Imagine, if you will, a dystopian state like the one depicted in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. What kind of money would its citizens use?
According to Jose Pagliery, a technology reporter for CNNMoney, it would probably resemble the decentralized digital currency known as Bitcoin. That’s because once a government links people to their Bitcoin addresses, it can track their spending on the block chain, the distributed public database that records all transactions conducted with the cryptocurrency.
“Anything that is beneficial to our freedom and our progress in society at some point has been illegal somewhere,” Pagliery told the Georgia Straight by phone from New York City. “If we create a money that tracks everything we do at all times, then we, therefore, can pretty much stop illegal behaviour—or at least catch it. Then it’s only a matter of who decides what’s legal and what’s not.”
Pagliery is the author of Bitcoin and the Future of Money (Triumph Books), one of a handful of books on the subject published in the past few months. He began writing about Bitcoin after the Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down Silk Road, an online black market that exclusively accepted the cryptocurrency, in 2013.
Many people view Bitcoin as an anonymous currency that’s perfect for criminals, but it’s actually the opposite, Pagliery pointed out. He said that he wrote the 256-page trade paperback in order to explain what this “fascinating creation” is and why it matters to the average person.
Pagliery noted that libertarians are enamoured with Bitcoin—which turns six on January 3, 2015—because it’s outside the control of central banks and “infuses freedom in your life”.
“Right-wingers would hate this sort of thing,” he said. “The conservative, pro-government, pro-authoritarian, pro-war and defence group, they’d hate this. It’s an independent currency system. This doesn’t fare well for conservatives.”
As well, left-wingers have little reason to “detest” Bitcoin, according to Pagliery.
“Independent money wrestles control away from banks—and I’m pretty sure that socialists don’t like big private corporations that enrich themselves from the poor,” he said.
Another new book, Understanding Bitcoin: Cryptography, Engineering and Economics (Wiley) by Pedro Franco, offers explanations of the technology behind Bitcoin. The 288-page hardcover features chapters on monetary economics; alternative cryptocurrencies, or altcoins, such as Freicoin, Namecoin, and Peercoin; and “Cryptocurrencies 2.0” or “Internet of Money” applications made possible by block-chain technology.
Franco, who has 10 years of financial-market experience as a quantitative analyst and trader, observes that Bitcoin is “more readily accepted” by economists associated with the intellectual tradition known as the Austrian School. That’s in part because a finite money supply is programmed into the cryptocurrency’s source code. (The total number of bitcoins in circulation will max out at 21 million near the year 2140.)
“Austrian School economists believe deflation can be caused either by technological progress or by a decrease in the monetary supply. Only the second cause is considered problematic, as deflation arising from technological progress is not harmful for economic growth. Thus Austrian School economists advocate a fixed money supply,” Franco writes in the book. “This view is not shared by mainstream economists, who believe that the economy has significant price rigidities, such as sticky wages, that prevent it from reaching an equilibrium. Mainstream economists believe a small amount of inflation helps grease the wheels of economic growth.”
When Brian Kelly, the founder of Brian Kelly Capital and a contributor to CNBC’s Fast Money talk show, first heard about Bitcoin in 2011, he dismissed it as “Tulipmania 2.0”—referring to the Dutch bubble that saw tulip bulbs sell for exorbitant prices in the 1600s. Now he’s the author of The Bitcoin Big Bang: How Alternative Currencies Are About to Change the World (Wiley).
Kelly is also the creator of Nautiluscoin, an altcoin inspired by the ideas of neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek, whose arguments underpin the Fraser Institute and other right-wing think tanks. The investor believes that digital currencies are poised to become a new asset class, alongside stocks and bonds.
According to Kelly, what’s truly groundbreaking about Bitcoin is “smart contracts”. In his 240-page hardcover, he describes these as “legal documents that are attached to a bitcoin transaction”.
Kelly told the Straight that smart contracts could be used to transfer generational wealth without the services—and fees—of middlemen such as lawyers and trust companies. He asserted that Bitcoin will “no doubt” precipitate restructuring in the financial-services industry.
“If Bitcoin was just an alternative currency, it may not get off the ground,” Kelly said by phone from New York City. “The idea that you can program this money to do essentially anything you want it to do is revolutionary.”
In Bitcoin and the Future of Money, Pagliery outlines nine “snags” Bitcoin must overcome to achieve mainstream adoption. These include “perfect tracking” that “empowers government agents”, and the “odd” story of its creation by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto.
Indeed, Pagliery remarked that the cryptocurrency “could be dead next week”.
“But that almost doesn’t even matter, because it’s already shown us a version of the world of money that is incredible,” Pagliery said. “It’s really a step forward in technology. It’s almost like someone built a fantastic rocket and we didn’t quite know what to do with it.”