The ESG-washing of BTC Core: Hayek, Aristotle and Lauderdale’s paradoxJuly 27, 2021
Friedrich Hayek argued that denationalisation of money was “not a minor technicality of finance but a crucial issue which may decide the fate of free civilisation.” He was suggesting that private money would eliminate inflation. His love of deflation (and hyperbole) is a story for another day, but what he did not realise was that in an attempt to create a kind of private money system, a small group of people would represent a greater threat to free civilisation: that of using humanity’s scarce resources to create even greater scarcity.
Destroying useful resources to create managed scarcity is an intuitively silly thing to do. But this is not the first time this has happened: Dutch colonists in Asia burnt spiceries and plantation owners of the Deep South burnt tobacco, both to keep prices up (not to mention the absurd history of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy with its wine lakes and butter mountains). In this tradition, the BTC Core (BTC) community is creating a narrative to expound BTC’s alleged ESG [environmental, social, governance] credentials, attempting to legitimize ‘burning’ huge amounts of energy to digitally manage scarcity. All is not what it seems.
The situation manifests a problem identified over 200 years ago by a radical Scottish Lord, the Earl of Lauderdale. He extends Adam Smith’s distinction between ‘value in use’ and ‘value in exchange’ (originally an Aristotelian distinction between ‘true wealth’ and ‘spurious wealth/riches’), presenting a problem that has become known as Lauderdale’s Paradox: public wealth (the sum total of humanity’s useful resources), may be negatively associated with the growth of private riches (the scarcity-induced market value of exchangeable commodities). Rich monopolists will often seek to destroy wealth or impede wealth creation because widespread wealth undermines the relative value of their personal riches.
Aristotle attempted to differentiate between what he regarded as natural and unnatural activities around money: the naturalness of oikonomike (production and exchange necessary for life) is contrasted with the unnatural chrematistike (trading goods purely to make more money). Additionally, Aristotle identified obolostatike, ‘the breeding of money from money’ as the most hated, dehumanizing, and unnatural activity.
In a modern capitalist society where investment capital is traded routinely, lives are longer, and retirement is part of a normal life-cycle, Aristotle’s morally tinted reasoning may seem out of place. But he has a point in logic here. Speculation in BTC is not about natural oikonomike (economics): it’s more akin to either unnatural chrematistike or obolostatike, seeking money with no quid pro quo for society, and with no logical end point. Where does it end? —When all the energy in the world is used purely to create an unnaturally scarce monopoly ‘asset’? It is indeed unnatural in Aristotle’s sense. Aristotle’s relating this problem to the parable of Midas is perhaps more deeply relevant than it may seem on first reflection: the world can’t eat digital assets. Where does it end?
Today, the only function of BTC (the denatured ‘fork’ of the Bitcoin blockchain) is to create a scarce digital asset representing ‘spurious riches’ that can be traded in high-value financial transactions: to breed money from money. When the Bitcoin blockchain project became dominated by a group of developers who saw the double-opportunity of promoting a get-rich-quick scheme alongside a brand of faux-libertarian ideology (steeped in a conception of high-value property-rights that trumps any conception of human rights, and would make John Locke shudder), they gelled around the idea of a form of digital gold: Midas gone digital. The increasingly expensive (computationally, hence thermodynamically) proof-of-work is applied merely to ‘secure’ something a group of people have decided—by their fiat—is akin to gold to trade in high denominations between themselves. We may indeed ask, where does it end?
BTC’s promoters are conscious that for this otherwise useless, easily-replicable asset to continue rising in value, it needs more believers and more demand. As such, a further unspoken command is that—like any pyramiding scheme—users must also promote the scheme to others. Narratives are extremely important here. Well-marketed sophistry can make a silly idea sound appealing, and this is precisely what the ESG-washing around BTC [still irritatingly referred to as just ‘Bitcoin’ in the media] is all about.
There are certainly narratives that can be applied to digital gold which attempt to make it sound legitimate. Such narratives again often develop from a strong libertarian ideology and the Austrian school of economics, both with ideological objections to government policy tools of inflation and taxation. It is difficult to widen the appeal of such ideological narratives in a democratic society because, as Hayek argued, liberalism and democracy are not the same thing, and may be antithetical to each other: trying to impose a form of scarcity-inducing deflationary private money in a democracy may need an authoritarian hand.
Protecting personal wealth against inflation is obviously a key objective for many investors, but we have transparent and democratically mandated 2% inflation targets that can be managed through traditional investments of the kind that actually serve the natural function of allocating capital and resources to progress capitalist growth—what would be termed natural chrematistike in a modern Aristotelian sense. The now too familiar Chicken Little paranoia of the inflationistas is disingenuous. It has become normalised to claim that BTC will not just double in price (that would hedge likely inflation for 2-3 decades) but it could go up beyond our wildest dreams: $1 million? $2 million? Hey, ‘stock-to-flow’, $100 trillion? Anyone can be a millionaire, just by HODLing! Promoting FOMO (‘Have fun staying poor’) is a highly disingenuous sales tactic, and indeed, such claims would be a clear breach of the fiduciary responsibility of any sensible asset manager (or indeed, corporate officer).
