The idea that somehow bitcoin can be banned by governments is the final stage of grief, right before acceptance. The consequence of the statement is an admission that bitcoin “works.” In fact, it posits that bitcoin works so well that it will threaten the incumbent government-run monopolies on money in which case governments will regulate it out of existence to eliminate the threat. Think about the claim that governments will ban bitcoin as conditional logic. Is bitcoin functional as money? If not, governments have nothing to ban. If yes, then governments will attempt to ban bitcoin. So the anchor point for this line of criticism assumes that bitcoin is functional as money. And then, the question becomes whether or not government intervention could successfully cause an otherwise functioning bitcoin to fail.
As a starting point, anyone trying to understand how, why, or if bitcoin works should assess the question entirely independent from the implications of government regulation or intervention. While bitcoin will undoubtedly have to co-exist alongside various regulatory regimes, imagine governments did not exist. On a standalone basis, would bitcoin be functional as money, if left to the free market? This will inevitably lead to a number of rabbit hole questions. What is money? What are the properties that make a particular medium a better or worse form of money? Does bitcoin share those properties? Is bitcoin a better form of money based on its properties? If the ultimate conclusion becomes that bitcoin is not functional as money, the implications of government intervention are irrelevant. However, if bitcoin is functional as money, the question then becomes relevant to the debate, and anyone considering the question would need that prior context as a baseline to evaluate whether or not it would be possible.
By design, bitcoin exists beyond governments. But bitcoin is not just beyond the control of governments, it functions without the coordination of any central third parties. It is global and decentralized. Anyone can access bitcoin on a permissionless basis and the more widespread it becomes, the more difficult it becomes to censor the network. The architecture of bitcoin is practically purpose-built to resist and immunize any attempts by governments to ban it. This is not to say that governments all over the world will not attempt to regulate, tax or even ban its use. There will certainly be a fight to resist bitcoin adoption. The Fed and the Treasury (and their global counterparts) are not just going to lay down as bitcoin increasingly threatens the monopolies of government money. However, before debunking the idea that governments could outright ban bitcoin, first understand the very consequence of the statement and the messenger.
The Progression of Denial & Stages of Grief
The skeptic’s narrative consistently shifts over time. Stage one of grief: bitcoin could never work – it is backed by nothing. It is nothing more than a present-day tulip mania. With each hype cycle, the value of bitcoin rises dramatically and is then followed by a correction. Often extolled as a crash by skeptics, bitcoin fails to die and in each instance, it finds support at levels higher than prior adoption waves. The tulip narrative becomes tired and the skeptics move on to more nuanced issues, re-anchoring the debate. Stage two of grief follows: bitcoin is flawed as a currency. It is too volatile to be money, or it is too slow to be a payments system, or it cannot scale to satisfy all the payments in the world, or it wastes energy. The list goes on. This second step is a progression of denial and it is a significant departure from the idea that bitcoin is nothing more than nothingness.
Despite the supposed flaws, the value of the bitcoin network continues to rise over time. Each time it does not die, it gains strength. While the skeptics are busy pointing out flaws, bitcoin never sleeps. An increase in value is driven by a very simple market dynamic: more buyers than sellers. That is all and it is a function of increasing adoption. More and more people figure out why there is fundamental demand for bitcoin and why/how it works. This is what creates long-term demand for bitcoin. As more people increasingly demand it as a store of wealth, there is no supply response. There will only ever be 21 million bitcoin. No matter how many people demand bitcoin, the supply side is completely fixed and inelastic. As the skeptics continue to shout the same tired lines, the crowd continues to parse the noise and demand bitcoin due to the strengths of its monetary properties. And no constituency is more well-versed in the arguments against bitcoin than adopters of bitcoin themselves.
Desperation begins to kick in, and the debate re-anchors once again. The narrative predictably shifts. It is no longer that bitcoin is not backed by anything, nor that it is flawed as a currency; instead, the debate centers on regulation and government authorities. In the final stage of grief, it is actually that bitcoin works too well, and as a consequence, the government will never let it happen and ban it. Really? So human ingenuity somehow re-invents money in a technologically superior medium, the consequences of which are mind-bending, and the government is somehow going to ban that? Recognize that in claiming as much, the skeptics are admitting defeat. It is the dying whimper in a series of failed arguments. The skeptics simultaneously accept that there is fundamental demand for bitcoin and then pivot to the unfounded belief that governments can ban it.
