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The helpful fable of the "bitcoin": Duality models revisited

Bitcoin is many things, all referenced under the same word. Confusion about its nature and valuation naturally arises from insufficient differentiation of these facets, combined with a general human tendency toward “either/or” thinking. Often, the situation is more “both/and,” which becomes clearer after looking through first impressions and simple or even misleading analogies.

A short section of Francis Pouliot’s 17 May 2014 post on the Bitcoin Foundation of Canada blog caught my attention: “The currency and the network, although conceptually different things, cannot be separated. Bitcoin the network is valuable in itself because of its characteristics and, because you need to obtain bitcoins in order to use it, so is Bitcoin the currency.”

This reflects the kind of unit/system duality approach that I have found helpful, and it started me considering some further implications (I discussed the application of unit/system duality and economic/technological duality concepts to Bitcoin in “On the origins of Bitcoin” (3 November 2013)).

Discrete tradable bitcoin units are one of the integral aspects of the Bitcoin network, which in turn is a live instantiation of the Bitcoin protocol (language/convention/consensus system). The value of the units is what enables the distributed financing of the entire network; the existence of this network enables the existence, security, and value of the units.

Along another conceptual axis, economic theory supports the interpretive understanding of what people do. What things are is addressed in this case as what I call the technological layer. These layers interact, but the methods appropriate to studying them differ. One is the domain of action theory, with concepts such as ends, means, and preference; the other, in this case, of computer science, networking, and cryptography.

Still, the technological layer of Bitcoin (the system) can give hints toward economic theory interpretations of the value of bitcoin (the tradable units). Additional economic insights might at times be inspired by checking back to see what is “really” going on in the technological layer, and then clarifying the relationships between the layers.

The helpful fable of the “bitcoin”

In applying economic-theory concepts to interpreting actions, the interpreter references the more specific constructs that the people in question use in their own acts. In this case, among Bitcoin users, this construct is the operative image of “bitcoins” or other such units as interchangeable, tradable digital objects.

Yet when dialing the technology layer up into a higher presence in awareness and overlaying it on the action-interpretation layer, “bitcoins” begin to look like something of a made-up image, albeit one that enables people to interact with the technology layer in a meaningful way. The image makes it intuitive for people to use the system to accomplish their own objectives—to create, hold, and adjust balances and to buy and sell products, services, or monies out of such balances.

The tradable units on the network are not bitcoins, and are in a sense not even satoshis (100,000,000 to a bitcoin). Satoshis are an abstract unit of account within the network, whereas the elements held and traded are “unspent outputs” of all possible sizes denominated in this abstract unit (or more convenient multiples thereof). Satoshis are not now generally useful in the form of a single unspent output of one satoshi. Unspent outputs, each defined in part as some number of satoshis, are assigned to an address in a state from which they can be reassigned to other addresses (including to change addresses as needed), provided the specified signatures and other transaction data are relayed to the network.

All of this can work for a general population of end users because none of them needs to understand any of it to use the network for their own purposes. Even those who do understand such details do not have to think in such literal terms when interacting with the network in the role of end user themselves. The fable of the existence of “bitcoins” helps facilitate the human-network interaction at a practical level.

So long as the practical effect of such an image fills this role without causing errors or deceptions, it is a purely pragmatic and instrumental issue. For example, it does not matter at this level if a car’s steering wheel turns the wheels on the road mechanically or sends electronic control signals to electric motors that actually steer the vehicle—provided that the practical result in either case is that the vehicle actually turns as intended in response to the human-generated directional signals.

A dualistic valuation

In this way, combining the unit/system duality and economic/technological duality approaches can lead to additional insights about the way people value Bitcoin/bitcoin. The network is only in a loose metaphorical sense valued “as a whole.” The principle practical way for users to value it is via their own possession of and ability to transfer specific tradable units. Such units are an integral characteristic of the system. Viewed together as a social phenomenon, this could suggest the superficial appearance of a mass user valuation of the system in general. However, an idealistic “in general” valuation or mere widespread sentiments of technological appreciation could not support a functioning monetary system; only individual user valuations of discrete units can do that, and it is from there no surprise that this is precisely what Bitcoin “the system” enables.

Unspent outputs denominated in satoshis and multiples of them form a key part of the end-user interface of the protocol/network. Users value these and incorporate them into their respective structures of action. The units (or rather, the interface construction of the units) cannot function as they do in this role without the system; nor can the system exist as it does—or be entirely self-financed in a distributed way as it is—without the scarce and discretely valued tradable digital objects denominated in the system’s own abstract accounting unit.


