How Will Bitcoin Lead to More Freedom?
Katie Haun has one of bitcoin’s most improbable conversion stories. As an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, she prosecuted the two corrupt federal agents working the Silk Road case and created the federal government’s first cryptocurrency task force. “I’m the prosecutor who helped put some of the earliest bitcoin criminals in jail,” she boasted in a 2018 speech.
But while learning about bitcoin as a crime fighter, it dawned on her “how profoundly this technology could change how we do all sorts of things.” Haun is now a general partner at the venture capital fund Andreessen Horowitz, or a16z, where she co-leads its crypto funds with over $350 million raised since 2018. The firm is betting on blockchain as a new computing platform that will, among other things, create a decentralized financial system and fulfill the web’s original promise as an open network controlled by its users.
Blockchain computing “feels like the early days of the internet, web 2.0, or smartphones all over again,” according to a16z’s crypto thesis. Haun also sits on the board of the nonprofit organization overseeing Facebook’s cryptocurrency project Libra. At a 2019 congressional hearing, David Marcus, head of the company’s blockchain group, assured lawmakers, “Let me be clear and unambiguous: Facebook will not offer the Libra digital currency until we have fully addressed regulators’ concerns and received appropriate approvals.”
In their embrace of regulation, Haun and Marcus are at one extreme of the cryptocurrency community; on the other end, are the so-called bitcoin maximalists who have a name for projects like Libra: “shitcoin.”
“I would not be interested in bitcoin if governments didn’t want to ban it,” the software developer Pierre Rochard tweeted in 2017.
In a December 2019 essay titled “Cryptocurrency Is Most Useful for Breaking Laws and Social Constructs, Open Money Initiative Founder Jill Carlson wrote that cryptocurrency wasn’t designed to solve “mainstream problems.” It’s a tool used by “freedom fighters and terrorists, by journalists and dissidents, by scammers and black market dealers,” by “sex workers” or people “procuring drugs on the internet”—the type of person Katie Haun once worked to put in jail. Bitcoin maximalists, like Rochard, believe that governments will eventually attempt to ban bitcoin because it’s destined to replace fiat money, which will, among other things, eliminate their power to print money to finance the welfare-warfare state.
The divide over whether this technology is a tool for changing society by working within the system or by disrupting it from the outside predates the invention of bitcoin by a few decades. It traces back to a 1987 debate between the physicist Timothy C. May and the economist and entrepreneur Phil Salin, two early internet visionaries, whose difference of opinion laid the groundwork for the “cypherpunk” movement—a community of computer scientists, mathematicians, hackers, and avid science fiction readers whose work and writings influenced the creation of bitcoin, WikiLeaks, Tor, BitTorrent, and more. (Reason is publishing a four-part documentary series on the cypherpunk movement. The first two installments are available here and here.)
The bitcoin maximalists often use the “shitcoin” moniker to refer to cryptocurrency projects that are outright scams, technologically flawed, or cheap imitations of Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention, when in reality the world only needs one currency. Bitcoin, they maintain, is best understood as sound money, and Silicon Valley’s infatuation with “blockchain technology” is “a great example of ‘cargo cult science,'” as the economist Saifedean Ammous wrote in The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking.
But the community’s divide is also partly rooted in a disagreement over whether cryptocurrency is essentially a technology of resistance that derives value from being impervious to government interference and control, or whether it’s a tool for transforming society from within, in which case government regulation won’t sink the entire enterprise. A careful look at the debate that started with May and Salin in the 1980s helps us understand the best arguments of both sides.
BlackNet: ‘A Technological Means of Undermining all Governments’
In 1987, before the launch of the World Wide Web, May and Salin were part of a small community of West Coast science fiction–obsessed technologists mulling the implications of a decentralized, global information network running on personal computers. It was clear to May and Salin that the internet would remake the world, but they disagreed on what kind of software would serve as the linchpin.
Salin saw technology as a way to gradually drive down the transaction costs that impede human activity, making it feasible to interact in ways that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. “I’m interested in how to lower costs,” Salin told Reason in 1984. “The Austrian [School of Economics] insight is that any industry run as a planned economy for any time should be fertile ground for an entrepreneur.”
In 1986, he started the American Information Exchange, or AMIX, one of the first e-commerce startups. Salin, whose intellectual hero was the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, envisioned AMIX as a global marketplace for the buying and selling of local expertise that would enhance human cooperation and gradually replace central planning.
In a 1991 essay, Salin envisioned a “fluid, transaction-oriented market system, with two-way feedback” that could result in “crowding out monolithic, mostly government bureaucracies.” The same language could be applied to many projects in the modern cryptocurrency space. Facebook’s Libra, for example, promises to use blockchain technology to move money around the world in a manner that’s “as easy and cost-effective” as “sending a message or sharing a photo.” The project’s backers maintain that enabling “frictionless payments” for the 1.7 billion people around t
Article from Latest – Reason.com