Saturday, 7 December 2013

"I, Broken Economist": An Analysis of Gary North's economics of Bitcoin

Conceited arrogance

There is one thing that becomes apparent when reading Gary North's articles. He knows a lot. But there is also another thing that becomes apparent sometimes, in particular in his latest article on Bitcoin. He thinks he knows more than he actually knows. I can't address his article in full detail now as I'm at the Latin American Bitcoin Conference, but I thought I'd mention some core issues with his article.

Heterogeneity of a monetary system

He writes that money enables economic calculation, and thus division of labour. He writes that Bitcoin couldn't exist if money did not already exist. He writes that you cannot buy everything with Bitcoin (yet). He writes that without goods being priced in Bitcoin, it can't be money.

I agree with all of this (or let's just assume I do). I also claim that it's irrelevant. Because North does not have a general theory of liquidity, and a general theory of transaction costs. Which is very sad, because Menger was very eloquent on explaining both of these categories and made profound discoveries. People who claim that their arguments are based on Menger, yet do not have either a theory of liquidity or a theory of transaction costs do not really understand Menger.

North only has a partial theory of liquidity (a theory of stable prices) and a partial theory of transaction costs (division of labour). But Menger was very elaborate on explaining why both liquidity and transaction costs are heterogenous and cannot be summed up to a particular activity. The implied error of the homogeneity of a monetary system is visible when North writes:
"You cannot have a monetary system that does not apply across the board, yet still defend the concept of the division of labour through competitive pricing".
It is visible also in other partial implications of the alleged homogeneity, for example assuming that liquidity is a final means of payment. This already has been erroneously claimed by Smiling Dave. Final means of payment is merely one of the factors that influence liquidity. Liquidity is also not a unit of account. Unit of account and liquidity influence each other, but again are merely one of the factors.

In other words, North's critique of Bitcoin misses that there are components of liquidity and transaction costs other than those he mentions. The total mix of all these influences the choice of a medium of exchange. The weight of the result is not only different based on the evolutionary stage of Bitcoin, but also on the particular circumstances of a particular user. This is why some people in some situations will find Bitcoin more advantageous, and other people or even the same people in a different situation disadvantageous. It is also why it cannot be apriori concluded what the future of Bitcoin will be, we can only make educated guesses. The only thing we can do as praxeologists is to conclude that Bitcoin might expand in those areas where its advantages are assessed as subjectively the most important with respect to other media of exchange. It might never develop into "money", but it would be erroneous to conclude that that's the only relevant issue (the good old "money or nothing" fallacy).

Heterogeneity of social interaction

The problem that North thinks he knows more than he actually does is exacerbated by his misapplication of the system of property rights and social frameworks to Bitcoin (or the lack thereof). North does not understand that Bitcoin is a social framework. It is a more efficient social framework. Contractual relationships that are currently expensive or impossible (have high transaction costs) are now profitable and/or possible with Bitcoin. Payments are merely the first, easiest, type of a contract, on which Bitcoin demonstrates its advantages. Rather than being an "implicit denial" of contracts, Bitcoin provides a more efficient framework for them. I think that we can all agree that Bitcoin is not perfect. But there are no perfect goods. There is always the subjective assessment, imperfect information, and opportunity costs.

Bitcoin is at a very early stage, and the basis for the framework is still expecting human actors to fill it with their own activities. Contrary to North's claim that Bitcoin "put the cart before the horse", it's the opposite. Bitcoin first created a framework, and then this was incrementally use for payments.

This is also, paradoxically, why North is clueless. He understands how social institutions evolve in theory, yet he cannot connect empirical data (when it happens right under his nose) with the theory.

Conclusion

North complains that people who criticise his position of Bitcoin do not understand the Austrian school. Well, I know for sure that North does not understand certain aspects of it (in particular Menger's approach to liquidity and transaction costs), and on other aspects he can't connect the theory with empirical data. He's also lazy (because he did not read Austrian literature on Bitcoin and he did not gather empirical data on Bitcoin), and conceited (because he thinks his credentials give him immunity from errors).

As I wrote before, the future of Bitcoin does not depend on the understanding of economists. It depends on human action. I don't care about North's opinion. But as a researcher I see it as important that I address errors. Others than can read both, make up their own mind, and build on top of it. The Austrian school did not end with Menger, it began with him.

4 comments:

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  2. Pozdravljen, g. Šurda. Prosil bi vas za kratek komentar: ali obstaja kratek in jedrnat argument, ki poveže bitcoin z avstrijsko ekonomsko šolo? Nekateri pravijo, da že samo dejstvo, da je količina bitcoinov končna (in valuta s tem deflatorna) dokaz za to, saj je avstrijska šola skoraj edina, ki se ne boji deflacije. Drugi pa odgovarjajo, da avstrijska šola deflacijo pripoznava kot posledico inflacije in sprejema njene pozitivne učinke, vendar pa se z njo nikoli ne ukvarja kot stalnim pojavom; tudi cena zlata v obdobju zlatega standarda naj bi namreč izkazovala 0,1% inflacijo. Ali lahko napišete kakšno besedo o tem? Hvala.

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    1. Hello, I'm from Slovakia, not Slovenia, I understand you but don't speak Slovenian. I treat Bitcoin from Austrian point of view in my master's thesis (which you can download if you click on "Publications, lectures and interviews"), and I also just two days ago submitted a paper which contains newer results of my research to the Austrian Economic Research Conference.

      I did not write much about deflation because I think that other Austrians know much more about it than me, but I made a post that briefly addressed some points: http://www.economicsofbitcoin.com/2012/12/response-to-philip-pilkington-on.html

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