The first is the Liberty Dollar, a private mint operated by Bernard von NotHaus, whose currency became the second most widely used in the United States. It was highly successful and its precious metallic basis ensured it rose in value over time against the inflating greenback. In 2007, however, Uncle Sam shut it down, successfully charging von NotHaus with counterfeiting and sundry other offences. In reality, the Liberty Dollar was nothing like the greenback dollar. Nor could it be, as its purpose was to provide a superior dollar in open competition, not to pass itself off as the inferior dollar it was competing against, which has lost over 95 per cent of its value since the Federal Reserve was founded a century ago. For this public service of providing superior currency, Mr. von NotHaus is now potentially facing life in the federal slammer. As he put it:
‘This is the United States government. It’s got all the guns, all the surveillance, all the tanks, it has nuclear weapons, and it’s worried about some ex-surfer guy making his own money? Give me a break!’
The second case is e-gold, a private digital gold transfer business – a kind of private gold standard – run by Dr Doug Jackson out of Nevis in the Caribbean. By 2005, e-gold had risen to become second only to PayPal in the online payments industry. Jackson correctly argued that it was not covered by any existing US financial regulation, not just because of its offshore status but also because it was a payment system rather than a money transmitter or bank as then-defined, and not least because gold was not legally ‘money’. Yet despite its efforts to clarify its evolving regulatory and tax status, and despite helping them to catch some of the biggest cyber criminals then in operation, US law enforcement turned on the company: they trumped up charges of illegal money transmission and blackmailed its principals into a plea bargain.
Both these cases illustrate that there is a strong demand for private money and that the market can meet that demand and outcompete government monetary systems. Unfortunately, they also illustrate the perils of private money issuers operating out in the open where they are vulnerable to attack by the government. Perhaps they should operate undercover instead…
This takes us to the third case study: Bitcoin, a new type of currency known as crypto-currency, a self-regulating and highly anonymous computer currency based on the use of strong cryptography.
To quote its designer, Satoshi Nakamoto:
‘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…
‘Bitcoin’s solution is to use a peer-to-peer network to check for double-spending…the result is a distributed system with no single point of failure.’
Bitcoin is produced in a kind of electronic ‘mining’ process, in which successful ‘miners’ are rewarded with Bitcoin. The process is designed to ensure that the amounts produced are almost exactly known in advance. Since its inception in 2009, the demand for Bitcoin has skyrocketed, albeit in a very volatile way, forcing its price from 3 cents to (currently) just under $600. Perhaps the best-known use of Bitcoin has been on the dark web drugs market Silk Road, the ‘Amazon.com of illegal drugs’, but Bitcoin is increasingly popular for all manner of mundane legal uses as well.
Bitcoin is a wonderful innovation, but the pioneers in any industry are rarely the ones who last. Despite Bitcoin’s success to date, it is doubtful whether being the first mover is an advantage in the longer term: design flaws in the Bitcoin model are set in concrete and competitors can learn from them. The crypto-currency market is also an open one and a considerable number of competitors have since entered the field. Most of these will soon fail, but no-one can predict which will be best suited to the market and achieve long-run success. Most likely, Bitcoin will eventually be displaced by even better crypto-currencies.
Crypto-currencies have momentous ramifications. As one blogger put it:
‘As long as my encrypted [Bitcoin] wallet exists somewhere in the world, such as on an email account, I can walk across national borders with nothing on me and retrieve my wealth from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.’
This gives Bitcoin great potential as an internationally mobile store of value that offers a high degree of security against predatory governments. Bitcoin now fulfils the role once met by bank secrecy – the ability to protect one’s financial privacy.
There is no easy way in which the government can prevent the use of Bitcoin to evade its control. The combination of anonymity and independence means that governments cannot bring Bitcoin down by taking out particular individuals or organisations because the system has no single point of failure. They could shut down whatever sites they like, but the Bitcoin community would carry on.
Strong cryptography therefore offers the potential to swing the balance of power back from the state toward the individual. Censorship, prohibition, oppressive taxes and repression are being undermined as people increasingly escape into the cyphersphere where they can operate free from government harassment.
We now face the prospect of a peaceful crypto-anarchic society in which there is no longer any government role in the monetary system and, hopefully, no government at all.
Welcome to crypto-anarchy.
New Private Monies: A Bit-Part Player can be downloaded here.