On The Social Scalability of Bitcoin and the 21m Cap

Many Bitcoin proponents, chief among them Nick Szabo, laud Bitcoin for its social scalability.  In order to discuss this issue fairly we must first define social scalability. In the famous blogpost where it was first used, Szabo defines it as:

“Social scalability is the ability of an institution –- a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants’ behaviors -- to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate. Social scalability is about the ways and extents to which participants can think about and respond to institutions and fellow participants as the variety and numbers of participants in those institutions or relationships grow.  It's about human limitations, not about technological limitations or physical resource constraints.” (http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2017/02/money-blockchains-and-social-scalability.html)

First, I must acknowledge that there are significant benefits to Bitcoin’s design that enable social scalability.  Among these are the expense required to censor a transaction, the prevention of double spend without a centralized entity, and the issuance of rewards without a central entity.  Each of these has contributed significantly to the success of Bitcoin and are what make it such a compelling piece of technology to me. However, certain design decisions have created a significant and hard to rectify argument surface that may limit future growth.  The most important of these, in my opinion, is the choice of a finite, hard cap.

Challenging this hard cap is challenging many of the fundamental ideas held by Bitcoiners and as such I’ll belabor certain points in order to ensure they’re addressed thoroughly.  First of all there is a conception among Bitcoiner’s that inflation is inevitable in our modern fiat system, and that this inflation will be bad either for them individually, or for society as a whole.  I am willing to concede among these points that inflation may sometimes be bad for the individual, however I contend it is often still a net-positive. Furthermore, I want to challenge the assumption that a finite supply is useful in reducing argument surface.

As Bitcoin’s are lost to theft, technical mistakes, and deaths the supply will continue to contract as Bitcoin becomes a deflationary currency..  For existing holders this seems to be a positive thing. The more the supply contracts the greater proportion of the total value their investment represents.  However, it may still be a net negative if it places an upper bound on total value of Bitcoin. Furthermore, it is valuable to realize that, due to the emission schedule of Bitcoin, a large number of Bitcoins are held by a small number of people.  I will not attempt to estimate exactly how many, because it is beyond the scope of this article, but I would estimate 0.01% of the world’s population possess at least half of the Bitcoins that will ever exist (it is likely much less, for statistics go here: https://bitinfocharts.com/top-100-richest-bitcoin-addresses.html).  This is an intense concentration of wealth, and as the price of a Bitcoin measured in fiat goes up you will expect significant wealth to accrue to these holders.

This natural enrichment of early holders could be considered fair for them shouldering the lion’s share of the initial risk, and believing in a nascent technology before there was significant evidence it would survive.  However, the truth of the matter is that having such disproportionately large early holders makes it harder to convince people to buy in, because the primary benefit to their investment is enrichment of the early investors.  Now, the response here would be that these people are still incentivized to buy in, as they will end up capturing a larger share than the later holders, however, a structure depending on convincing people to enrich early holders at the expense of later investors is a structure that has made many people at the top quite wealthy.  Even now while we are still relatively early in the long life of Bitcoin, it’s difficult for me to envision mass usage, as most are unwilling to enrich a few solely to gain censorship resistant transactions. However, they may purchase Bitcoin as a speculative asset, but my only response to that is I do not see it as a path to adoption.

Furthermore, with Bitcoin (or any other deflationary currency) widescale adoption would provide the largest holders with an entrenched power base.  If it were to become globally accepted in the manner described by the proponents of hyperbitcoinization, then early adopters will obtain incredible wealth, and from that, shocking power.  Since they are incentivized to hold that wealth and not to spend or deploy it, the wealth changes hands infrequently.  This appears to predispose Bitcoin to create an entrenched oligarchic system.

