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“Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme!” “It has no intrinsic value!” “It’s a speculative investment!” The internet is full of so-called “experts” deriding bitcoin as a useless asset with no real value. All the while, the money we use in our day-to-day lives is gradually going to zero. The fact is this: Bitcoin has more intrinsic value than any fiat currency.
What Is Intrinsic Value?
Intrinsic value refers to value that something contains in and of itself.
Extrinsic value refers to value that something has because of external factors, such as market conditions.
Exactly what constitutes intrinsic value is subjective. For example, if something is valuable because it is useful, it could be argued that it has intrinsic value because the use is inherent to the thing itself.
However, it could also be argued that the thing only has value if that use continues to be needed. For example, horses are far less useful than they used to be because we don’t use them to pull carriages anymore.
However, this also depends on how you determine the usefulness of a thing. Horses are technically just as useful as they’ve always been, we just don’t make use of them as much as we used to.
Therefore, it is debatable whether something’s usefulness provides intrinsic or extrinsic value.
This could subsequently lead to a debate about extrinsic versus intrinsic usefulness, but that isn’t relevant here.
In the case of money, it can be considered that it will have intrinsic value if it is backed by a commodity. The intrinsic value of the currency will be the same as the intrinsic value of the commodity that backs it.
However, it could be argued that the value of the money is extrinsic because it is coming from something else rather than being a characteristic of the money itself.
Generally speaking, however, usefulness and being backed by something are deemed to provide intrinsic value.
For example, if money is backed by gold, it is deemed to have the same intrinsic value as the weight of gold that backs it, even though the value is coming from the gold rather than the money itself.
What Gives Money Value?
We’ve all grown up in a world where money is a tool of the state. The government is in complete control of monetary policy, a central bank issues the currency, and the rest of us simply use it day to day without any understanding of how it works or why it matters.
Of course, we’re all familiar with terms like inflation, and we’ve all made reference to “printing money” at some point. But most of us never really think about what the government is doing to the cash in our pockets every day.
We accept that money has intrinsic value because, to us, that has always been the case; currency has value because the government says so. (Or is it because we say so?) If we decided the government was wrong and our (their?) money doesn’t actually have value, who would be right?
The Origins of Money
Historically, money was any commodity that could be expected to hold its value over time.
According to Carl Menger in “The Origins of Money” (1892), the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians used commodities such as barley, shells, and livestock as mediums of exchange.
In Ancient Greece, iron bars were used. Eventually, coins were minted from gold, silver, and other precious metals as a way to transfer value.
That’s essentially what money is: a means of storing and, thus, transferring value.
If I work, I’m contributing value to the economy. I can be paid in food, or some other commodity that I need, in proportion to the value that I contributed.
However, money affords me the option of holding that value so that I can cash it in later in exchange for something that might not have been available when I was paid, or that the person paying me might not have had.
It also gives me the option of storing value and saving it up so that I can exchange a lot of value for something very expensive.
Money naturally evolved to enable people to store value across time so that they could cash in on that value when they needed to.
The intrinsic value of a currency is determined by what it’s backed by. It may have a market value that is higher than its intrinsic value, for example, if there is high demand compared to the currency’s supply.
Mostly, a currency’s value is determined by how useful it is and how scarce it is.
Why Were Precious Metals Chosen For Money?
Precious metals are a form of “hard money,” literally money that is hard to produce (and therefore inflate).
Not all societies used precious metals for currency. It largely depended on the availability of these metals and the ability to mint them into coins, bars, or jewelry. In East Africa during the 1800s, glass beads were used instead.
However, precious metals were often used for a number of reasons:
- Scarcity: Precious metals like gold and silver are rare and difficult to separate from their ores, making them difficult to produce.
- Durability: Gold does not corrode or degrade over time, making it perfect for storing value over long timescales.
- Divisibility: Precious metals can be easily separated into smaller quantities. A gold bar can be melted down into smaller units or even just cut in half.
- Acceptability: Precious metals have luster, a shine to them that makes them attractive and gives them an innate value. Money must have social acceptance to be a useful unit of exchange.
- Uniformity: Because precious metals are easily recognizable and verifiable (it is easy to test if a coin is solid gold or gold-plated lead), they are difficult to counterfeit.