Bitcoin weekly weighted average price, July 2010 through April 2014

Here is an update through April 2014 of a chart I published at several different points last year. It takes several measures to enable a longer-term overview next to the more typical focus on short-term trends. Notes on the reasoning behind these measures are included after the chart.

Notes: The log scale enables comparisons that reflect percentage changes across large differences in relative scale. Whereas a doubling from $1 to $2 would disappear next to a doubling from $100 to $200 on a single linear chart, this chart is able to better show both doublings at a similar relative scale of effect in its own context.

Second, weekly weighted averaging helps show price trend by general significance. This gives less weight than a daily high/low scale to headline-catching numbers that, as a practical matter, only impacted a relatively low volume during the most extreme moments of a mania peak or panic bottom, and dispite their general relative irrelevance, become the eternal darlings of all headline writers.

Third, the year-over-year comparison format shows that at least up to the present, the price has been significantly higher YoY throughout its entire history, with one famous exception, which resulted from an extreme upward and then less extreme downward price movement in 2011.

While the earliest price information begins to appear in late 2009, it is relatively sketchy and it is unclear how many trades actually took place at those published prices, so this version begins with the opening of the Mt. Gox exchange in July 2010 at $0.05. I switch to Bitstamp for the beginning of 2013 onward to factor out the impact of withdrawl irregularities that began to impact Mt. Gox data already in spring of 2013 and later worsened.


New paper: "Revisiting conceptions of commodity and scarcity in light of Bitcoin"

I have written a paper on Bitcoin in relation to fundamental theoretical concepts from economic theory, particularly “commodity,” as in the category of “commodity money,” the multiple meanings of “scarcity,” and “goods.” “Revisiting conceptions of commodity and scarcity in light of Bitcoin” (17 March 2014) [PDF] [ePub] is 21 pages of text, plus references.

This is a completely revised, updated, and reformatted version of an extended post that appeared almost exactly one year ago on 19 March 2013, entitled, “The sound of one Bitcoin.” That post was more in the style of a detective story, cataloging my personal step-by-step process in my first weeks of initially trying to make sense out of Bitcoin in terms of the economic theory that I had long studied.

A friend who knew I have been working on this revision asked recently if it was was mainly a refinement or if there were drastic changes from the original. I replied that while the basic ideas were the same, there were…drastic refinements. There are also connections to work that I have done in the intervening year since the original version came out.

Download here: [PDF] [ePub].


Another layer of distinction behind Tucker’s humanitarians and brutalists 

Jeffrey Tucker’s article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” (12 March 2014) describes two broadly drawn ideal types within the libertarian movement. After briefly presenting and discussing these, I will suggest what I think is a more fundamental distinction that might help illuminate the background to the perception of these proposed ideal types.

Tucker’s “humanitarians” are said to be drawn to and consider liberty in a positive context of its role in promoting individual and social flourishing and prosperity. This is above all a constructive and forward-looking appeal to the best of human social possibilities, promoting creative cooperation over both ad-hoc violence and systematic control.

The “brutalists,” in contrast, are said to emphasize a strict application of a few core principles and self-consciously eschew nuances of context, application, and image marketing. Moreover, brutalists are said to not only support, but even proudly embrace, the rights of persons to engage in what are today broadly considered negative and even reprehensible pursuits, such as for example, refusing to associate with certain types or classes of persons based on various demographic characteristics. The brutalist, in this view, not only embraces individual rights because they promote positive social values, but because they can be used to defend the rights of individuals to make what are today generally considered highly backward social choices.

With this stylized typology in mind, it is first of all fascinating to observe that the general public perception and straw-man concept of libertarianism is precisely this “brutalist” picture. In this popular image of libertarianism, it is a position that promotes a few simplistic and unrealistic ideas over any and all other competing values, perhaps due to some mysterious sociopathic refusal to integrate with ordinary society. And yet, it is also true that certain ways of presenting and discussing libertarian positions do help contribute heartily to this “brutalist” image in the popular imagination. Some statements in this genre are positively cringe-worthy by almost any standard.

While the humanitarian versus brutalist model may be of some help in advancing this conversation, I think another way of framing the background could bring additional clarity. I have come to believe that a great weakness in the heart of libertarianism has been the failure to differentiate legal from ethical issues with sufficient and systematic clarity. What are actually strictly legal-theory questions have been at times vaguely identified as “moral” or “ethical” questions when they are nothing of the kind. One origin of this has been the desire to distinguish “ethical” matters of ought from strictly economic-theory treatments of social issues. Yet not all that is non-economic is necessarily ethical in nature. In fact, much of the non-economic in social discourse is specifically legal rather than “ethical.”

