On Sunday, Tyler Cowen, a prominent economist and director of the Mercatus Center, a free market think tank that has produced both Jerry Brito of Coin Center and the SEC's Hester Peirce, published an article in Bloomberg called "Americans Own Less Stuff, and That's Reason to Be Nervous."
In it, he worries that our increasing reliance on the de facto renting of goods (from tangible products like un-repairable John Deere tractors to digital rights products like Kindle books and MP3s) amounts to "an erosion of personal ownership" and that it has implications for "traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property." He believes this is a harbinger of more conformity and less entrepreneurialism (a claim he does not back up, at least within this article).
"The main culprits for the change are software and the internet. For instance, Amazon's Kindle and other methods of online reading have revolutionized how Americans consume text. Fifteen years ago, people typically owned the books and magazines they were reading. Much less so now. If you look at the fine print, it turns out that you do not own the books on your Kindle. Amazon.com Inc. does."
As someone who dabbles in libertarianism, Cowen is an influential thinker in the crypto sphere. So this latest article prompted some contemplation among the usual suspects. Vitalik Buterin responded:
Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase, joined the thread, tweeting, "A flip of that could be: money is the one and only thing I need to own, and cryptocurrency is that money." He continued by riffing on a common explanation for the reduction in ownership, minimalism:
Ehrsam's tweet reads something like a zen koan – with crypto you own nothing and everything all at once – but he has a point. Cowen is concerned about the receding of capitalism and private property, but blockchain-enabled cryptocurrency promises both to a degree almost unimaginable a generation ago. No longer content with governments creating and regulating currencies, people made their own to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions. They made it private. That sounds like hypercapitalism to me.
And in the digital age, it's even better: crypto is portable and, at least in theory, can be converted as needed. So, maybe, Ehrsam is right. In modern times, it doesn't matter if you own less stuff as long as you own the right stuff.