Problems with Mises’s regression theorem and how Bitcoin could have easily satisfied it

Mises’s regression theorem requires that for a new medium of exchange to emerge, it must first have had direct (non-monetary) use before it can become a medium of exchange.

A recent article of mine published by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) entitled “Mises’s Regression Theorem, Bitcoin, and Subjective Value Theory” discusses what I see as some problems with Mises’s regression theorem as well as problems with arguments from contemporary authors who have written their own views on it — namely that Mises limited the scope of his theorem to barter situations (he didn’t) and that it would be logically impossible for Bitcoin to have emerged without adherence to the theorem (it isn’t).

Bitcoiners and Austrian economists alike usually debate whether Bitcoin’s emergence violates Mises’s regression theorem, yet both seem to overlook that the certainty that Mises unnecessarily attaches to his regression theorem (regarding the impossibility of any hypothetical different way in which a new medium of exchange could emerge) necessarily violates the subjective theory of value (a theory to which Mises otherwise adhered). This violation of the subjective theory of value is my main critique of Mises’s theorem – although I still find some usefulness in it. I refer the reader to my article for my full argument.

As to the (separate) question regarding Bitcoin’s possible adherence to or violation of Mises’s theorem, my own view is that Bitcoin could have quite easily satisfied the theorem, and a number of authors have addressed this. The below table appeared in a draft version of my article but never made it to the AIER publication due to editing requirements (no tables allowed). I found it useful to note the various direct (non-monetary) uses proposed in the literature. I also note that at least most of them, in one way or another, ultimately boil down to two major categories: signaling of values and speculation. Lastly, I must mention that Bitcoin having a native monetary unit that sits on top of an inseparable payment network complicates the issue by (to at least some degree) blurring the lines between distinct monetary and non-monetary categories. I discuss this at length in more detail in the aforementioned article.

Non-monetary uses of Bitcoin identified by various authors – each of which could satisfy the regression theorem for Bitcoin

UseProposed by
An “inherent geek appeal, professional challenge to specialists, curiosity, and membership signaling”Konrad Graf (2013)
A “desperate need for something other than the dollar”Jeffrey Tucker (2014)
Speculative valueDaniel Krawisz (2013)
A “digital object, a game, a cause, a badge of membership”Laura Davidson and Walter Block (2015, p. 327)
“The truly unique functions of bitcoin, as detailed by Surda [sic] (2014), are non-monetary, and include the following: It it can act as an effective means of notarization, it can act as ‘smart property,’ it can perform conditional transfers, it eliminates the need for intermediaries, particularly in multi-party transactions, it can act as a form of stock ownership eliminating the need for separate stock exchanges, it can record transactions for auditing purposes, etc. etc. These factors are of course closely associated with (but not the same as) the monetary function.”Peter Šurda (2014), as summarized by Laura Davidson and Walter Block (2015, p. 328)
An “ideological (e.g. libertarian, anti-fiat-money, anti-fractional-reserve-banking) bias of Bitcoin’s proponents” and speculationRobert Murphy (2012), as summarized by Peter Šurda (2012, p. 42)
An opposition to fiat money and the the traditional banking systemJon Matonis (2011), as summarized by Peter Šurda (2012, p. 42)
A distaste for transaction costs of sending money under the traditional banking systemjahabdank (2011), as summarized by Peter Šurda (2012, p. 42)
A belief-signaling mechanism for libertarians and crypto-anarchists and an opportunity to increase one’s own human capital for computer programmersWilliam Luther (2018, p. 19)

Why economic thinking needs evidence too, not just logic

Not surprisingly, humans have a strong tendency to move away from punishment and towards rewards. When something is disincentivized, we tend to get less of it; when something is incentivized, we tend to get more of it. So, for example, an increased tax on cigarettes will tend to reduce consumption of cigarettes. The same goes for labor. The higher that minimum wage is increased, the less labor you can expect that an employer will be willing to pay for. Once per year, the American restaurant chain Applebee’s offers free meals to military veterans on Veterans Day. Not surprisingly, each year the restaurant has long lines of veterans waiting for a seat.

