Cryptocurrencies, Network Effects, and Switching Costs
Mercatus Center Working Paper No. 13-17
45 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2013 Last revised: 22 May 2018
Date Written: July 17, 2013
Cryptocurrencies are digital alternatives to traditional government-issued paper monies. Given the current state of technology and skepticism regarding the future purchasing power of existing monies, why have cryptocurrencies failed to gain widespread acceptance? I offer an explanation based on network effects and switching costs. In order to articulate the problem that agents considering cryptocurrencies face, I employ a simple model developed by Dowd and Greenaway (1993). The model demonstrates that agents may fail to adopt an alternative currency when network effects and switching costs are present, even if all agents agree that the prevailing currency is inferior. The limited success of bitcoin — almost certainly the most popular cryptocurrency to date — serves to illustrate. After briefly surveying episodes of successful monetary transition, I conclude that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are unlikely to generate widespread acceptance in the absence of either significant monetary instability or government support.
Keywords: bitcoin, cryptocurrency, currency competition, lock-in, medium of exchange, monetary standard, money, network effects, path dependence, spontaneous switching, standardization
JEL Classification: E40, E41, E42, E49
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation