While bitcoin is powerful Number Go Up technology that appeals to self interest, it’s also creating fortresses against authority in cyberspace.
In Book II of Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid,” one of the most iconic plotlines of classical mythology unfolds with trickery and subterfuge. The Greek forces, having failed to capture the City of Troy after a decade-long siege, attempt an ultimate attack on their enemy not by strength, but by guile, through a clever plan hatched by Ulysses.
In the fields outside of Troy’s impregnable walls, the Greek army departs, but leaves behind a massive wooden horse. A lone remaining soldier leads the Trojans to believe that the horse is a tribute to Minerva, the goddess of war and strategy, and is an apology for the blood that the Greeks spilled. The Trojans think their rival has sailed off in surrender, and — despite warnings from Cassandra and Laocoön, who gives us the famous saying “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” — they bring the horse into the city as a trophy of victory. Blinded by zeal, they think it will make them invincible.
Little do they know, the horse is packed with armed soldiers, who, under cover of night, slip out and open the gates for their comrades waiting outside, who had hidden their fleet behind an island in the nearby sea. The Greeks sack the city, and Troy falls, defeated from the inside by its new treasure.
Thousands of years later, the “Trojan Horse” has been popularized in computer science as a malicious program disguised as a helpful update. But it is also an effective metaphor for how Bitcoin stealthily co-opts actors who do not care about or do not like freedom to promote it anyway.
The meme begins with wealthy individuals, corporations, and, soon, governments, which see bitcoin as glittering digital gold. Out of self-preservation and greed, they are incentivized to buy, mine or one day tax this new prize to accumulate the soundest money and gain an advantage over their rivals. Bitcoin does after all, on its exterior, look very appealing: it is the best-performing financial asset in the world over the past 12 years.
Bitcoin’s trillion-dollar success is attracting interest from the rich and powerful everywhere from Wall Street to Beijing to Silicon Valley. In the last year, Bitcoin FOMO has seeped into the minds of professional investors, corporate treasury managers and even sovereign wealth funds who do not want to get left behind.
As a recent Bloomberg headline announced, “Bitcoin is displacing gold as an inflation hedge.” The article shows how value is demonstrably flowing out of gold and into bitcoin. Companies like Tesla and Square star among a growing group of dozens adding the new currency to their balance sheets. NYDIG is introducing the multi-trillion dollar insurance industry to bitcoin as a hedge against declining yields.
As MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor says, Bitcoin is the hardest money and acts, over time, like a one-way street. Just as no Argentine wants to “cash out” their U.S. dollars back into pesos, ultimately, few will want to “cash out” their bitcoin back into dollars. It is early days now, but it is hard to overstate the eventual impact that Bitcoin will have not just on the $10 trillion gold market but the $20 trillion art and collectible market, the $100 trillion stock market, the $225 trillion real estate market and the $250 trillion bond market over the coming decades.
But Bitcoin is not just “number go up” technology. Hidden behind the eye-popping gains is a powerful “freedom go up” technology that its new adopters are, knowingly or not, pushing forward. NGU and FGU are inextricable.
Bitcoin’s decentralized digital cash did not emerge from Y Combinator, but rather was the holy grail of the cypherpunks, a group of civil liberties advocates concerned about how personal freedoms could survive the great electronic transformation of society. Their goals were to separate money from governments and corporations, check the growth of the global surveillance state, and preserve human rights in an increasingly digital age. Satoshi Nakamoto’s greatest trick was to animate these aspirations into something that looks like and functions as digital gold.
So, while, yes, Bitcoin gives anyone — regardless of their nationality, status, wealth, gender, race or beliefs — access to the best savings technology on the planet, it also gives them unstoppable, programmable money that cannot be debased or censored and that fights surveillance and confiscation. Dissidents, democracy protestors, opposition leaders and independent journalists worldwide are beginning to realize this, from Minsk to Lagos to Los Angeles to Buenos Aires.
World leaders speak pretty words about human rights, but when they get down to brass tacks, the platitudes are swept aside. As a reminder of this cold reality, refer to the dictators on the U.N. “Human Rights” Council or the Financial Action Task Force (FATF); the list of household corporate names sponsoring the 2022 genocide Olympics; or the roster of Wall Street icons who attended Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the Desert.”
As human rights activists know well, it can be hard to effectively promote freedom in a society that willingly sells morals out for profit. Bitcoin sneaks in and rewires the system from the inside, aligning profit seeking with permissionless financial liberation.
But who conjured this horse and dragged it to the city gates?
This time, it was not a plotting army camped outside Wall Street. Satoshi’s creation spreads not by force, but by voluntary choice. The financial establishment is simply beginning to like the way it looks. It promises great riches, and that is no mirage: it will continue to deliver. But most of the elites do not realize what they are bringing into the inner sanctum.
In a world of increasingly-centralized control and social engineering, Bitcoin provides a check by empowering the individual at the expense of the authority. Yes, billionaires and dictators can buy a lot of bitcoin, but they cannot control the system as they can with fiat money. Unlike with the dollar, euro or yuan model, they cannot tweak issuance, censor transactions, make special rules or bailouts for the aristocracy, or perform mass remote confiscation or debasement.
Of course, governments and corporations will try to hijack Bitcoin for their own ends. Some already have. “The Blocksize War” is a book that chronicles the attempts of Chinese billionaires and Silicon Valley titans to forcibly transform Bitcoin from a freedom tool into a retail payments mechanism. These attempts failed because the network lacks a single point of control.