Play this one out. When exactly would developed world governments actually step in and attempt to ban bitcoin? Today, the Fed and the Treasury do not view bitcoin as a serious threat to dollar supremacy. In their collective mind, bitcoin is a cute little toy and is not functional as a currency. Presently, the bitcoin network represents a total purchasing power of less than $200 billion. Gold on the other hand has a purchasing power of approximately $8 trillion (40x the size of bitcoin) and broad money supply of dollars (M2) is approximately $15 trillion (75x the size of bitcoin). When does the Fed or Treasury start seriously considering bitcoin a credible threat? Is it when bitcoin collectively represents $1 trillion of purchasing power? $2 trillion or $3 trillion? Pick your level, but the implication is that bitcoin will be far more valuable, and held by far more people globally, before government powers that be view it as a credible competitor or threat.
So the skeptic logic follows: bitcoin does not work, but if it does work, the government will ban it. But, governments in the free world will not attempt to ban bitcoin until it becomes more apparent that it is a threat. At which time, bitcoin will be more valuable and undoubtedly harder to ban, as it will be held by far more people in far more places. So, ignore fundamentals and the asymmetry inherent in a global monetization event because in the event you turn out to be right, the government will step in to regulate bitcoin out of existence. Which side of the fence would a rational economic actor rather be on? Owning a monetary asset that has increased in value so dramatically that it threatens the global reserve currency, or the opposite – not owning that asset? Assuming an individual possesses the knowledge to understand why it is a fundamental possibility (and increasingly a probability), which is the more defensible and logical position? The asymmetry alone dictates the former and any fundamental understanding of the demand for bitcoin only reinforces the same position.
But Bitcoin Cannot Be Banned.
Think about what bitcoin actually represents and then what a ban of bitcoin would represent. Bitcoin represents the conversion of subjective value, created and exchanged in the real world, for digital keys. Said more plainly, it is the conversion of an individual’s time into money. When someone demands bitcoin, they are at the same time forgoing demand for some other good, whether it be a dollar, a house, a car, or food, etc. Bitcoin represents monetary savings that comes with the opportunity cost of other goods and services. Banning bitcoin would be an affront to the most basic freedoms it is designed to both provide and preserve. Imagine the response by all those that have adopted bitcoin: “Well that was fun, the tool that the experts said would never work, now works too well, and the same experts and authorities say we can’t use it. Everyone go home. Show’s over folks.” To believe that all the people in the world that have adopted bitcoin for the financial freedom and sovereignty it provides would suddenly lay down and accept the ultimate infringement of that freedom is not rational.
“Money is one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man. It is money which in existing society opens an astounding range of choice to the poor man – a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy..” – F.A. Hayek
Governments could not successfully ban the consumption of alcohol, the use of drugs, the purchase of firearms, or the ownership of gold. A government can marginally restrict access, or even make possession illegal, but it cannot make something of value demanded by a broad and disparate group of people magically go away. When the U.S. made the private ownership of gold illegal in 1933, gold did not lose its value or disappear as a monetary medium. It actually increased in value relative to the dollar, and just thirty years later, the ban was lifted. Not only does bitcoin provide a greater value proposition relative to any other good that any government has ever attempted to ban (including gold); but by its nature, it is also far harder to ban. Bitcoin is global and decentralized. It is without borders and it is secured by nodes and cryptographic keys. The act of banning bitcoin would require preventing open source software code from being run and preventing digital signatures (created by cryptographic keys) from being broadcast on the internet. And it would have to be coordinated across numerous jurisdictions, except there is no way to know where the keys actually reside or to prevent more nodes from popping up in different jurisdictions. Setting aside the constitutional issues, it would be technically infeasible to enforce a ban of bitcoin in any meaningful way.
Bitcoin Node Concentration by Country (earn.com)
Even if all countries in the G-20 coordinated to ban bitcoin in unison, it would not kill bitcoin. Instead, it would be the fait accompli for the fiat system. It would reinforce to the masses that bitcoin is a formidable currency, and it would set off a global and hopeless game of whack-a-mole. There is no central point of failure in bitcoin; bitcoin miners, nodes and keys are distributed throughout the world. Every aspect of bitcoin is decentralized, which is why running nodes and controlling keys is core to bitcoin. The more keys and the more nodes that exist, the more decentralized bitcoin becomes, and the more immune bitcoin is to attack. The more jurisdictions in which mining exists, the less risk any single jurisdiction represents to bitcoin’s security function. A coordinated state level attack would only serve to build the strength of bitcoin’s immune system. It would ultimately accelerate the shift away from the legacy financial system (and legacy currencies), and it would accelerate innovation within the bitcoin economic system. With each passing threat, bitcoin innovates to immunize the threat. A coordinated state level attack would be no different.
