Web3, Bitcoin and Neo-metallism
on Thursday, February 17, 2022
Evaluating the Bitcoin and Neo-Metallist thesis: Bitcoin is a digital gold, a gold-standard was good monetary policy, and thus that a Bitcoin-standard would be a better gold-standard.
Bitcoin is a digital gold, a gold standard was a good idea, and thus that a "bitcoin-standard" – i.e. a new gold-standard built on bitcoin – is a good idea.
The neo-metallist claim is that bitcoin can operate as a new asset class which exhibits similar financial properties to gold. The strong version of this claim asserts that a gold standard was a good idea and hence that that a new gold standard should be built on top of bitcoin. This claim has 2 components:
The gold standard is a good idea:
- First, because it reduces the scope for governmental or central bank intervention in the money supply. Intervention is bad because it leads to inflation which is harmful to the free market and commerce. In addition,
- Second, more philosophically, government / central bank intervention in the money supply is inherently undemocratic; the will of the few imposed on the many.
Bitcoin is a better alternative to gold
- It shares the features of gold which make it a good choice for a currency (or something to peg a currency to)
- In addition, bitcoin has specific features which may make it better than gold e.g.
- Bitcoin is digital and so is not subject to the same costs around storage and transportation as gold;
- Bitcoin is under less state control. Gold supply is mostly controlled by sovereign nations like the U.S., China, Germany, and other European countries.
The bitcoin-standard is a good idea: combining points one and two we arrive at the neo-metallist thesis that a new digital gold-standard based on bitcoin will be good for the economy.
Evaluation: False (high confidence)
There was a reason the world abandoned the gold standard. The core argument of the Austrian eocnomics underpinning this claim is that all deflation is bad, and there is lots of evidence disproving this. The gold standard is inherently deflationary and risks deflationary spirals, and its rigidity left central banks with far less room to respond to economic crises. It created a brittle and shock prone economic system which in practice has been shown to be less effective than the current system of floating currencies. Claims that intervention in the money supply are undemocratic are equally unfounded. There has been no evidence of an erosion of democracy stemming from such intervention, there exist far greater curtailments of "negative liberty" which libertarians should take issue with if they are particularly concerned by such things, and there are numerous ways of making central banks and related instutitons more democratic without reverting to a currency peg.
Even if a return to the gold standard were a good idea is not capable of replacing gold because it does not share many of the core features of gold which made it suitable as a currency peg in the first place: it can;t function as a currency, no longer holds a unique place in society due to the existence of Altcoins and has no comparable synthetic floor on its price. All of this is aside from the fact that it is in fact very costly and inefficient to mine and exchange.
Examples of claim being made
Wences Casares in The Case for a Small Allocation to Bitcoin
"If Bitcoin succeeds it will most likely not replace any national currency. It may be a supranational currency that exists on top of all national currencies. If Bitcoin succeeds it may be a global non-political standard of value and settlement." e.g. like the kilo is a global standard measure of weight
P1: The gold standard is a good idea
Pegging currency to gold (or something similar) is beneficial as it restricts government/central bank intervention in the money supply. This is desirable for 2 reasons:
P1a: Government/central bank intervention in the money supply is bad for the economy as it will inevitably lead to inflation
P1b: Intervention in the money supply is inherently undemocratic, and jeaopordizes liberty
P2: Bitcoin is a better alternative to gold
Bitcoin is a better alternative to gold as something to peg currency to.
- P2a: Bitcoin is like gold: Bitcoin shares the features of gold which make it a good choice for a currency (or something to peg currency to).
- P2b: Bitcoin functions better than gold: Bitcoin has specific features which make it a better choice than gold for this purpose.
What is Neo-Metallism?
The term Neo-Metallism stems from Metallism, a school of thinking which relates to the connection between money and some form of commodity. As Joseph Schumpter described:
“By Theoretical Metallism we denote the theory that it is logically essential for money to consist of, or to be ‘covered’ by, some commodity so that the logical source of the exchange value or purchasing power of money is the exchange value or purchasing power of that commodity, considered independently of its monetary role. . . .
