Bitcoin Economics in One Lesson
Henry Hazlitt’s 1946 book Economics in One Lesson is regarded as a classic introduction to free market economics. Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman said of the book: “[Hazlitt’s] explanation of how a price system works is a true classic: timeless, correct, painlessly instructive.” The book’s titular lesson argues:
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
The entire premise of the book is found in this one sentence, and the chapters that follow are filled with examples of what happens when economic central planners focus on policy effects to one group while ignoring the secondary effects of their policies on all other groups. Hazlitt goes on to explain, in Chapter 17, the effects of governmental price fixing:
Let us first see what happens when the government tries to keep the price of a single commodity, or a small group of commodities, below the price that would be set in a free competitive market.
The argument for holding down the price of these goods will run something like this: If we leave beef (let us say) to the mercies of the free market, the price will be pushed up by competitive bidding so that only the rich will get it. People will get beef not in proportion to their need, but only in proportion to their purchasing power. If we keep the price down, everyone will get his fair share.
The first thing to be noticed about this argument is that if it is valid the policy adopted is inconsistent and timorous. For if purchasing power rather than need determines the distribution of beef at a market price of $2.25 cents a pound, it would also determine it, though perhaps to a slightly smaller degree, at, say, a legal “ceiling” price of $1.50 cents a pound. The purchasing-power-rather-than-need argument, in fact, holds as long as we charge anything for beef whatever. It would cease to apply only if beef were given away.
A similar situation exists in Bitcoin where the independent development team known as Bitcoin Core are artificially suppressing the cost of full-node operation — in effect, impeding free market forces. “This is for the benefit of the consumers,” they say, ignoring the effects of this policy on the >99.9% of Bitcoin users who do not run a full node. As Hazlitt notes, this line of thinking is inconsistent because regardless of the price at which something is fixed, there will always be people who cannot afford it. The only sound logical conclusions to be drawn from this line of thinking are to either set the price at zero or to allow the price to be dictated by the free market. More tenuous still is the supposition that current full node users will be “priced out” by a block size increase.
But schemes for maximum price-fixing usually begin as efforts to “keep the cost of living from rising.” And so their sponsors unconsciously assume that there is something peculiarly “normal” or sacrosanct about the market price at the moment from which their control starts. That starting or previous price is regarded as “reasonable,” and any price above that as “unreasonable,” regardless of changes in the conditions of production or demand since that starting price was first established.
Bitcoin Core’s central planning inherently declares the cost of node operation today to be reasonable, but this is done without providing any hard data about which users are running a node, much less what their needs are, which costs they can bear, and so on.
In discussing this subject, there is no point in assuming a price control that would fix prices exactly where a free market would place them in any case. That would be the same as having no price control at all. We must assume that the purchasing power in the hands of the public is greater than the supply of goods available, and that prices are being held down by the government below the levels to which a free market would put them.
Now we cannot hold the price of any commodity below its market level without in time bringing about two consequences. The first is to increase the demand for that commodity. Because the commodity is cheaper, people are both tempted to buy, and can afford to buy, more of it. The second consequence is to reduce the supply of that commodity. Because people buy more, the accumulated supply is more quickly taken from the shelves of merchants. But in addition to this, production of that commodity is discouraged. Profit margins are reduced or wiped out. The marginal producers are driven out of business. Even the most efficient producers may be called upon to turn out their product at a loss. This happened in World War II when slaughterhouses were required by the Office of Price Administration to slaughter and process meat for less than the cost to them of cattle on the hoof and the labor of slaughter and processing.
In Bitcoin, block space is the commodity supply being artificially restricted. The producers of this commodity are the miners (although they do not produce a physical good, the analogy holds). Restricting the availability of the block space commodity indeed discourages the further production of such. New entrants into the Bitcoin mining business are thereby disincentivized: if the cost of producing a bitcoin has already reached its marginal level, then the profits available to new market entrants are not great enough to incentivize the risk-taking required of new mining operations. By dictating such policies and not allowing goods to be subject to the free-market-at-work, Core discourages new competitors and directly contributes to the centralization of mining!
If we did nothing else, therefore, the consequence of fixing a maximum price for a particular commodity would be to bring about a shortage of that commodity. But this is precisely the opposite of what the government regulators originally wanted to do. For it is the very commodities selected for maximum price-fixing that the regulators most want to keep in abundant supply. But when they limit the wages and the profits of those who make these commodities, without also limiting the wages and profits of those who make luxuries or semiluxuries, they discourage the production of the price-controlled necessities while they relatively stimulate the production of less essential goods.
The regulators wish to keep the ability of consumers to perform Bitcoin transactions in abundant supply, while simultaneously restricting the available supply of on-chain Bitcoin transactions. Thus the production of “luxuries” or less essential goods is stimulated: Lightning networks, sidechains, centralized clearinghouses, and altcoins. More foolish than the governmental central planners in Hazlitt’s example, many of the goods that Core assumes will pick up the slack for scarcity of on-chain transactions do not even exist yet.
Some of these consequences in time become apparent to the regulators, who then adopt various other devices and controls in an attempt to avert them. Among these devices are rationing, cost-control, subsidies, and universal price-fixing.
