A libertarian nightmare

Bitcoin meets Big Government

The hype has never been hotter for the Internet’s No. 1 virtual currency. Is this the beginning of the end?

What’s not to like about Bitcoin, every libertarian’s favorite crypto-currency?

For starters, Bitcoins are as cyberpunk as William Gibson’s wildest dream: a form of monetary exchange invented in 2009 by a mysterious character who called himself “Satoshi Nakamoto” but then disappeared from view after unleashing his virtual currency upon the world. Bitcoins are undeniably cool: marvelously “mined” from the ore of computer processing power and electricity; more ready for prime time than any previous experiment in purely digital money. And Bitcoins, increasingly, are a success. At a Thursday afternoon all-time-high valuation of $72 per Bitcoin, there were around $700 million worth of Bitcoins in circulation. People are using Bitcoins to buy real goods and services, to hedge against European financial calamity, and to score drugs. That’s money.

Over the years, Bitcoin has experienced ups and downs; the currency has been targeted by hackers and thieves and botnets and been victim to more than one embarrassing software glitch. But it has persevered, and this week, one can fairly say that Bitcoin came of age. On Monday, the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released its first “guidance” as to how “de-centralized virtual currencies” should fit into the larger regulatory regime under which currencies of all kinds are required to operate. The word “Bitcoin” is never mentioned in FinCEN’s release, but that’s just a technicality. Everyone in the Bitcoin community knew who the guidance was aimed at. Bitcoin is a big boy now. The State is paying attention.

But while some observers have applauded FinCEN’s guidance as acknowledgment that Bitcoin isn’t illegal or considered a “threat” by the government, not everyone is cheering the news. Because there’s a problem here. Bitcoin isn’t just an elegant way to create money using peer-to-peer networks and cryptography. Bitcoin is a currency with an ideology. From the beginning, Bitcoin was envisioned as a form of monetary exchange that didn’t need third-party financial institutions or central banks or even governments to validate it or back it up. Bitcoin is the fulfillment of a libertarian dream, a currency created out of the workings of the free market, unaffiliated with any state authority, respectful and protective of user privacy and anonymity, and designed to resist inflationary pressures. By its very nature, Bitcoin is made for people who don’t want other people to know what they are doing.

“Bitcoin,” says financial pundit Max Keiser, “is the currency of resistance.”

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