By Practical Metallism we shall denote sponsorship of a principle of monetary policy, namely, the principle that the monetary unit ‘should’ be kept firmly linked to, and freely interchangeable with, a given quantity of some commodity.”1
This school contrasts with Chartalism, as originally outlined in Knapp’s _State Theory of Money _(1924)2 that at the theoretical level the value of a currency is instead derived from the State making it legal tender and demanding taxes be paid in this currency. In practical terms it is associated with a commitment to the use of fiat money, which simply refers to currency which has no intrinsic value and is also not “backed” by some valuable commodity. It has been the global standard of the monetary system since the gold standard was finally abandoned in the 1930s3.
Neo-Metallism, then, is as the name suggests a new form of Metallism. In particular, it should be understood as arguing that cryptocurrencies, and in particular bitcoin, can and in fact should be the “new gold”, in that it should be used to fix the monetary supply to the value of this new asset. Just as under the gold standard the value of a given unit of currency (e.g. a pound or dollar) was based on a fixed quantity of gold, so the Neo-Metallists argue that in the modern era the value of a unit of currency should be based on a fixed amount of bitcoin. The most influential outlining of this position is found in the book “The Bitcoin Standard”4.
P1: The gold standard is a good idea
This is an argument most commonly associated with the Austrian school of economics, a heterodox school of economics associated with beliefs that universally applicable economic principles can be derived from abstract logical reasoning (rather than needing data or mathematical models) and that the correct unit of analysis are individuals and their choices (methodological individualism).
The case for the gold standard can be made via two routes, which we have divided into 1a (economic impacts) and 1b (freedom and democracy). They are each individually sufficient as a foundation for P1, but they are often made jointly.
P1a: Government/central bank intervention in the money supply is bad for the economy
The argument here for the gold standard is that government/CB intervention in the monetary supply amounts to economic mismanagement. In particular, these interventions will inevitably lead to inflation, and increase the volatility of business cycles (the “natural” upswings and downswings in broad measures of economic activity like output, employment, income, and sales).
The claim that intervention in the money supply will lead to inflation is accepted beyond the Austrian school5. In the words of Milton Friedman, a monetarist who did believe in (albeit strictly limited) intervention by central banks in the money supply:
“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”6
While most schools of thought see mild inflation as neutral or even positive, the Austriana claim that any degree of inflation is a bad thing. This is because it will act as a distortion of market forces; prices will be driven up at different times, distorting relative prices, wages, and rates of return in what’s known as the Cantillon Effect7. As the price mechanism is the vital mechanism by which consumers and producers coordinate their future activities the artificial distortion can lead to booms in production and consumption which are out of line with future reality, leading in turn to dramatic busts. Thus according to the Austrian school and the P1a, inflationary central bank intervention in the money supply must be avoided, as they result in dramatic cycles of boom and bust and even recession.
P1b: Intervention in the money supply is inherently undemocratic, and jeaopordizes liberty
Even if one rejects the above argument and does not believe that central bank intervention is economically damaging, one may still endorse the gold standard. The argument can instead run that such intervention is inherently undemocratic, in that it allows a select few individuals to exert undue power over the lives of the rest of a nation (and beyond). This is the argument laid out in Hayek’s famous Road to Serfdom (1944)8. Allowing such interventions empowers the state over the individual, and sets us down the path to oppression. This is a fundamentally philosophical position as it rests on a certain understanding of what it means to be free: a notion of negative liberty or freedom from coercion9.
P2: Bitcoin is a better alternative to gold
If we accept that the gold standard is a good idea for either or both of these reasons, then the next step is to consider bitcoin as an alternative asset to peg currency two. Again, there are two underlying claims here. First we must argue that bitcoin can function as well as gold, before going further and arguing that in fact it functions better.
P2a: Bitcoin is like gold
The most important manner in which bitcoin must be claimed to be akin to gold is that it also serves the three functions of a currency10.
It can be a unit of account in that it’s a standard and divisible unit of measurement of market value (i.e. it can be used to signal what something is worth).
It can be a medium of exchange in that we can use it as an intermediary instrument to transact for goods and services.
And it can act as a store of value in that it (at least ideally) retains its purchasing power over time, such that we can retrieve the value of our investment at a later date without making a significant loss11. Similarly, bitcoin is said to share three other important characteristics with gold.:
Scarcity: Bitcoin is artificially scarce, just as gold is naturally scarce. There is a hard limit of 21 million coins baked into bitcoin’s design. This makes it inherently deflationary, just like gold.