The core of the libertarian position on political philosophy is a position on property theory, a topic belonging squarely within the domain of legal theory. Those who have sought to defend libertarian positions on property theory have at times seemingly fallen into the trap of downplaying the importance of authentically moral and ethical issues. The trap is sprung because proponents of alternative positions on property theory (various forms of forced redistribution) often use ethical rhetoric in their attempts to justify their various proposals for institutionalized takings.

In a developing body of work beginning in 2011 that I have labeled under the heading of action-based jurisprudence, I have sought to more carefully differentiate the realms of legal theory and legal practice both from each other and from the realms of ethical and moral theory and practice. One of the simplest ways to get across the kinds of distinctions proposed is to say that legal theory defines what “theft,” for example, is, whereas ethical theory provides advice on, among many other things, whether or not one ought to steal. That is, legal theory is fundamentally a cognitive discipline, whereas it is ethical theory (and aspects of legal practice; what should be done?) that are disciplines properly dealing with oughts and shoulds.

On this basis, the following picture emerges in terms of Tucker’s ideal types: the “humanitarian” libertarians are not willing to neglect or play down the legitimate importance of complex moral questions next to (fundamentally property-theory based) libertarianism. The “brutalists,” meanwhile, on a favorable interpretation, are concerned that misplaced attention to moral and ethical concerns could be used (and very often is used) to justify systematic violations of legal principles, principles that are among the defining characteristics of civilization as such.

My suggested path toward a resolution of this dichotomy has several steps. First, all parties should seek to clearly differentiate a separate scope for legal theory and for ethical theory. They are two quite distinct fields, the confusion of which has led to unending injustice and immorality on a society-wide basis. Second, embrace the insights that are to be gained from each of these quite distinct fields, and apply them each in suitable ways. Either/or must give way to yes/and when it comes to working with multiple fields, each one of which has valuable and distinct insights on offer.

Legal theory provides the definitions of property boundaries, the outermost boundaries within which ethical social action can possibly take place without becoming legal infringement in the process. Within this widest scope for possibly ethical actions, various specific ethical conceptions then seek to inform and advise actors as to which among the many possible ways to live within the sphere of the legal are also morally desirable and laudable in addition to merely not being acts of aggression in the property-theory sense.


Newsweek uncovers its own lack of integrity in alleged “Satoshi Nakamoto” discovery reporting

Newsweek just released a story, “The Face Behind Bitcoin” (6 March 2014), claiming to have found Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. I remain doubtful. Whether they have or not, though, I think their story reflects a lack of professional integrity, which is why I am not personally even including a link to it.

The person they targeted clearly did not want to be identified, but the magazine nevertheless published photographs not only of the person, but also of where he lives, along with the identities and locations of his major family members. The same story could have been published with less identifying and location information out of respect for the obvious wishes of the primary person involved (as in: he called the police when the reporter showed up uninvited at his house).

Now as to whether this story is to be believed, the article does come off as convincing at first read, but on reflection, here are some reasons I have doubts.

Many of the points made about the person targeted in the article do match up to elements of what is known about Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. There is, however, one very large problem. Given all of the alleged sophistication and use of untraceable emails, why would such a person use a real name? It is possible, but would be a spectacular contradiction to everything else that is known about Bitcoin’s Nakamoto, and for that matter, the person targeted in the article.

The article is a collection of circumstantial evidence, an ex post effort to line up characteristics and dates. However, one should ask: Which characteristics and dates that did not match the story’s objective were omitted or went unnoticed? What is the total statistical set of persons in the world who would match up on characteristics and dates in a similar way?

Meanwhile, zero direct evidence of this man’s involvement in Bitcoin was presented, only multiple coincidences of interests and skills. Nevertheless, the article is written and titled as an unqualified direct truth claim: “this is.”

So far as I can see, every piece of evidence presented also matches the thesis that this is not the creator of Bitcoin. Moreover, the real-name relationship to the person targeted in the article tends to support the thesis that this is not him, rather than that it is him. Are we to believe that “the” Satoshi Nakamoto, out of an unending list of possible pseudonyms, would have instead used a real name right along with the rest of his consistently tight operational anonymity?

Either way, what there is overwhelming evidence for is that those responsible for this article, in pursuit of traffic and their print magazine relaunch, have displayed abysmal judgment and a lack of professional integrity by giving away specific location and identifying photographic information about this man, regardless of whether he was the inventor of Bitcoin or not.