And Bitcoin is more clever than any Trojan Horse that Virgil or Homer could have imagined. In this plotline, each individual can custody their bitcoin by moving it to an address they control with a set of digital keys. Unlike in 1933, when the U.S. government was able to seize the gold of citizens with Executive Order 6102 by attacking points of custody, that does not work if hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans are holding their keys. The adoption process is creating millions of new fortresses in cyberspace, all more secure than Troy.
The ancient Greeks and Romans would appreciate the irony of megacorps and governments willingly and even enthusiastically letting the one thing that can erode their growing power into their city gates. Number Go Up is one hell of a drug.
In some ways, Bitcoin has succeeded so far by hiding behind its strangeness. Just as the Trojans were baffled by the monstrous horse standing outside their city gates, the establishment has balked at Bitcoin. It has gone from $0 to $60,000 with most people on earth not batting an eye. Less than 2 percent of humans have adopted it, but more than that, it seems, have mocked it. Even today, in April 2021, virtually all top economists, political scientists, diplomats and central bankers still dismiss Bitcoin as something that will not work or is not worth their time. This dismissal has allowed Bitcoin to grow largely unfettered. And now the horse has been rolled inside the city.
What the Davos establishment thought was just NGU tech was also FGU tech. This alignment of incentives is sorely needed in a world that depends too often on altruism and empathy. Take the global struggle for human rights. The international business community mostly overlooks the Chinese Communist Party’s Uyghur gulags, subjugation of Hong Kong, staggering surveillance state and colonization of Tibet. In this scenario, self-interest and freedom are in conflict: to save profits, companies, celebrities, athletes and heads of state sacrifice morals and either cave to Beijing’s demands or keep silent about its brutality. Even philanthropists are failing on freedom. The “Effective Altruism” movement, for example, completely ignores civil liberties.
With Bitcoin, self-interest and freedom are aligned. Even if one has zero altruism, as one buys or mines bitcoin, they drive up the network’s security model and make a more robust freedom tool for everyone else. Refreshingly, Bitcoin does not care about one’s intentions. It enables greater liberty and empowerment not by some ambitious humanitarianism but by each participant’s honest self-preservation.
And this dynamic continues to expand. For instance, bitcoin exchanges today are not adopting the Lightning Network for privacy reasons — they are adopting it to reduce fees — but they are spreading the freedom tech anyway as they popularize a way to transact off-chain on an onion-routed second layer.
On the horizon, a Bitcoin upgrade called Cross Input Signature Aggregation (or SigAgg for short) could incentivize exchanges to engage in collaborative spends which would fluster the surveillance state. Again, corporations will not push this privacy improvement for moral reasons but to improve their bottom line. This is Bitcoin’s game theory: transforming greed into freedom.
Tesla stacking bitcoin does not just help Tesla. It increases Bitcoin’s global network effect, driving up the interest and price, attracting more developers and improving UX, increasing the number of miners and strengthening network security, and multiplying new HODLers in a giant positive feedback loop.
To recap: Bitcoin will continue to gain worldwide adoption because of its effectiveness as digital gold, but hidden within the prized Trojan Horse is a remarkable freedom technology. At this point, the reader may think Bitcoin proponents must be saying, “Quiet in the back! Keep the noise down. We just need to last a few more hours until midnight, and then we can pop ourselves out of this horse and let the rest of our army into Troy.” But it is already too late. There is nothing the Trojans can do.
Authoritarian regimes will inevitably want to stack sats. Some already have found Bitcoin a helpful tool to escape sanctions, including Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. But over time, the officials tasked with storing and spending the bitcoin will learn what it is — money the government cannot control — and they will share that knowledge with others, trickling it down through society. Just like “Trojan Horse” computer viruses, Bitcoin will infect authoritarian regimes, appearing helpful at first but proving debilitating over time.
Some miss this and misinterpret the Trojan Horse allegory. A small but influential chorus of American critics say Bitcoin is an enemy of a free society like the United States, and that it is unpatriotic and even treasonous. In reality, Bitcoin will be a lot more difficult for authoritarian, closed societies like China to deal with than open ones like America. We already have property rights, checks and balances and free speech — all values that Bitcoin reinforces. But these three things are diametrically opposed to what the Chinese Communist Party is trying to achieve. Bitcoin will, over time, erode the control that tyrannies like the CCP have over their citizens. And given that Bitcoin checks arbitrary power and the surveillance state, it may help steer open societies in a better direction, too.
Today, tens of millions of people already own bitcoin. They are happy about the value it gives and the value it will continue to provide. They own a piece of digital real estate on a board that cannot be expanded.
But most do not read the fine print. They did not see the newspaper headline buried in the Genesis Block, or notice details like Satoshi Nakamoto’s chosen birth date, or study the history of the cypherpunks.
At its core, Bitcoin was built to break us free from the existing system. It is the red pill. And all adopters are going to play a part in the revolution, whether they want to or not.
Many authoritarians may already realize what is concealed in Bitcoin’s Trojan Horse. There are plenty of Lacoöns and Cassandras saying, “We need to stop this thing!” But, just like in the kingdoms of lore, these words will fall on deaf ears.
The prize glitters too brightly.