Bitcoin Will Bite the Dust
Kevin Dowd and Martin Hutchinson
Bitcoin is the most radical innovation in the monetary space for a very long time. It is an entirely private monetary system that runs itself and does not depend on trust in any central authority to honor its promises. Instead, it relies on trust in the Bitcoin community or network that verifies transactions and maintains the integrity of the system. This system of distributed trust creates bitcoins and produces an automatic, tamper-proof bitcoin money supply process. 1 As such, it avoids the dangers of discretionary monetary policy—namely, quantitative easing, manipulated interest rates, and the need to rely on wise men or women to withstand political pressure or successfully forecast the future. Indeed, under Bitcoin there is no monetary policy at all. There is just an automatic monetary rule dictated by the Bitcoin protocol designed in 2009 by an anonymous programmer using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto.
Bitcoin has been widely hailed as a success and has won a substantial following. Unfortunately, the underlying economics of Bitcoin mean that it is unsustainable and in all likelihood will be remembered as a failed experiment—at best a pointer to some superior successor. A first-pass intuition into Bitcoin can be obtained from a comparison with the stone money in Milton Friedman’s (1992) case study, “The Island of Stone Money.” In this story, the people of the island of Yap in Micronesia used as money large round limestone disks transported from the nearby island of Palau. These were too heavy to conveniently move around, so they were placed in prominent places. When ownership was to be transferred (e.g., as part of a dowry, inheritance, or ransom payment), the current owner would publicly announce the change in ownership but the stone would typically remain where it was and the islanders would maintain a collective memory of the ownership history of the stones. This collective memory ensured that there was no dispute over who owned which stones. Similarly, in Bitcoin, the record of all transactions, the “blockchain,” is also public knowledge and is regarded as the definitive record of who owns which bitcoins. Both the stone money and Bitcoin share a critical feature that is highly unusual for a monetary system: both systems operate via a decentralized collective memory. On February 11, 2009, Nakamoto gave an explanation of the thinking behind Bitcoin in an e-mail announcing its launch: “The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that is required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. . . . With e-currency based on cryptographic proof, without the need to trust a third-party middleman, money can be secure and transactions complete.” Cryptocurrencies, however, face the problem of “double-spending.” As Nakamoto notes, “Any owner could try to re-spend an already spent coin by [digitally] signing it again to another owner. The usual solution is for a trusted company with a central database to check for double-spending, but that just gets back to the trust model. . . . Bitcoin’s solution is to use a peer-to-peer network to check for double-spending.” Consequently, “the result is a distributed system with no single point of failure.”
The fact that Bitcoin has no single point of failure is highly significant: it means that it cannot be brought down by knocking out any particular individual or organization.3 It can only be brought down by knocking out the whole network or one of the underlying building blocks on which the network depends.4 It can and does operate outside of government control: Bitcoin is a dream come true for anarchists, criminals, and proponents of private money.
Despite its success, the Bitcoin system is unsustainable due to a design flaw at the very heart of the system. The problem is that Bitcoin requires competition on the part of “bitcoin miners” who validate transactions blocks, but this competition is unsustainable in the long run because of economies of scale in the mining industry. Indeed, these economies of scale are so large that the bitcoin mining industry is a natural monopoly. Furthermore, there are signs that competition in this industry is already breaking down. Once that happens, the system will no longer be able to function as it hitherto has. Its key attractions (decentralization, absence of a single point of failure, and anonymity) will disappear; there will no longer be any reason for users to stay with it; and the system will collapse
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