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Would Digital Money Kill the State?

November 6th, 2008

I’ve involved myself in a little debate at over the past few days, regarding the viability of digital currency, specifically as it would pertain to an anarchist/agorist’s end-goal of dissolving the State. The message thread is Agora on the Internet: Would Digital Money Kill the State?

The gist of the discussion is that somehow, someone could create an independent digital currency that would eventually erode the State’s monopoly on money. I certainly would like to entertain the idea, and I’m not opposed to it in theory, but IMO, the bulk of the discussion there has consisted of bad economics so excuse me for playing the devil’s advocate. The crux of my replies has been “the market can [not] simply will-to-exist something ‘almost as good’ as specie. Whatever the market creates is going to have to be a money-substitute, backed entirely by some commodity or another.”

I have also characterized (perhaps mis-characterized) this idea as a quasi-fiat money, since it seems pretty much arbitrary to me. As such, I see it like counterfeiting; a counterfeiter need only persuade people that the bills he printed in his basement are actually passable. Jonathan counters thusly:

The digital currency is not fiat, as I have explained. Fixed currency cannot be fiat; this defies the law of non-contradiction.

Yes, it is. You either don’t understand what is “fiat”, or you don’t understand what is “non-contradiction”. All that’s required for me to produce more gold is that I outlay the expenses for mining and extraction and assume the risk that I might not find any. Likewise, I should be able to spend money and hire programmers who can create for me, more digital money. I’m not sure that I understand a distinction between what is essentially an intellectual property barrier to produce more “money” and a state-imposed legal barrier.

This is essentially why people can’t just “create” money. Governments recognize this, and accordingly grant a monopoly privilege on note issuance. Private citizens are not lawfully permitted to “increase the money supply,” because everyone would do it, therefore the value of the currencies collapses. Money simply can’t originate through volition or good intentions. Money, in its purest form represents deferred consumption, which according to Say’s Law has its roots in previous production.

Neither does fiat originate from the spontaneous order of a market. Gold’s historic position as a medium of exchange did not come into being because someone (or some group) was successfully able to market Gold, that is, to actively persuade people that gold was a better medium than silver or rhodium or cigarettes. Gold’s rise to the top of the monetary food chain was a more-or-less natural one.

If we aim to use this digital “currency” as a warehouse receipt of sorts, the underlying commodity is the actual currency being used, with either paper or digital claims to that commodity. I’ve got no serious problems with this, except then your digital accounting units would not be fixed in quantity, but would reflect the actual physical stock. The digital claims would document the ownership and facilitate the exchange of a physical commodity without actually having to take delivery.

But, I don’t think this is what Jonathan is suggesting, when he says:

A single-unit digital currency is even more scarce, yet it is much more convenient than the storage and transport of unwieldy metals.

My principal objection to this digital currency argument (and contrary to your assertion, this is the third time I’ve brought it up) is that it attempts to bypass Mises’ regression theorem.

This theorem, and Menger’s comments on the origin of money, are probably the most important (and often neglected) ideas in monetary theory. For a good to evolve into “money” as a general medium of exchange. Bob Murphy comments on Mises’ regression theorem:

We can trace the purchasing power of money back through time, until we reach the point at which people first emerged from a state of barter. And at that point, the purchasing power of the money commodity can be explained in just the same way that the exchange value of any commodity is explained. People valued gold for its own sake before it became a money, and thus a satisfactory theory of the current market value of gold must trace back its development until the point when gold was not a medium of exchange

The market will never (or very rarely) be satisfied with a single unit of anything which people find valuable, so others will aim to produce that thing. And they will. Sound money needs to be an economic good, and a digital currency with zero marginal cost is unequivocally not an economic good.

Jonathan eventually follows up with five objections to specie in an attempt to validate the “single-unit” digital currency envisioned in the thread.

1) Specie, being a physical item, is not available easily for use online. One could trade digital currency that represents a given amount of specie, but not the specie itself. This is also inherently insecure, as I will explain in item four.

That’s kind of what I’m getting at: whatever digital medium develops, it is going to have to be backed by something tangible and real. I have twice (and this is the third time) I’ve objected to the argument in principle by referring either to Menger’s work on the origins of money as a general medium of exchange, or Mises’ regression theorem, or both. My objections on these grounds have been ignored.