- Portability: Precious metals can be minted into coins. The need to store and carry money makes coins ideal.
For anything to be considered money, it must fulfill these requirements. Currency naturally took the form of precious metals because they tick all these boxes.
It just happened; there was no central authority that decreed it must be so. Money is a natural phenomenon, and it arose because these six characteristics are necessary for exchanging value in a functional economy.
Money has intrinsic value because it does this job.
Introducing Fiat Money
For thousands of years, currency was something organic. All over the world, societies of differing sizes and technologies used different commodities as money according to the ability of those commodities to satisfy the requirements of a currency.
Then came fiat money.
Fiat money refers to a currency that isn’t backed by an actual commodity. Fiat is Latin for “let it be done” and is sometimes translated as “by decree.”
Historically, money had intrinsic value because a commodity was found to fulfill the six needs of money previously established. Currencies naturally arose that could meet the task of storing and transferring value.
Fiat money changed that. Fiat money has value “by decree,” or essentially, “because the government says so.”
What Gives Fiat Money Value?
Fiat money must have value, otherwise, no one would use it. We wouldn’t accept payment in a currency that was worthless.
And we know inflation happens, which is when a currency becomes less valuable. But how can it become less valuable if it has no value to begin with?
So fiat money must have value.
But if fiat money isn’t backed by any actual commodity, how can it be worth anything?
Simply put, fiat money has value because we all agree to use it.
There’s some degree of choice in this, but ultimately we’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it.
If you live in the U.S. then you use dollars. U.S. dollars are fiat cash created by the Federal Reserve or the banking system it holds under its wings.
Theoretically, if everyone decided to stop using dollars, they would be worthless.
In practice, it’s more complicated.
The U.S. government pays its employees in dollars. Taxes have to be paid in dollars. Fines and tariffs are all paid in dollars. The dollar is also legal tender, meaning merchants have to accept it.
In essence, the government has tools to ensure that dollars get used. As long as they get used, they’re worth something.
This is what gives fiat money value. The fact that we have to use them because the government says so, and we’re all used to this, so we don’t even question the value of the cash in our pockets. Because we don’t question the value, we have faith in it, and this collective faith also gives the currency value.
Sounds fine then, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The problem with fiat is not that it has no commodity to back its value. The problem is how that value changes over time.
Most governments have inflation targets. The Bank of England in the U.K. and the Federal Reserve in the U.S. both set inflation targets of 2% per year. This is typical of advanced economies.
What this means is that the central banks of most counties aim to devalue their currencies by an average of 2% per year.
But why? Why would a country have a deliberate policy of aiming to make its currency less valuable every single year?
There are many potential answers to this question, and which one you believe may depend on how cynical you are.
A Keynesian economist will tell you that a small amount of inflation is healthy for the economy because it stimulates growth by encouraging people to spend or invest their money rather than save it.
An Austrian economist will tell you it’s all a cover to keep the public naive to the fact that they’re being robbed.
Whether or not you believe in government conspiracies or collusion between the rich and powerful, it’s important to examine the actual effects of long-term inflation.
Why Can Inflation Be Good?
One somewhat understandable rationalization for inflation is that, as the economy grows, more cash is needed to provide liquidity for transactions within that economy.
Imagine there was only $100 in the entire U.S. economy. Each dollar would be worth billions in today’s dollars because there would be so few to spread over the entire economy.
It would be extremely difficult to trade because each dollar would be worth so much and can only be divided into 100 cents each.
Also, most citizens would not have any money at all as even one cent would be so valuable that it would exceed the net worth of most citizens.
The logical solution would be to print more money. That would devalue each dollar, but it would allow more dollars to be shared around so everyone has enough liquidity to facilitate business and trade.
If the economy grows, it might be useful to expand the money supply to lubricate economic activity by ensuring that there are enough dollars for everyone to make the transactions they need.
This means ensuring that individual dollars and cents are low enough value that you can make microtransactions at the lower-value end of the economy.
Expanding the money supply ensures that the currency doesn’t become too unwieldy as the economy grows.
The problem is with how the new money is distributed.
How Is New Money Created?
