Is Bitcoin Money? Bitcoin and Alternate Theories of Money

22 Pages Posted: 17 May 2014

See all articles by Sonal Mittal

Sonal Mittal

Harvard University, Law School, Students

Date Written: April 23, 2012

Abstract

In 2009, a curious new virtual currency called Bitcoin made its first appearance on the Internet. While it remains a “niche” currency relative to other major denominations like the U.S. dollar, Bitcoin has experienced significant growth since its inception. The total number of Bitcoins in circulation is about 12.5 million, with a recent market price of about $500 each. Today, Bitcoin’s total market capitalization is about $6 billion, and in the past it has been as high as $13 billion. The average number of Bitcoin transactions per day has averaged over 60,000 since January 2014, reflecting between $20 million and $100 million worth of transactions per day. The numbers show that in the five years since its first appearance, Bitcoin has grown tremendously in popular knowledge and usage. Although it is clear that Bitcoin can be used to purchase goods and services, and can be given an explicit dollar value, questions remain about the economic and legal status of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies that have emerged in its wake. Members of the Bitcoin developer and user community believe “Bitcoin is an innovative payment network and new kind of money.” Others, like the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, take the position that Bitcoin is a type of commodity or property. Whether Bitcoin is a new form of virtual money or simply an electronic commodity requires an investigation into what constitutes money, and an assessment of whether Bitcoin comfortably fits into the parameters of what we consider to be money. This paper finds that, at this stage in its development, Bitcoin is not money and more closely resembles a commodity or property.

This paper begins by giving a brief overview of Bitcoin and how it operates. It then describes two major theories of money — the conventional and constitutional theories — that differ in their accounts of how money emerges within a society or political grouping. The paper assesses how well Bitcoin fits under each theory by assessing Bitcoin’s economic properties and implementation. It then turns to the impact of the Bitcoin on the two theories of money, finding it likely does not support the conventional creation story of money and instead lends credence to the constitutional theory.

Keywords: Bitcoin, digital currency, virtual currency, law, money, what is money, constitutional theory of money, conventional theory of money, commodities

Suggested Citation

Mittal, Sonal, Is Bitcoin Money? Bitcoin and Alternate Theories of Money (April 23, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2434194 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2434194

Sonal Mittal (Contact Author)

Harvard University, Law School, Students ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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