I’m currently reading “Money: The Unauthorised Biography” by Felix Martin, which I thoroughly recommend. Thought-provoking, illuminating and beautifully written, it debunks our preconceived notions and highlights the surprising evolution of this social technology that we use every day.
In the first chapter, Felix explains that the coins and notes that we carry around are not money. Money is the system of credit and debt that is sometimes represented by circles of metal and rectangles of paper. But usually not – most transactions are not represented by anything physical.
Rather, coins and notes are tokens that help us keep track of debts. The big innovation was to start exchanging those debts for others. Frank owes me, and here’s a token that represents that. I owe you, so here, take Frank’s token. Now he owes you. This conceptual leap is what kickstarted trade and the concept of an “economy”.
Looking back through history, that is what money has always been: a system of recording debts, and a representation of trust. That we associate money with coins is simply survivor bias – coins tend to weather the test of time better than other types of physical token.
One of my favourite anecdotes from the chapter is the siege of Malta. When the Turks cut off the fort from its supplies of gold and silver, the mint had to resort to making coins from copper – it inscribed each with the motto Non Aes, sed Fides – ”Not the metal, but trust.”
The system of recording that trust is what we call money.
Enter an entirely new way of recording that trust: bitcoin.
So, yes, bitcoin is a type of money. Perhaps not a currency – the online dictionary defines “currency” as “a system of money in general use in a particular country”. Since bitcoin is not confined to a particular country, that rules that out. (JP Koning points out that “currency” used to mean “something that could legally be used by the new owner if stolen”. So that would probably include bitcoin – but that definition has fallen into disuse, so we’ll go with the more modern one for now.)
According to the US Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), bitcoin is a commodity. If you’re talking about bitcoin the coin, then yes, it could be. Commodities (gold, silver, cacao beans) have often been used in the past to represent money. BUT bitcoin is more than just a commodity, just as the euro is more than just copper coins. (Interestingly, paper – which also represents money – is not considered a commodity.)
And anyway, the CFTC ruling is mainly aimed at the regulation of derivatives, not so much at the use of bitcoin as money.
The topic is tangled, though. If bitcoin is a commodity (like silver), what makes it usable as money (like silver)? An official stamp of some sort – after all, monetary systems have always been controlled (or at least overseen) by a central authority. For the first time, we have a money that escapes the traditional parameters.
Also, commodities have always existed independently of the monetary system they move on (for instance, copper is not just used for money, knots on a string can mean something other than debt). Until now, anyway.
The confusion highlights the need for a new attitude. Maybe it’s time we updated not only our vocabulary but also our understanding of the monetary system. It’s not going to be easy.