Next, it’s pertinent to consider the value of inflation.  Important to this conception is the idea of a risk curve. The risk curve, which can be gracelessly summed up as a comparison between two assets showing how the change in risk affects the expected return, is important to understanding the said value of inflation:  For example, you may choose to switch your excess money from USD (low risk, negative expected return) to equities (high risk, high positive expected return). The value of maintaining the negative expected return for USD is that it incentivizes greater deployment of capital up the risk curve.  Investors are willing to take on risks in order to protect their wealth and ensure returns. This capital allows for the expansion of the total economic pie as businesses grow and create new products, new efficiencies, and new markets. However, deflationary money can seriously mess with this contention.  If you have a well-established deflationary money then your money will have (low risk, positive expected return), and as such you have little incentive to deploy it up the risk curve. This may seem to be a relatively small and technical matter but it is a significant matter. Hyperbitcoinization would be destructive for society and would result in a regression of economic games to zero-sum along with establishment of an entrenched oligarchy.  This may not prevent adoption, but it may affect the argument surface.

My argument rests on,  “a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants’ behaviors -- to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate.”  The hard cap on Bitcoin has created disincentives to cooperative behavior. The reduction to zero-sum or net-negative games makes it such that the nature of every interaction becomes competitive instead of cooperative.

There are a couple potential counter-arguments to my points here.

The first many Bitcoiners/Austrians (big overlap there) will turn to is an effect referred to as the Cantillon effect or the injection effect. I am not a true economist, but it can be summarized as the place where money enters a system, has a significant effect, and is likely to enrich those closest to the injection point.  There is little, but not zero, empirical evidence for this in traditional central banking systems, but even if we accept that it is a real effect other features of Bitcoin help minimize it. Consider who is closest to the injection point in Bitcoin: the miners. The miners are required to either exchange it for fiat to pay power bills, or purchase power directly using Bitcoin.  This cost to produce helps eliminate the disproportionate wealth effect (if it exists) from monetary injection.

Some, Hasu comes to mind, have advocated that instead of removing the hard cap there could be a requirement to move your coins regularly or they will be ‘reclaimed’.  I have always considered this idea seriously problematic because of the implications it has for some of the fundamental tenets of Bitcoin. One of the primary tenets of Bitcoin is that your key gives you, and solely you, control of your Bitcoin, and this invalidates that assumption. For those who keep their coins in cold storage it also represents a (slight) security risk to have to access the coins and move them to a new wallet.  Additionally, this could destroy the predictability of mining rewards which may change the incentive structure. It seems to me this would more fundamentally change the protocol and argument structure than simply continual issuance.

The argument that creating a hard cap and creating such a cult around the inflation schedule has reduced the argument surface surrounding Bitcoin and in so doing improved its social scalability.  This would fit neatly with Szabo’s definition, as it basically limits the participant’s ability to influence the inflation rate. It also helps with the argument that a cap was necessary in order to achieve any social scaling of Bitcoin, because the early adopters would not have been motivated to use it without that cap.  This theory does have significant merit, and is even somewhat compelling to me. However, the fact that we are already having regular conversations about the cap suggests to me that the argument surface has not been maximally minimized.

The final argument I’ll address is that modification of the inflation schedule begets greater modification of the inflation schedule.  I may have to concede this argument. It is possible that by deviating from the cap we have created a scenario where people will continually advocate for changes to the inflation schedule, but Bitcoin governance is helpful here.  Bitcoin relies on what can be termed fork-based governance in which people have the freedom to run exactly what node implementation they choose, miners choose which chain to mine, and exchanges choose which versions to trade. This means that the only way for this inflation schedule to change is with a very difficult consensus making process, which reduces the likelihood of more than one switch (and makes the one switch I want incredibly difficult).

Fundamentally, Bitcoin does solve several important scaling issues by creating irreversible, censorship resistant transactions without a central party.  However, the economic model of Bitcoin limits social scalability and mass adoption.

Thank you very much to CasPiancey and Kyle S Gibson for their help with this article.

You can find the original post here: http://bennettftomlin.com/2019/05/07/on-the-social-scalability-of-bitcoin-and-the-21-million-cap/