The Mises-Rothbard, praxeological (‘logic of human action’) approach is an important one for thinking about economics. We don’t have to assume that individual actors are perfectly rational in that they always make choices for best long-term outcomes, that they recall all available options when making a decision, or that they are even capable of engaging in complicated quantitative analysis. We also most certainly don’t (and shouldn’t) assume that human actors only seek to maximize economic outcomes.

What we do assume is that most humans prefer pleasure to pain, comfort to discomfort. They tend to move away from worse situations to better situations (as judged by themselves). Quoting Mises’ book Human Action:

Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness.

When an actor acts (in making a trade or anything else), they believe at the time of the action that they will be better off – ex-ante – somehow by doing it – otherwise the action would not occur. The “as judged by themselves” is important here because, to use just one example, some people find utility in spicy foods, while others find disutility in it. To sum it up: value is subjective, and human preferences are diverse.

A real world example

In the video interview below, Ann Coulter and John Stossel debate whether the illegality of drugs leads to a decrease or an increase in consumption. Coulter cites the importance of incentives and disincentives on behavior in economics. Sadly, Stossel ignores cultural differences as a variable between the United States and the Netherlands (where marijuana is legally tolerated) that may affect consumption levels; Coulter embraces the cultural variable. But culture aside, here is the debate regarding incentives and disincentives:

Stossel: “[In the Netherlands] despite legalization, it’s [marijuana is] less popular.”

Coulter: “You can’t be saying that if you legalize something, fewer people will do it.”

Stossel: “That’s what happened in Holland. They took the sexiness out of [it]…”

Coulter interrupts at this point, but Stossel’s point is clear: that consumption went down as a result of the legality of drugs since in the Netherlands, suggesting that illegality offers a social appeal of just being “underground.” Coulter then makes an argument consistent with a praxeological approach: “[When] you make something illegal, you get less of it. You subsidize it, you get more of it.”

Note: More accurately, marijuana use is legally tolerated in the Netherlands, but we will refer to it as “legal” for simplicity.

If value is subjective (and it is), then it is at least plausible that the “illegality” of something will, in fact increase its utility for some that are attracted to an underground lifestyle, so its consumption could actually increase despite (or because of), the illegality, even though making it illegal is intended by lawmakers to be a disincentive. Legalize it, and it loses some of the “cool” appeal. This is Stossel’s argument, and it reminds one of something that a former Dutch minister of health once said: “We have succeeded in making pot boring [by legalizing it].”

Clearly serving jail time and holding a criminal record is a disincentive for using marijuana, while socially benefiting from participation in an “underground” culture is perhaps, for some people, an incentive to use it. In the latter case, the very illegality of consumption, sale, purchase and production are what give marijuana the “underground” appeal – to the extent that it has one.

So is Coulter correct that – on the whole – consumption is lower than it would be if marijuana was legal (in all states) due to the disutility of risking jail time? Or is Stossel correct that consumption is higher than it would be otherwise due to the “sexy” appeal of illegality? Libertarians and left-leaning “progressives” alike – generally agreeing that America’s Drug War is a net bad – often repeat Stossel’s argument without offering any data. Maybe Stossel is right. Maybe Coulter is right. Maybe it depends on the culture of a particular geographical area. Praxeology, the logic of human action, can help us think about it rationally, but it wouldn’t be wise to reach a firm conclusion a priori – especially since we have states within the USA with similar cultures and demographics where marijuana is now legal for recreational use bordering other states where it is illegal. The data are there to be collected. Empirical evidence is our friend.

Concluding notes:

  1. To readers that are non-Austrians (the Austrian school of economics) who don’t know why I would write such an article: Search the web for “Austrian economics and praxeology.”

  2. I am not making the contradictory claim that a priori truths do not exist. I am making the claim that in cases such as this one, we don’t have to play a guessing game. “Pure logic” can only get us so far.

  3. It seems a bit silly that I’d have to write an article on this topic at all, but sadly, far too many Austrians, usually following Rothbard or Hoppe, are closed off to evidence entirely. As the saying goes, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” I think that in this context this statement may be overstated because a great deal can be deduced by logic (more so, I think, than mainstream economists give it credit for). But it isn’t always sufficient.