Universality: Bitcoin shares gold’s “universality” due to its prominence in the crypto sphere. Just as gold is the standout element suited to peg currency to, so bitcoin is the only standout cryptocurrency due to it being the original and most prominent.
Fair initial distribution: The lack of overarching controller or owner means there was a “fair” distribution mechanism for bitcoin. It rewarded early finders and investors in the same way as natural distribution of gold rewarded those who initially unearthed it.
P2b: Bitcoin functions better than gold
Bitcoin is digital and so is not subject to the same costs around storage and transport as gold. Bitcoin is also arguably more decentralized. Gold supply is mostly controlled by sovereign nations like the U.S., China, Germany, and other European countries.
Evaluation: False (high confidence)
P1: The gold standard is a good idea (false)
P1 as mentioned stems from the Austrian school of economics. From the bat it should be noted that this is an incredibly fringe economic position and not one argued for by most economists.
It is also worth distinguishing the Strict from the Moderate versions of the gold standard proposition. While the Moderate version would continue to allow credit issuance outside of the pure gold backed system, the Strict system would not, as this effectively amounts to an increase in the money supply (with new credit acting as an injection of money).
Two things are notable upon this distinction. First, when historically we operated with a gold standard there were almost always also alongside the issuance of credit. Thus, historical cases cannot be used to argue for the Strict position, or as contravening evidence against many of the problems associated with it. Second, and therefore unsurprisingly, the Strict position is even more fringe than the Moderate one. Nonetheless, many of the problems of metallism persist across both the Strict and Moderate versions, with the latter simply taking some of the sting out of their tail.
Let us now address each of the sub-premises in turn.
P1a: Government/central bank intervention in the money supply is bad for the economy (false)
As discussed above, the managerial argument is that government/central bank intervention in the money supply will inevitably lead to inflation, and this is harmful to business and commerce and makes their effects on business cycles worse in the long run.
There is a strong case, however, that moderate inflation is actually positive: it encourages spending which stimulates the economy (this is the crux of Keynesianism).
Moderate inflation is far preferable to the alternative of the gold standard, as the gold standard is inherently deflationary.
The Quantity Theory of Money states: MV = PY where M = money supply, V = velocity of money in circulation, P = price level and Y = real GDP (i.e. goods and services transacted in the economy).12 If M remains fixed, as it must under the gold standard, then increases in real GDP will inevitably lead to a fall in the price level. Note this theory was endorsed by Milton Friedman, so we’re not even using particularly oppositional economics.13
This is problematic because it leads to hoarding. Under deflation prices fall, so it is always rational for me to hoard rather than spend my currency as much as possible, as it will be worth more tomorrow than it is today. This in turn takes yet more money out of the supply, risking deflationary spirals which threaten economic productivity - if no-one wants to buy anything then we can’t fund economically and socially productive activities. Consider monopoly, when assets are fixed then the only end point is accumulation.14
In addition, while excessive inflation is bad and governments/central banks have made errors in the past, this has been rare. Historically most have quite easily kept inflation under control.
Further, the flexibility offered by the ability for governments/central banks to intervene is in fact highly useful, and more than worth the risk of error. Most obviously, they can stabilise in the face of shocks, for example, a pandemic. Indeed, this was the reason we switched to fiat currency in the first place.15
Relatedly the gold standard can also lead to the reverberation of shocks through the global economy. This is because economic shocks in one economy will lead to investors buying up gold as a safe asset. Given currencies are pegged to gold, this increase in demand in one nation can have significant impacts on the value of currencies the world over.
P1b: Intervention in the money supply is inherently undemocratic, and jeaopordizes liberty fFalse)
Hayek's claim hasn't been borne out historically. Since leaving metallism most metrics of prosperity have increased, and there have been fewer crises than under the old system. There hasn’t been any evidence of any shift away from democracy or increases of the translation of political power to economic benefit. In fact, this was arguably greater under historical gold backed systems16. Where such things do happen today, it’s not happening through monetary policy.
There are many other areas of state influence which should be far more concerning to libertarians than monetary policy, with legislation affecting so-called “negative liberty” being a prime example (whatever one’s stance on its legitimacy). Of course the hard libertarian retort is that all channels of state control should be dispensed with, but this simply shows that currency shouldn’t be top priority in these efforts. In short, even if one has such inclinations, central bank control is not a hill reasonable libertarians should die on in the modern era.