The cost of making a normal Bitcoin transaction becomes too high, so the cost of a segwit transaction shall then be fixed at one-fourth the cost of a regular Bitcoin transaction, Core has decided. Problem solved? Hazlitt explains,
When it becomes obvious that a shortage of some commodity is developing as a result of a price fixed below the market, rich consumers are accused of taking “more than their fair share;” or, if it is a raw material that enters into manufacture, individual firms are accused of “hoarding” it. The government then adopts a set of rules concerning who shall have priority in buying that commodity, or to whom and in what quantities it shall be allocated, or how it shall be rationed. If a rationing system is adopted, it means that each consumer can have only a certain maximum supply, no matter how much he is willing to pay for more.
We can see this today in Bitcoin, when certain transactions are accused of being “spam” or of taking unfair advantage of the limited block space commodity. Nevermind that these so-called spam transactions pay the fair market rate to be included, or that these transactions are slapped with the spam epithet on no grounds other than their frequency or their size.
The government may try to meet this difficulty through subsidies. It recognizes, for example, that when it keeps the price of milk or butter below the level of the market, or below the relative level at which it fixes other prices, a shortage may result because of lower wages or profit margins for the production of milk or butter as compared with other commodities. Therefore the government attempts to compensate for this by paying a subsidy to the milk and butter producers. Passing over the administrative difficulties involved in this, and assuming that the subsidy is just enough to assure the desired relative production of milk and butter, it is clear that, though the subsidy is paid to producers, those who are really being subsidized are the consumers. For the producers are on net balance getting no more for their milk and butter than if they had been allowed to charge the free market price in the first place; but the consumers are getting their milk and butter at a great deal below the free market price. They are being subsidized to the extent of the difference — that is, by the amount of subsidy paid ostensibly to the producers.
Again, the consumer is told that the price controls are for their own benefit: “Why are you concerned? You’ll be able to make transactions for cheaper than you can now!” But the producers are on net balance getting no more for their block space than if they had been allowed to charge the free market price in the first place. Worse still, if all Bitcoin transaction activity switched to the segwit format overnight, the miners are now being paid the same as before while bearing four times the burden of resources required. That Core does not consider this outcome disastrous is only a testament to the trivial cost of node operation even as resource requirements are increased.
Now unless the subsidized commodity is also rationed, it is those with the most purchasing power that can buy most of it. This means that they are being subsidized more than those with less purchasing power. Who subsidizes the consumers will depend upon the incidence of taxation. But men in their role of taxpayers will be subsidizing themselves in their role of consumers. It becomes a little difficult to trace in this maze precisely who is subsidizing whom. What is forgotten is that subsidies are paid for by someone, and that no method has been discovered by which the community gets something for nothing.
Treating segregated witness as a capacity increase, as the Bitcoin Core development team does, ignores that the subsidized commodity is still kept in restricted supply. By not allowing the supply to grow in line with what the free market is capable of providing, discounting segwit transactions allows only for a bit of breathing room until those transactions also end up in short supply and begin rising in cost, as is happening with regular transactions today.
Price-fixing may often appear for a short period to be successful. It can seem to work well for a while, particularly in wartime, when it is supported by patriotism and a sense of crisis. But the longer it is in effect the more its difficulties increase. When prices are arbitrarily held down by government compulsion, demand is chronically in excess of supply. We have seen that if the government attempts to prevent a shortage of a commodity by reducing also the prices of the labor, raw materials and other factors that go into its cost of production, it creates a shortage of these in turn. But not only will the government, if it pursues this course, find it necessary to extend price control more and more downwards, or “vertically”; it will find it no less necessary to extend price control “horizontally.” If we ration one commodity, and the public cannot get enough of it, though it still has excess purchasing power, it will turn to some substitute. The rationing of each commodity as it grows scarce, in other words, must put more and more pressure on the unrationed commodities that remain. If we assume that the government is successful in its efforts to prevent black markets (or at least prevents them from developing on a sufficient scale to nullify its legal prices), continued price control must drive it to the rationing of more and more commodities. This rationing cannot stop with consumers. In World War II it did not stop with consumers. It was applied first of all, in fact, in the allocation of raw materials to producers.
Assuming that the public has a fixed or growing demand for using money transfer systems, of which Bitcoin is merely one type, then the end result of restricting the available supply of Bitcoin transactions is that more and more pressure is put on unrationed commodities. Whether those unrationed commodities are traditional payment methods or altcoins, the end result spells disaster for Bitcoin.
The natural consequence of a thoroughgoing over-all price control which seeks to perpetuate a given historic price level, in brief, must ultimately be a completely regimented economy. Wages would have to be held down as rigidly as prices. Labor would have to be rationed as ruthlessly as raw materials. The end result would be that the government would not only tell each consumer precisely how much of each commodity he could have; it would tell each manufacturer precisely what quantity of each raw material he could have and what quantity of labor. Competitive bidding for workers could no more be tolerated than competitive bidding for materials. The result would be a petrified totalitarian economy, with every business firm and every worker at the mercy of the government, and with a final abandonment of all the traditional liberties we have known.
The Bitcoin economy, unlike state economies, is thankfully one of voluntary participation. While the end result of price controls, a petrified totalitarian economy, will be the same, the consumers in the Bitcoin economy have a choice and do not need to remain participants. Packing up and moving to another cryptocurrency is far simpler than packing up and moving to a country with more favorable economic policies, and this is exactly what will happen (we are already seeing it happen with the news of Circle abandoning Bitcoin this week). Attempting to centrally plan Bitcoin’s underlying economics, as the Bitcoin Core developers do today, is guaranteed to lead Bitcoin down the path of irrelevance.