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What Is Money? (Yes, We’re Talking About Bitcoin)

What Is Money? (Yes, We’re Talking About Bitcoin)

Good ideas don’t require force. That describes the Internet, mobile telephony and cryptocurrencies.

What is money? We all assume we know, because money is a commonplace feature of everyday life. Money is what we earn and exchange for goods and services. Everyone thinks the money they’re familiar with is the only possible system of money—until they run across an entirely different system of money.

Then they realize money is a social construct, a confluence of social consensus and political force– what we agree to use as money, and what our government mandates we use as money under threat of punishment.

We assume that our monetary system is much like a Law of Nature: since it’s ubiquitous, it must be the only possible system.

But there are no financial Laws of Nature for money. In the past, notched sticks served as money. In other non-Western cultures, giant stone disks (rai, a traditional form of money on the island of Yap) and even salt served as money.

In our experience, 1) money is issued by a government or central bank (i.e. a currency), and each of these currencies is the sole form of legal money (legal tender) in the nation-state that issues the currency; 2) each of these currencies is available in physical coins and paper bills and digitally as entries in bank and credit card accounts; 3) our currency is borrowed into existence by the central bank or by fractional reserve lending in private banks, and 4) this currency meets all of the utility traditionally required of money:

1. It is divisible into smaller units, i.e. a dollar is divided into quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies, or it is a small unit (for example, the Japanese yen, which is roughly equivalent to a U.S. penny).

2. It is secure, i.e. everyone can’t just print or make their own in unlimited quantities.

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