Finally, there are ways to democratize the fiat system without returning to gold. We can increase the democratic accountability of those in control of monetary policy, for example. Central banks can be made more accountable to government, and independent bodies such as the Monetary Policy Committee can have either more democratic election mechanisms or a greater diversity of representation17. Of course, again, this will still not satisfy hard libertarians as there is still someone exerting influence unilaterally to some degree, but it at least demonstrates the option of reasonable compromise for those with an ideological concern about democracy.
P2: Bitcoin is a better alternative to gold (false)
P2a: Bitcoin is like gold (false)
Bitcoin does satisfy unit of account as it is divisible. It cannot, however, function as a medium of exchange. The transaction throughput is so small that it doesn't work as a global system of currency - it can't process transactions fast enough. As mentioned above, this is inherent to the proof-of-work process Bitcon uses to verify its transactions. In other words, this incapacity is baked in.
Bitcoin also does not appear to hold potential as a store of value given its extremely high price variance. Gold, on the other hand, has historical precedent as a store of value in economic insecurity; its price has proven to be better insulated from broader economic dynamics than many other asset types. Gold also has a synthetic floor on its price due to its use value in semiconductor fabrication and jewelry18. If bitcoin were to behave as a store of value it would have to abandon hypervolatility, and there is no easily identifiable economic mechanism for this to happen.
Bitcoin, unlike traditional commodities, has a negative price elasticity of demand - demand goes up with price, not down. For this reason, bitcoin looks like a speculative bubble, which at some point will inevitably crash.19 Admittedly this argument is not easily falsifiable. One could argue that bitcoin has simply not been around long enough to infer its potential as a store of value; even if it did drop to zero, it could hypothetically rebound. Nonetheless, on present evidence it is not delivering, and there aren’t any plausible reasons to suggest this evidence will not be indicative of future behaviour.
As mentioned in our initial definition of chartallism, states converged on this approach for a reason. States can synthetically stimulate demand for a single, fiat currency by demanding tax in this currency, ensuring the whole system works and that the value of such currency can never drop to zero. In other words, there is a clear mechanism to guard against value bottoming out. The same cannot be said for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcon.
Relatedly, Bitcoin also no longer shares gold’s uniqueness. Lots of new “alt coins” - new alternatives to bitcoin - are being minted, meaning the cryptocurrency market is now crowded with competitors. Even Bitcoin itself has now forked into a number of distinct versions20 all jostling for attention and investment, something which cannot happen with physical commodities such as gold. Given its potential as a store of value is tied to at least somewhat to uniqueness, this does not bode well for Bitcon’s claim to equivalency with gold. High numbers of different coins also creates inflationary effects - the very thing stores of value are intended to guard against!
The history of large issuances of private money isn't good. Single currency systems were adopted as these are significantly more efficient. A single price in a single currency allows far easier exchange of goods wherever one is located, for example. Having multiple issuers of currency adds friction to trade, as one must convert the value of a given object between currencies before exchange can take place. These systems are also subject to fraud and a general breakdown of trust. If any bank can issue its own banknotes, how does one know which bank is reliable and which isn’t?
P2b: Bitcoin functions better than gold (false)
Bitcoin being digital does not mean it is without its costs. The extraction, transport and storage costs associated with gold are outweighed by massive bitcoin mining costs. The “proof-of-work” mechanism21 used to validate transactions and undertake mining for bitcoin requires a huge amount of electricity. It is therefore is highly costly22, not to mention environmentally damaging23. This verification process creates significant friction around transactions - the system is very slow, particularly when lots of people are using it. This further undermines a key respect in which bitcoin might otherwise be considered superior to gold.24
A final note on trust
In the world of bitcoin, and blockchain more generally, lots is made of so called “trustless systems”25. Replacing interpersonal trust with cryptographic verification mechanisms is lauded as a positive; we no longer need trust: in states, governmental institutions or even one another. The problem with trust is that when you get rid of it, it's very hard to get it back. This is a major trade-off and thus risk: if crypto were to fail we would risk a large-scale general reduction in trust. Even if it were to succeed, it would likely lead to a significantly diminished role for trust at a broader level.
