Bitcoin is a fantasy. The Internet’s currency—a secure, private, decentralized type of money that makes possible anonymous and virtually costless transactions across borders—contains the seeds of its own destruction. More than anything else, it resembles a Ponzi scheme—and the wild claims made on its behalf reveal a great deal about a libertarian strain of thinking with deep roots in the American psyche.
Bitcoin may be useful for certain types of transactions, especially illegal ones. But bitcoin’s defenders argue that the experiment has proved that a currency can come into existence and function without any government role, so designed as to make inflation impossible and bank transfer fees unnecessary. These features are supposed to make bitcoins irresistible for consumers. Meanwhile, stripped of the power to manipulate currencies to advance nefarious ends, governments will collapse, and we will live in an anarcho-utopia.
This is wrong, both theory and experience tell us. Bitcoin is not the first unregulated or private currency…
Felix Salmon and many others have pointed out that a currency cannot succeed with a supply that is fixed, or if it grows too slowly…
An even more fundamental problem with bitcoins, and indeed any private currency, is that there is no way to limit its supply. True, bitcoins cannot be manufactured beyond the limits set by Nakamoto. But there is no way to prevent future Nakamotos from creating bitcoin substitutes—say, bytecoin, or botcoin.
Unless a bitcoin has value as a currency, it has no value at all, and its price in dollars will fall to zero. A regular Ponzi scheme collapses when people realize that earlier investors are being paid out of the investments of later investors rather than from the returns on an underlying asset. Bitcoin will collapse when people realize that it can’t survive as a currency because of its built-in deflationary features, or because of the emergence of bytecoins, or both. A real Ponzi scheme takes fraud; bitcoin, by contrast, seems more like a collective delusion.
Eulogy made by Eric Posner