Permissionless innovation on a globally decentralized basis is the reason bitcoin gains strength from every attack. It is the attack vector itself which causes bitcoin to innovate. It is Adam Smith’s invisible hand on steroids. Individual actors may believe themselves to be motivated by a greater cause, but in reality, the utility embedded in bitcoin creates a sufficiently powerful incentive structure to ensure its survival. The self-interests of millions, if not billions, of uncoordinated individuals aligned by their individual and collective need for money incentivizes permissionless innovation on top of bitcoin. Today, it may seem like a cool new technology or a nice-to-have portfolio investment, but even if most people do not yet recognize it, bitcoin is a necessity. It is a necessity because money is a necessity, and legacy currencies are fundamentally broken. Two months ago, the repo markets in the U.S. broke, and the Fed quickly responded by increasing the supply of dollars by $250 billion, with more to come. It is precisely why bitcoin is a necessity, not a luxury. When an innovation happens to be a basic necessity to the functioning of an economy, there is no government force that could ever hope to stop its proliferation. Money is a very basic necessity, and bitcoin represents a step-function change innovation in the global competition for money.
And more practically, any attempt to ban bitcoin or heavily regulate its use by any jurisdiction would directly benefit a competing jurisdiction. The incentive to defect from any coordinated effort to ban bitcoin would be far too high to sustain such an agreement across jurisdictions. If the United States made the possession of bitcoin illegal tomorrow, would it slow down proliferation, development and adoption of bitcoin and would it cause the value of the network to decline intermittently? Probably. Would it kill bitcoin? No. Bitcoin represents the most mobile capital in the world. Countries and jurisdictions that create regulatory certainty and place the least amount of restrictions on the use of bitcoin will benefit significantly from capital inflows.
Banning Bitcoin Prisoner’s Dilemma
In practice, the prisoner’s dilemma is not one-to-one. It is multi-dimensional involving numerous jurisdictions, all with competing interests, making any attempts to successfully ban bitcoin that much more impractical. Human capital, physical capital and monetary capital will flow to the countries and jurisdictions with the least restrictive regulations on bitcoin. It may not happen overnight, but attempting to ban bitcoin is the equivalent of a country cutting off its nose to spite its face. It doesn’t mean that countries will not try. India has already tried to ban bitcoin. China has attempted to heavily restrict its use. Others will follow. But each time a country takes an action to restrict the use of bitcoin, it actually has the unintended effect of promoting bitcoin adoption. Attempts to ban bitcoin are an extremely effective marketing tool for bitcoin. Bitcoin exists as a non-sovereign, censorship-resistant form of money. It is designed to exist beyond the state. Attempts to ban bitcoin merely serve to reinforce bitcoin’s reason for existence and ultimately, its value proposition.
The only winning move is to play
Banning bitcoin is a fool’s errand. Some will try; all will fail. And the very attempts to ban bitcoin will accelerate its adoption and proliferation. It will be the hundred mile-per-hour wind that fuels the wildfire. It will also make bitcoin stronger and more reliable, further immunizing it from attack and reinforcing its antifragile nature. And in any case, believing governments will ban bitcoin, if it becomes a credible threat to global reserve currencies, is an irrational reason to discount it as a savings technology. It both cedes that bitcoin is viable as money, while at the same time ignoring the principal reasons as to why: decentralization and censorship-resistance. Imagine understanding the greatest present secret in the world and not capitalizing on the asymmetry and utility that bitcoin provides in fear of government. More likely, either someone understands why bitcoin works and that it will not fail at the hands of a government, or a knowledge gap exists as to how bitcoin is able to function in the first place. Begin by understanding the fundamentals, and then apply that as a baseline to assess any potential risk posed by future government intervention or regulation. And never discount the value of asymmetry; the only winning move is to play.
Next edition: Bitcoin is Not for Criminals (…it’s for everyone)
Views presented are expressly my own and not those of Unchained Capital or my colleagues. Thanks to Phil Geiger for reviewing and for providing valuable feedback.