Central banks can “print” new money in several ways:
- Quantitative easing.
- Lowering reserve requirements for commercial banks.
- Providing loans to commercial banks.
Quantitative easing refers to the process whereby the central bank credits a commercial bank or financial institution to buy government bonds.
Government bonds are essentially government-issued debt. Someone (a citizen, institution, or another central bank) buys the bond, and the government promises to pay them back with interest after a period of time.
Through quantitative easing, the central bank creates the money used by the private institutions to buy the bonds.
This amounts to a government issuing debt to itself, which it can theoretically do indefinitely and never run out of money. Since it can always pay off the old debt with new debt, there’s no limit to the potential money supply.
Commercial banks also add to the money supply when they issue loans to their customers. They just add numbers to your account and viola! New money is created out of thin air.
Commercial banks are only allowed to loan out a certain multiple of the money they actually have in reserve. This is called fractional reserve banking.
If the government mandates a 20% reserve, a bank can only loan out five times what it has in deposits because it must always have in reserve 20% of what they’ve loaned out.
If the government lowers the reserve limit to 10%, banks can now loan out up to ten times what they have in reserve, meaning they can increase the money supply by double what they could before.
Similarly, central banks can provide loans to commercial banks to bail them out of bankruptcy or keep them afloat during economic hardship.
Unlike when a commercial bank loans money to an individual, which permanently increases the money supply, money loaned by the central bank during a bailout is “destroyed” if and when the loan is paid back.
The money supply is therefore only permanently increased if the loan never actually gets paid back in full.
Inflation Is Theft
When the money supply increases, but your personal wealth stays the same, your money loses value.
Think of each dollar in the U.S. economy as a share of the total money supply.
When central banks “print” new money, they dilute your share of the money supply with new dollars — new “shares.”
If you have $1 in an economy that only contains $100, then you own 1% of the money supply.
If the central bank prints another $100, but you still only have $1, your share in the money supply drops from 1% to 0.5% because you now have $1 out of $200 instead of $1 out of $100.
Essentially, the central bank has just stolen 50% of your wealth.
This is what happens every time the central bank creates new money by issuing government bonds, or a commercial bank adds to the money supply by issuing a loan.
Theoretically, the new money is distributed throughout the economy in the form of government spending and commercial credit.
In reality, commercial banks get larger and larger shares of the money supply to buy up real estate and loan out to businesses, and the government can spend huge sums on things like new aircraft carriers.
All this is paid for with your money. Remember, when they print new money, they haven’t actually added value to the economy.
When the central and commercial banks print new dollars, the value of all the dollars already in circulation is reduced by the value of all the new dollars.
All they’ve done is diluted the value of your wealth and taken the difference for themselves.
Money is being taken straight out of your pocket. It’s the greatest heist in human history.
It seems logical that inflation can’t last forever. If you continuously devalue a currency, eventually, it becomes worthless.
When this happens very quickly, we call this hyperinflation. However, this is happening very slowly (although it’s now speeding up) all over the world.
The entire world economy is built on an inflationary model where growth is fueled by debt, and the debt is constantly outpacing the growth.
This is intrinsic to fiat currencies. Fiat money isn’t backed by any commodity. It has no intrinsic value beyond the use we have for it and the faith we have in it.
But what if that faith disappears? What if we no longer see the dollar as a safe store of value? What if we no longer need it because there are alternatives that are better suited to fulfilling the role of money?
If inflation continues (as all central banks aim for with their annual inflation targets), then the value of the inflating currencies will continuously fall.
The main force fighting against this is economic growth. As economies grow, their currencies become more valuable, assuming all else stays equal.
If economies stop growing, however, and the money supply continues to increase, then the value of the currency can fall dramatically.
Looking at the purchasing power of major currencies like the U.S. dollar or the British pound over the past 100 years, it is clear that the value of these currencies has dramatically decreased even relative to the growth of their economies.
And this was during 100 years of near-constant economic growth, including a golden age of peace and global commerce from the end of the cold war to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The money supply is increasing faster than ever, and economic growth is slowing down. Clearly, eternal inflation is not sustainable.
Bitcoin: The Best Money There Is
Bitcoin is the most perfect form of money that has ever existed.
Unlike fiat money, there is no government “decree” that says it has value. Governments don’t order taxes to be paid in bitcoin, nor do they mandate that it must be accepted as legal tender.
Unlike fiat currencies, bitcoin has intrinsic value.
Unlike every currency in the world issued by a central bank, people use bitcoin for one reason only: It works.
Bitcoin’s Ability To Function As Money
Bitcoin satisfies all the requirements of money:
- Scarcity: Bitcoin is coded to have a supply cap of 21 million. It cannot be inflated and is, therefore, inherently scarce.
- Durability: Bitcoin cannot be destroyed. The network is maintained by miners expending huge amounts of energy, and as long as the network is up, anyone can transact with their bitcoin.
- Divisibility: Each bitcoin is divisible into 100 million satoshis, up to 8 decimal places. This means there is a cap of 2,100,000,000,000,000 (2 quadrillion, 100 trillion) satoshis.
- Acceptability: The number of people holding bitcoin and the number of merchants accepting it as a means of payment continues to grow. It is already an established currency and is legal tender in El Salvador.
- Uniformity: Each bitcoin is equal to every other bitcoin, and the security of the network means they cannot be double-spent (counterfeited).
- Portability: Bitcoin is the most portable currency in the world. It can be sent anywhere with an internet connection, and the information to access your holdings can be carried in the form of keyphrase information on paper or even by memory.
Clearly, bitcoin does the job that money evolved to do. Mechanically, it works great as a currency.
This functionality provides it with intrinsic value, just like how gold naturally became money.
Bitcoin vs Fiat vs Gold
Gold is obviously a great choice to use as money. Or, at least, it was historically.
It’s scarce, durable, costly to produce, and has a long-established history as being the basis for entire economies for thousands of years.
Fiat currency, whilst lacking intrinsic value, does have some advantages over gold, though.
It’s easier to digitally divide fiat money into smaller values than it is to physically divide gold. Fiat can also be transported electronically, whereas gold is expensive and difficult to physically transport.
Both gold and fiat have some deficiencies. They can both be seized by governments or powerful bad actors. They can also both be counterfeited by producing convincing copies. Fiat money can also be inflated, which is essentially legal counterfeiting (or counterfeiting is illegal inflation).
Bitcoin combines the best of both and avoids all the flaws.
It’s inherently scarce, like gold. In fact, it’s more scarce, since the global gold supply increases by about 2% per year. Fiat can be printed infinitely and can therefore be inflated into oblivion. Bitcoin can never be inflated once it reaches the cap of 21 million bitcoin.
Bitcoin also has the divisibility and portability of fiat currency, owing to the fact that it’s a digital asset, and so doesn’t suffer the physical limitations of gold.
Similarly, the Bitcoin network has been shown to be remarkably robust. The network is secured by vast amounts of electricity, more than the consumption of many countries, which means even entire countries could not hope to attack the network.
As long as the network is up (it has a historical 99% uptime, which is unprecedented for such a large data network) then the bitcoin are secured, making bitcoin incredibly durable.
This same energy-backed security makes it impossible to counterfeit bitcoin, making it more verifiable (or uniform) than either gold or fiat.
|Scarce||Capped at 21 million||Limited but growing supply||Unlimited supply|
|Durable||Cannot be destroyed, secured by Proof of Work||Does not tarnish, most gold stays in circulation||Dependent on the health of the economy and existence of the issuing government|
|Divisible||Can be divided into 100 million satoshis||Can be broken into smaller pieces but there are physical limitations||Can be divided, usually into 1/100th|
|Censorship Resistant||Bitcoin transactions are peer-to-peer and do not require third parties, bitcoin cannot be seized but key information can be taken||Can be seized by any powerful bad actor e.g. a government||Governments and financial institutions can seize or freeze holdings/transactions|
|Uniform/Verifiable||Proof of Work ensures bitcoin cannot be counterfeited||Can be counterfeited, debased, or clipped||Can be counterfeited physically or digitally|
|Portable||Can be transported to a new address on the blockchain or physically transported by carrying/remembering private key keyphrase||Is very difficult and expensive to transport, especially in large quantities||Can be digitally transported, subject to third-party services|
|Established History||Is less than 2 decades old||Has been used for thousands of years||Has only been the norm for around 100 years|
Does Bitcoin Have Intrinsic Value?