There is evidence that high trust of strangers correlates with positive economic and social outcomes.26 At the root of trustless blockchain technologies are assumptions about human nature, which have significant implications for how we approach vital questions of social cooperation. Do we cooperate through some kind of formal system that we can enforce through software and rules? Or do we do so by learning to trust each other, in ways that come from our culture, perhaps supported by institutions and laws, but ultimately coming from ourselves. There is a tension between these two approaches: as I create more formal rules based in the assumption that I trust people less, this then undermines good faith and can actually create the very opposite outcomes we aim towards27. Aside from its impacts on bitcoin’s potential as a gold substitute, the issue of trust has serious ramifications for how we govern our societies. This is a fact we’d do well not to ignore.
- Is bitcoin a currency?
- Are crypto assets a risk to the dollar?
- Does Bitcoin threaten the US dollar as reserve currency?
- Are crypto tokens a hedge against the “debasement” of the dollar?
- Are crypto assets a hedge against inflation?
- Is private money desirable?
- Is Web3 decentralized?
- Bemanke, Ben, and Harold James. 1991. ‘The Gold Standard, Deflation, and Financial Crisis in the Great Depression: An International Comparison’. In Financial Markets and Financial Crises, 33–68. University of Chicago Press. https://www.nber.org/books-and-chapters/financial-markets-and-financial-crises/gold-standard-deflation-and-financial-crisis-great-depression-international-comparison.
- Bernanke, B. S. (2004). Essays on the Great Depression. Princeton University Press.
- Eich, Stefan. 2018. ‘The Currency of Politics’. The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes.
- Cembalest, M. (2022). The Maltese Falcoin: On Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains (p. 31).
- Corradi, Fiammetta, and Philipp Höfner. 2018. ‘The Disenchantment of Bitcoin: Unveiling the Myth of a Digital Currency’. International Review of Sociology 28 (1): 193–207. https://doi.org/10.1080/03906701.2018.1430067.
- Green, Russell A. "Gold Standard or Fool’s Gold? Should the US Consider Returning to the Gold Standard?." Issue Brief 02.23. 16 (2016).
- Ammous, Saifedean. 2018. The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.
- Sanz Bas, David. 2020. ‘Hayek and the Cryptocurrency Revolution’. Iberian Journal of the History of Economic Thought 7 (1): 15–28. https://doi.org/10.5209/ijhe.69403.
- Friedrich, Carl J. "The Road to Serfdom." (1945): 575-579.
- Selmi, R., Bouoiyour, J., & Wohar, M. E. (2022). “Digital Gold” and geopolitics. Research in International Business and Finance, 59, 101512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ribaf.2021.101512
- Krugman, Paul. "The hangover theory." Slate. December 3 (1998).
- Krugman, Paul (7 April 2010). "The Conscience of a Liberal: Martin And The Austrians". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 23 September 2011.
- Allon, F. (2018). Money after Blockchain: Gold, Decentralised Politics and the New Libertarianism. Australian Feminist Studies, 33(96), 223–243. https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.2018.1517245
- Caferra, R., Tedeschi, G., & Morone, A. (2021). Bitcoin: Bubble that bursts or Gold that glitters? Economics Letters, 205, 109942. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econlet.2021.109942
- Wang, G., Tang, Y., Xie, C., & Chen, S. (2019). Is bitcoin a safe haven or a hedging asset? Evidence from China. Journal of Management Science and Engineering, 4(3), 173–188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmse.2019.09.001
- Caferra, Rocco, Gabriele Tedeschi, and Andrea Morone. 2021. ‘Bitcoin: Bubble That Bursts or Gold That Glitters?’ Economics Letters 205: 109942. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econlet.2021.109942.
- Wolf, Martin. 2019. ‘The Libertarian Fantasies of Cryptocurrencies’. Financial Times, February. https://www.ft.com/content/eeeacd7c-2e0e-11e9-ba00-0251022932c8.
- Fantacci, Luca. 2019. ‘Cryptocurrencies and the Denationalization of Money’. International Journal of Political Economy 48 (2): 105–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/08911916.2019.1624319.
- Shri T Rabi Sankar. Cryptocurrencies – An Assessment
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Note it is this function that has seen cryptocurrency lauded as a solution to hyperinflation in developing countries, as people can store their earnings in unaffected cryptocurrency even while domestic currencies lose their value due to hyperinflation. ↩
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In Spain, during the conquest of Granada (1482-1492), paper money was issued as an emergency measure. Foster, Ralph T. Fiat Paper Money – The History and Evolution of Our Currency. Berkeley, California: Foster Publishing. 2010. ↩
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