Libertarians may regard taxation as ‘legalised plunder,’ but tax-evasion and money-laundering cannot be promoted by legitimate sources in law-based democratic societies. At least not overtly. Despite this, some asset-gatherers such as Ark and WisdomTree clearly see the ‘useful’ role for BTC in apparently skirting the law in shifting wealth around and evading capital controls: “Bitcoin seems to be the perfect instrument for [surreptitious] cross-border transfer of large sums of wealth.”
Chicken Little paranoia and opaque support for money-laundering and tax evasion have limited appeal. The reserve of hard-core libertarians, followers of Austrian economics and other ‘fiat-haters’ is likely already exhausted. In the context of a modern democratic society, moving beyond cleverly manipulated narratives, BTC is a socially and environmentally destructive idea. Institutional adoption is essential to any future increase in demand, and promoters have to appeal to a broader audience among investment professionals, corporate treasurers and the general public alike. But in a world of ESG-driven investing, there is—rightly—wavering support. ESG-washing has become as essential to ‘securing’ BTC as mining.
BTC promoters have indeed jumped on the ESG bandwagon in an attempt to rebrand BTC as socially and environmentally essential. This is why the freedom and empowerment narrative has been promoted: who could object to freedom and empowerment for oppressed peoples around the world? But the argument is a non sequitur, because BTC Core is wholly unnecessary to give people freedom and empowerment.
Capital controls (rare as they are) are disliked by wealthy libertarians, but they may well be regarded as a legitimate tool of government. They are of little relevance to the world’s poorest people. Efficient, scalable blockchain-based payment-rails may indeed help the world’s unbanked, allowing them more freedom in their everyday transactions, while protecting against the potential ravages of hyperinflation. Stability of purchasing power is a crucial feature, but BTC—being a highly volatile speculative asset—is very ill-suited to this task. Dollars or euros, tokenized on a blockchain payment-rail (or even SDRs the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights which represent a broad basket of global currencies) are better placed to serve this role of intermediating cheap, peer-to-peer, casual payments, and protecting against significant currency-debasement.
Using the ‘freedom of oppressed peoples’ argument is either simple ignorance or a conscious attempt to deceive. The recent shenanigans in El Salvador, where BTC promoters are gleefully abusing the power of autocratic government in an attempt to build a monopoly, demonstrates they are happy with pretence when it helps support their narrative and drive adoption of their particular easily-replicable asset (and the clunky third-party side-chains it requires). Hayek’s view that authoritarian regimes may be needed to impose ‘liberal principles’ may or may not be correct, but this is in fact pure monopoly building: illiberal means for illiberal ends.
Arguments around the use of green energy are equally disingenuous. Energy production, either by burning fossil resources or capturing renewable energy (or indeed, nuclear power generation) is a costly and scarce resource. There is an opportunity-cost of any energy used by residents of planet earth. The argument that BTC ‘creates incentives for clean power’ means driving up the demand for energy, outbidding others purely to support a pool of monopolist speculators. This will create the inflation the BTC promoters claim to fight against, hurting the world’s poorest in the process. Again, where does it end?
The notion that BTC Core is some kind of energy storage system or battery has become an increasingly common trope in this narrative: ‘monetary energy’ [sigh]. When R. Buckminster Fuller citations are promoted to imply this is his idea (as they have been), it becomes more transparent that the promoters have a catastrophic misunderstanding of the issue. Bucky Fuller would rightfully be horrified by the idea of transforming energy into entropy merely to sustain monopolist-rentiers in the social hierarchy. Cutting-edge battery technology now exists (including hydrogen) to capture latent energy. Where energy supplies may be genuinely stranded or batteries are not efficient, data-centres and indeed efficient blockchain transaction processors (‘miners’, the data-centres of the future) may be useful ways to transform energy efficiently into something with genuine utility in the broader economy: public, distributed information management systems. This is natural oikonomike, not unnatural chrematistike.
BTC Core’s total dominance in the popular narrative has unfortunately led many to conclude—unreasonably—that computational proof-of-work in blockchains is inherently inefficient. As has previously been eloquently stated, this is not true of the Bitcoin SV blockchain, because it does efficiently what a blockchain is supposed to do: enable secure, cheap, distributed transactions of packets of information to enable a more productive and efficient market-based economy. While there is no Maxwell’s Demon (there will always be a need for energy), this is a step toward solving Hayek’s crucial information and coordination problem. This is the really interesting link between Hayek’s thinking and Bitcoin blockchain.
Computational proof-of-work in a sensibly regulated environment is not the problem. The problem is applying proof-of-work to something that it was not intended for: the deliberate creation of scarcity for monopoly-rent-seeking. The intended incentive structure in Satoshi’s White Paper was to encourage the maintenance of a low cost, high-throughput transactional database. The BSV blockchain continues to do this efficiently, driven by the need to process more transactions, faster and more cheaply.
BTC represents the worst aspects of a degenerate monopoly-rentier-capitalism. The ESG-washing narrative is wholly disingenuous. The BSV blockchain is for entrepreneurs. Efficient computational proof-of-work to enable a globally editable database of potentially all the world’s produced information will ultimately be what drives 21st century capitalism forward in a lower resource-throughput economy. Another story for another day.
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