It’s tempting to think that bitcoin is like fiat money in that it has no intrinsic value.
Fiat money only has value because we have to use it (due to legal tender laws and taxes etc.) and because of the faith we have in the issuing government.
But we don’t have to use bitcoin, and there’s no issuing government, central bank, or any central authority.
So if bitcoin doesn’t have value because we’re forced to use it, nor because we have faith in an institution issuing it, why does bitcoin have value?
What Backs Bitcoin?
In a literal sense, bitcoins are given intrinsic value by the marginal cost of their production through the Proof of Work consensus mechanism.
Miners have to invest capital in the form of electricity costs, mining equipment, employee salaries, and property costs in order to mine bitcoin. They do this with the understanding that they will be able to sell the bitcoin they mine at a profit.
This initial investment gives bitcoin intrinsic value in a similar way to how our faith in fiat money gives it value.
Except bitcoin miners actually have to demonstrate that faith beforehand by investing the capital to set up a mining rig. This means bitcoin has intrinsic value as capital had to be expended just to bring them into existence.
The price of bitcoin is correlated with the cost of production because miners will hold their bitcoin if they can’t sell it at a profit.
This creates a support in the price of bitcoin which keeps it above the cost of production.
If the price does drop below that cost, miners will switch off some of their mining rigs to lower costs.
In these ways, the price of bitcoin is kept higher than the cost of production. The cost of producing bitcoin, therefore, provides it with intrinsic value in much the same way that physical commodities have intrinsic value tied to the cost of producing them.
Gold, for example, is expensive partly because it’s scarce but partly because it’s very expensive to dig up and separate from the earth.
Bitcoin thus achieves the “hardness” of gold without the environmental effects of having to dig it up. This makes bitcoin an incredibly pure form of hard money.
Bitcoin’s Electricity-Secured Value
Every aspect of bitcoin that makes it so useful as a currency is enshrined in the code of the Bitcoin network.
The Bitcoin network is maintained by nodes, which keep complete records of the blockchain, and the miners, who process transactions and add blocks to the chain.
The miners use the Proof of Work consensus mechanism, in which computational power is used to solve mathematical puzzles in order to decide which miner proposes the next block.
As more miners join the network, the puzzle becomes more difficult. This is to maintain an average block time of ten minutes.
The hashrate (computational power) of the network is what secures it against bad actors. Anyone wishing to attack the network would need 51% of the hashpower.
For anyone to join the network and try to attack it, they would need to generate the entire current hashrate plus 1%.
The Bitcoin network currently uses more electricity than most countries, and that electricity is powering specialized processors that are specifically designed to generate as high a hashrate as possible as efficiently as possible.
This makes it an almost impossible task to attack the Bitcoin network. For this reason, counterfeiting bitcoin by double-spending is practically impossible.
It also adds to the trustworthiness of the network, as users can be sure that the infrastructure that supports their transactions is secure.
Because of these factors, Bitcoin’s usefulness is secured by its electricity consumption. Thus, the electricity consumption of the network provides bitcoin with intrinsic value because value must be expended (in the form of electricity) in order for bitcoin to exist and be used.
Fiat money has no intrinsic value because nothing has to be expended in order to bring it into existence. With bitcoin, just like physical commodities, its existence is dependent on expending resources.
Why is Bitcoin Useful?
The Bitcoin network is a modern marvel beyond just the usefulness of bitcoin as a currency.
The network itself provides a decentralized, trustless, immutable, transparent, peer-to-peer payment settlement system to anyone on the planet with an internet connection.
More than half the world’s population lives under an authoritarian regime.
To those of us living in economically developed democracies, Bitcoin might not seem necessary. To people facing strict monetary controls at the hands of tyrannical despots, it can be essential.
In 2021, 1.4 billion people worldwide were unbanked, leaving them without modern financial services that so many of us take for granted.
As stated, the Bitcoin network provides anyone with an internet connection a way to send and receive remittances in bitcoin.
