If you don’t know what Bitcoin is, do a bit of research on the internet, and you will get plenty… but the short story is that Bitcoin was created as a medium of exchange, without a central bank or bank of issue being involved. Furthermore, Bitcoin transactions are supposed to be private, that is anonymous. Most interestingly, Bitcoins have no real world existence; they exist only in computer software, as a kind of virtual reality.
The general idea is that Bitcoins are ‘mined’… interesting term here… by solving an increasingly difficult mathematical formula -more difficult as more Bitcoins are ‘mined’ into existence; again interesting- on a computer. Once created, the new Bitcoin is put into an electronic ‘wallet’. It is then possible to trade real goods or Fiat currency for Bitcoins… and vice versa. Furthermore, as there is no central issuer of Bitcoins, it is all highly distributed, thus resistant to being ‘managed’ by authority.
Naturally proponents of Bitcoin, those who benefit from the growth of Bitcoin, insist rather loudly that ‘for sure, Bitcoin is money’… and not only that, but ‘it is the best money ever, the money of the future’, etc… Well, the proponents of Fiat shout just as loudly that paper currency is money… and we all know that Fiat paper is not money by any means, as it lacks the most important attributes of real money. The question then is does Bitcoin even qualify as money… never mind it being the money of the future, or the best money ever.
To find out, let’s look at the attributes that define money, and see if Bitcoin qualifies. The three essential attributes of money are;
1) money is a stable store of value; the most essential attribute, as without stability of value the function of numeraire, or unit of measure of value, fails.
2) money is the numeraire, the unit of account.
3) money is a medium of exchange… but other things can also fulfill this function ie direct barter, the ‘netting out’ of goods exchanged. Also ‘trade goods’ (chits) that hold value temporarily; and finally exchange of mutual credit; ie netting out the value of promises fulfilled by exchanging bills or IOU’s.
Compared to Fiat, Bitcoin does not do too badly as a medium of exchange. Fiat is only accepted in the geographic domain of its issuer. Dollars are no good in Europe etc. Bitcoin is accepted internationally. On the other hand, very few retailers currently accept payment in Bitcoin. Unless the acceptance grows geometrically, Fiat wins… although at the cost of exchange between countries.
The first condition is a lot tougher; money must be a stable store of value… now Bitcoins have gone from a ‘value’ of $3.00 to around $1,000, in just a few years. This is about as far from being a ‘stable store of value’; as you can get! Indeed, such gains are a perfect example of a speculative boom… like Dutch tulip bulbs, or junior mining companies, or Nortel stocks.
Of course, Fiat fails here as well; for example, the US Dollar, the ‘main’ Fiat, has lost over 95% of its value in a few decades… neither fiat nor Bitcoin qualify in the most important measure of money; the capacity to store value and preserve value through time. Real money, that is Gold, has shown the ability to hold value not just for centuries, but for eons. Neither Fiat nor Bitcoin has this crucial capacity… both fail as money.
Finally, we come to the second attribute; that of being the numeraire. Now this is really interesting, and we can see why both Bitcoin and Fiat fail as money, by looking closely at the question of the ‘numeraire’. Numeraire refers to the use of money to not only store value, but to in a sense measure, or compare value. In Austrian economics, it is considered impossible to actually measure value; after all, value resides only in human consciousness… and how can anything in consciousness actually be measured? Nevertheless, through the principle of Mengerian market action, that is interaction between bid and offer, market prices can be established… if only momentarily… and this market price is expressed in terms of the numeraire, the most marketable good, that is money.