Why we need philosophers to explain bitcoin: A review of ‘Resistance Money’

It’s refreshing to find those who are willing to openly debate bitcoin with evidence and logical reasoning instead of physical combat


Artwork by Crystal Le


This is the first book I’ve reviewed about cryptocurrency in a while that isn’t the wild retelling of tales involving scams, fraud and boundless riches in the crypto industry. 

Instead, this entire book is a measured thought experiment into truly determining how you feel about bitcoin in the world — written by three philosophers. And the philosophy angle is more than clear from the very start; authors Andrew M. Bailey, Bradley Rettler and Craig Warmke are all associate professors in both America and Singapore, whose varied specialties all overlap at the intersection of philosophy and finance. 

The book begins with a highly theoretical question: If you were able to step outside of the world and somehow had no idea who you were, where you lived and how much freedom you had, would you rather go back to a world with or without bitcoin in it?

While the authors strive to keep a neutral tone and put forward as much empirical evidence as they can to allow readers to answer this question, I will note it’s not possible for them to entirely remove their own positive feelings about bitcoin (something that they acknowledge from the beginning). 

“Some will call us grifters. Suppose we are. Still, our arguments stand or fall on their merits. We submit them for serious consideration. But really, we humbly submit that the grift critique gets things backwards. […] 

Any academic who writes positively about bitcoin risks being labeled as a political radical or, yes, a grifter. Indeed, we know many academics who agree with us about bitcoin but who don’t say so publicly for fear of reprisal. We’ve risked our reputations to say publicly what we’ve discovered privately — that bitcoin is likely overall good. This book is evidence of our skin in the game. We invite you to play, by considering the arguments themselves.”

Of all the ways to evaluate bitcoin’s role in the world, I would never have considered taking the philosophical approach. But over the course of these three-hundred-odd pages, I’ve slowly been convinced that most other ways of assessing bitcoin’s worth are not only wrong, but often pointless.

Take, for example, the chapter on bitcoin’s role in electricity consumption. As a crypto skeptic herself who has struggled at times to debate their more ardently anti-crypto friends over bitcoin’s merits, framing the argument over bitcoin’s environmental impact as wasteful vs. useful is the most convincing explanation that I’ve seen to date.

“We do not think that critics who call bitcoin a waste because of its security model or energy use have properly understood their own critique. Their problem with bitcoin is not really that it’s wasteful. It is that it’s not useful […] 

We’ve argued that bitcoin is useful as resistance money on dimensions ranging from privacy to financial exclusion and more. […] So, sure, bitcoin’s security costs something. It may even cost more to secure than its alternatives — an order of magnitude more than the dollar, say. But it is worth it because it does things that those alternatives cannot. […]

Critics of bitcoin’s energy use must argue either that bitcoin doesn’t do nearly as much good as we’ve claimed for it or that the emissions are so bad that bitcoin’s benefits aren’t worth the price. Both routes seem unpromising.”

However, even with an entire chapter dedicated to lines of reasoning as to why, even as resistance money, a world without bitcoin would be the better world, it would be hard to walk away from this book and come to that conclusion. The copious evidence put forward in the more detailed chapters on bitcoin’s role in privacy, censorship and freedom means that you are unlikely to come to the bitcoin-less world conclusion if you have truly kept an open mind while considering this particular book’s arguments.

Because if you follow the authors’ thought experiment exactly, you are at the end forced to answer the question of whether you want a bitcoin world or not, without knowing who you are — and as the book oft repeats, you could be one of the 54% of the world living under an authoritarian regime.

But while I’d be curious to read a book of similar depth written by extremely anti-bitcoin philosophers to see if the thought experiment would play out differently, I don’t think that the bitcoin-positive message should prevent any crypto skeptics from learning from this text. 

In fact, the book ends with an open invite to those who have read all the pro-bitcoin resistance money arguments this book offers and still come out against it —

“If a critic disagrees with our evaluation, we invite them to explain why one or both of these is true. And where applicable, please use reliable empirical data to overturn the empirical data that we ourselves have relied on.”

In the incredibly argumentative crypto space that we find ourselves in, especially online, it’s refreshing to find those who are willing to openly debate ideas with evidence and logical reasoning (instead of proposing actual physical combat, for example). So if you fall on either side of the bitcoin issue — pro or against — and you’re up for a real academic exchange of views on how bitcoin affects the world, Resistance Money can satisfy that urge for you.

I don’t care much about tech, I don’t care a whole lot about finance, either. I care about writing stories and watching weird things unfold. And that’s why I’ve ended up in crypto.

But because I’m missing that passion for what crypto and blockchain are all about — finance, tech, privacy, yadda yadda — I’m going to write instead about what I am actually interested in. Everything about crypto that has very little to do with crypto.

That’s what this column will be about. All the tangential stories that come out of the blockchain and crypto space, what I think about them, and how I navigate it all as a skeptical former Russian literature major.

It’s precisely my perch as an outsider that lets me do what I do: Opine on all sides of any crypto issue, no strings attached, no skin in the game.

If you want to talk crypto with me, let’s go off topic.

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