Bitcoin has already been tried and tested in this area. Venezuelans relied on bitcoin to hedge against hyperinflation and circumvent central authoritarian monetary controls
While remittances in dollars were subject to government fees and could take weeks to process, remittances in bitcoin have only small miner fees and are nearly instantaneous.
Bitcoin has also been used as a hedge against hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, as well as for avoiding financial surveillance in China, escaping financial censorship in Russia, and getting access to remittances in refugee camps.
As a store of value, bitcoin is capable of replacing gold while being far less damaging to the environment to produce, despite what critics say about the electricity consumption of the Bitcoin network.
In fact, bitcoin mining has been shown to be beneficial toward facilitating renewable energy build-out.
Why Do Critics Call Bitcoin a Ponzi Scheme?
We can’t know for sure why critics of Bitcoin continue to claim that it’s nothing but a speculative investment propped up by the “greater fool theory,” the idea that its price is only going up because new “fools” keep coming along to invest in it.
It could be the case that they genuinely don’t understand bitcoin, why it has intrinsic value, or why money even works the way it does.
How many people can actually explain what intrinsic value is, or why things have it?
How many people can explain fiat money? How many people have even heard of fiat money, despite using it every day?
There are plenty of people who believe the Earth is flat or that the moon landings were faked, purely because they don’t understand it.
There are millions of people who will never accept something they don’t understand. Unfortunately, in the case of bitcoin, many of the people who don’t understand it are politicians, journalists, and even economists.
Even Warren Buffet, who can hardly be called a fool when it comes to the world of investment, has himself made the claim that bitcoin has no intrinsic value.
Of course, it’s possible that something far more sinister is happening.
It may well be that the politicians who oppose bitcoin are doing so because it gets in the way of their ambitions to further centralize power and monetary control.
It’s no coincidence that bitcoin’s rise has seen the advent of a new form of money: Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).
Decentralization of power, financial freedom, and privacy should be concerns for all of us. Bitcoin might just be our best hope of steering away from the potential dystopia that centralized digital currencies are sure to create.
If nothing else, Bitcoin gives us hope for a better, freer future.
That’s what I call value.
What is intrinsic value?
Intrinsic value is the value that something has in and of itself. It has this value regardless of external factors.
Since all value is somewhat subjective, the concept of intrinsic value is debated. However, something is said to have intrinsic value if it is considered valuable on its own.
Does Bitcoin have intrinsic value?
Yes, Bitcoin has intrinsic value. A bitcoin’s intrinsic value is determined by the cost of producing it as well as the cost of maintaining the Bitcoin network.
Because value has to be expended in order to mine and maintain bitcoin, it is imbued with that value and therefore has that value inherent to it.
The usefulness of this network also gives it value. Bitcoin enables secure, fast, and decentralized transactions, and its scarcity and censorship resistance make it valuable to many individuals and businesses.
What gives money value?
Money has value because it serves as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. Money derives its value from its scarcity, durability, divisibility, acceptability, uniformity, and portability.
Fiat money derives its value from the government forcing it to be accepted as legal tender, as well as demanding taxes and paying for expenditure in it.
What is inflation?
Inflation is when the value of money decreases.
This can happen for a number of reasons, such as prices of goods going up due to the cost of materials used to make those goods also increasing. This can be due to decreasing supply or increasing demand.
Typically, inflation is as a result of increases in the money supply, which devalues the currency as it is less scarce.
What is a Ponzi scheme?
A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays its investors with money from new investors.
Anything that involves paying off old investors with money made from new investors is a Ponzi scheme.
These are not sustainable as the debt simply grows larger and larger and can never be paid off.
Is Bitcoin a Ponzi scheme?
No, Bitcoin is not a Ponzi scheme.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, is a decentralized digital currency, not an investment scheme.
Most bitcoin holders do not intend to sell it for profit but to use it as a store of value or, one day, a unit of account and medium of exchange.
Is fiat currency a Ponzi scheme?
Fiat money is not inherently a Ponzi scheme. However, the way in which central banks use it often results in one.
Central banks often run constant deficits and rely on the fact that they can always increase the money supply to pay off old debt.
Since increasing the money supply involves taking on new debt, the act of taking on new debt to pay off old debt makes this a Ponzi scheme.