2) Specie is not convenient and accessible. It is in the hands of a few elite at the moment (not only inaccessible, but also dangerous). Specie happens to be very heavy, and therefore requires expensive shipping, which also requires protection and insurance from bandits. If it is all stored in one place and digital currency merely represents a portion of gold in a given place, this is a huge security threat as well.

The fact that States may currently control much of the world’s supply of gold is a valid objection. The fact that it is heavy, however, is not. Until and unless delivery is requested, there is no reason to ship the product, transference of title/ownership claims is and has been sufficient in the past. Furthermore, there is no reason that it would all need to be stored in a single place and the ability for any individual to cash out his digital claims to specie and hold them in his own right, is an additional safeguard.

3) It has no clear advantage over digitally traded fiat that would attract laymen. Perhaps it is more stable, and could make us all freer, but these are not things the laymen think about when deciding upon what currency to use – they do not consider ideals, because they have very few (if any) genuine convictions of their own, and they certainly won’t sacrifice extra effort or money towards ideals they don’t have. The average person would rather slide a credit or debit card across a scanner, or type a password into PayPal rather than deal with ownership of a physical item – directly or indirectly (either way is still less convenient).

Again, there is no reason to assume that the bulk of transactions would make use of actual delivery of physical specie. Ownership could certainly be transferred by electronic means. With this in mind, an arbitrarily defined digital currency has no clear advantage over anything else. Its ability to “attract” people is inconsequential, since people are essentially motivated by incentives. If the incentive exists to use some form of payment over another then that currency will gain favor. Currency doesn’t need a PR/Marketing campaign.

4) Specie is extremely insecure.

  • It is largely in the hands of the statist elite. Thus, basing an Agorist currency off of specie would only benefit these same elites, thus undermining the Agorist movement as a whole.
  • Because it is in the hands of the elite, basing an Agorist currency off of specie would subject the currency to manipulation because the elites are able to tamper with the price of specie already (and do, extensively).
  • Being a physical item, whether specie is represented digitally or specie is the currency itself, the value is concentrated in obtainable physical items – making it easier for this currency to be stolen, whether by petty thieves or the State.
  • Because it is a physical item, it is easier for the State to shut down. It is much easier for the State to find out who has gold and for what purpose (as the gold must first be purchased through the white market, as the people that hold it are – largely – statist elites and states themselves), and it can seize gold much more easily and kill all of the Agorists that were possessing it.
  • Unlike a fixed digital currency (especially a one unit currency), it is much more difficult for the market to ascertain how much of a specie there really is and where/with whom, so it is therefore much more susceptible to inflation (by sudden introduction of previously unknown supply) and is also, again, subject to manipulation.

5) Because valuable specie is largely in the hands of the few, it is thus subject to arbitrary manipulation, thus undermining its subjection to market forces.

Repeating the same objections over and over again doesn’t make them any more valid.

Specie’s value can only be manipulated by those willing to reckon the sales and purchases of goods and services in fiat. If you operate in a grey- or black-market (assuming the risks inherent therein) you can circumvent most of the manipulation. Specie would quite probably be valued differently on this black market than it would be in otherwise “legal” transactions.

I choose not to respond to the conspiracy-theory “they’ll kill us all” objections. This is a “27 Ninjas” argument. If this is really the case, then it doesn’t matter what you do.

The weakest objection by far is the comment about inflation. Inflation is never the result of productivity. The introduction of more commodity (e.g., gold) in the economy suggests that real productivity has increased, that real trade-offs of risk and reward were made. This is not inflation.

Stop thinking of “money” as a be-all, end-all! Commodity money is an economic good, therefore the production of commodity money signifies the production of real wealth, therefore inflation (which destroys wealth) is not occurring.

Defeating Statism can’t begin with money. Money in its purest form is based on production and exchange. Money, in its purest form bends to Says law, and unlike fiat money, real money is the reward for productivity and a savings for the future.

To the several objections against the current state of affairs, in which the States hold a great deal of gold, yes, this is somewhat of a problem. But if people can ween themselves generally from the State in the first place, their productivity could certainly effect greater change, and reduce the supply of gold in State coffers to a level no longer credibly manipulable, and the black market will eventually consume the white market.

no third solution

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