National Review gets Bitcoin very wrong

by on June 20, 2013 · 2 comments

National Review today runs a pretty unfortunate article about Bitcoin in which the reporter, Betsy Woodruff, tries to live for a week using only bitcoins—a fun stunt already done by Kashmir Hill about two months ago. Aside from misrepresenting libertarianism, what's unfortunate about the article is how Bitcoin is presented to NR's readers, many of whom may be hearing about the virtual currency for the first time. Woodruff, who admits she doesn't completely understand how Bitcoin works, nevertheless writes,

From what I can tell, the main reason Bitcoin has any practical value is the existence of Silk Road, a website that lets users buy drugs and other illegal material online. …

A lot of Bitcoin aficionados will probably take issue with my next point here, but I’m pretty sure history will eventually be on my side. My theory is that Silk Road is the Fort Knox of Bitcoin. Bitcoin, from what I can tell, isn’t valuable because of idealistic Ron Paul supporters who feel it’s in their rational self-interest to invest in a monetary future unfettered by Washington; Bitcoin is valuable because you can use it to do something that you can’t use other forms of currency to do: buy drugs online. As long as Bitcoin is the best way to buy drugs online, and as long as there is a demand for Internet-acquired drugs, there will be a demand for Bitcoin.

Woodruff is right that folks who understand Bitcoin will take issue with her because she's demonstrably wrong. While it's true that illicit transactions probably did help bootstrap the Bitcoin economy early on, we are way past the point where such transactions account for any sizable portion of the economy. It's easy to put her "theory" to the test: Nicolas Cristin of Carnegie Mellon has estimated that Silk Road generates about $2 million in sales a month. The estimated total transaction volume for the whole bitcoin economy over the last 30 days is just over $770 million. So, Silk Road accounts for about 0.25% of bitcoin transactions—far from being the "Fort Knox of Bitcoin," as Woodruff says. And to put that in perspective, the UN estimates that the illicit drug trade accounts for 0.9% of world GDP.

The fact is that Bitcoin is not only a revolutionary new payments system that potentially disrupts traditional providers and can help serve the billions of unbanked around the world, but it also has the potential to be a distributed futures or securities market, or a distributed notary service. This is why Peter Thiel's Founders Fund and Fred Wilson's Union Square Ventures are investing millions of dollars in Bitcoin startups. Should we really think that these investors have overlooked what Woodruff posits—that the only value of bitcoins is to buy drugs? No, and I hope NR updates its story.

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