I received a number of thoughtful comments on yesterday’s article on Bitcoin and wanted to follow up on a couple of important points that they raised and provide some new information.
Some of the pro-Bitcoin enthusiasts were keen to emphasize the difference between Bitcoin and previous potential sources of private money. It’s digital, so doesn’t have physical production or storage issues and it’s hard to melt down a Bitcoin and pass it off as two Bitcoins, thus perhaps ruling out the role governments played in verifying and securing money in the past.
However, commenters were also keen to emphasize that Bitcoin is special because it can only be created according to a special algorithm that ultimately limits the total number of Bitcoins to 21 million and guarantees that payments are anonymous and irreversible.
The fact that Bitcoin advocates rely so heavily on the niftiness of its underlying algorithms and protocol is one of the best reasons to predict its demise. If all you have going for you is a cool algorithm, then at some point there will be someone else out there with an even cooler algorithm. And then someone else.
Indeed, there is evidence that this process is already underway. If you don’t want to use Bitcoin, you can always try Litecoin. It promises to be
a peer-to-peer Internet currency that enables instant payments to anyone in the world. It is based on the Bitcoin protocol but differs from Bitcoin in that it can be efficiently mined with consumer-grade hardware. Litecoin provides faster transaction confirmations (2.5 minutes on average) and uses a memory-hard, scrypt-based mining proof-of-work algorithm to target the regular computers and GPUs most people already have. The Litecoin network is scheduled to produce 84 million currency units.
And if you’re in it for the speculation, Litecoin is showing some nice bubbly movements as well.
Or maybe you could go with Primecoin, an
experimental cryptocurrency that introduces the first scientific computing proof-of-work to cryptocurrency technology. Primecoin’s proof-of-work is an innovative design based on searching for prime number chains, providing potential scientific value in addition to minting and security for the network.
Supporting private money and adding scientific value, what’s not to like?
Perhaps though, you are kept awake at night worrying about a 51% attack (no it doesn’t involve aliens or Area 51). In that case, perhaps Peercoin is for you
Peercoin’s major difference from Bitcoin is that it uses a proof-of-stake/proof-of-work hybrid system for coin generation. With this system, coins are generated based on proof-of-stake blocks in addition to proof-of-work blocks. In other words, someone holding 1% of the currency will generate 1% of all proof-of-stake coin blocks.
Proof-of-stake block generation could reduce the risk of 51% attacks ….
This little tour of crypto-currencies (and there’s plenty more) should be enough to convince you that one of these outfits will probably produce a currency that is widely seen as superior to Bitcoin along most dimensions, perhaps attracting lots of supporters on websites and Russian-government-sponsored TV shows.
What happens then to your Bitcoins then? Even Bitcoin’s own FAQ is clear about the uncertainties surrounding its future. A brief excerpt:
Can bitcoins become worthless?
Yes. History is littered with currencies that failed and are no longer used, such as the German Mark during the Weimar Republic and, more recently, the Zimbabwean dollar. Although previous currency failures were typically due to hyperinflation of a kind that Bitcoin makes impossible, there is always potential for technical failures, competing currencies, political issues and so on.
So even if private crypto-currencies are the future, that doesn’t mean that Bitcoins will feature in that future. It’s a bit like investing all your money in IBM in the 1970s because you’re sure computers are the next big thing even though you haven’t yet heard of Microsoft or Apple. Or taking a punt on Pets.com in 1999 because the Internet is the future and sure people will still have pets in the future.
The difference in this case is that private currencies are probably not the future. The very fact that no single private currency can be relied on to have the necessary unique features to become a useful source of value is likely to undermine the whole idea. Like it or not, the US federal government is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, printing dollars, requiring tax payments in those same dollars and enforcing the requirement that creditors must accept dollars as legal tender. Dollars are not going to be dislodged by Bitcoin, Primecoin, Karlcoin or whatever.
Of course, commenters did note another advantage of Bitcoins. They may possibly help to facilitate illegal activities and tax evasion. If that’s why you’re buying Bitcoins, all I can say is good luck with that. Uncle Sam is watching you.