 version to revised and expanded 03.11.2013 version

Download PDF: On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution (03.11.2013)


"On the origins of Bitcoin," my new work on Bitcoin and monetary theory

Linked below is a new work I have just written on Bitcoin and monetary theory. It addresses in a more systematic way than I have before issues relating to the interpretation of the origins of Bitcoin in terms of the monetary regression theorem and the application of some central integral-theory principles to monetary theory.

Bitcoin has arisen as an entirely new and unexpected market phenomenon deserving of fresh treatments. Its arrival also provides opportunities to dig deeper into theoretical fundamentals themselves. While this work can be viewed as part of a much larger project in progress, I also have the sense that it can stand alone.

The title, On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution, acknowledges the inspiration of the classic 1892 work, On the origins of money by Carl Menger, a landmark in the development of the market-evolution account of the origins of media of exchange and money. This “Austrian school” or “Vienna school” approach contrasts with what I dub the state-creatationism theory of the origin of money. It also contrasts with the tempting but unsatisfactory view that money is merely a “social illusion.”

In a nod to the software world out of which Bitcoin has arisen, I call it a first public beta, meaning that, while refinements are always possible and likely, I think the central intended functionality has been implemented. Revised versions and formats may follow.


Link updated from 23.10.2103 version to revised and expanded 03.11.2013 version

Download PDF: On the origins of Bitcoin: Stages of monetary evolution (03.11.2013)