By Eric Blair
Erik Voorhees, one of Bitcoin’s busiest entrepreneurs and biggest libertarian influences, took time to answers my questions about his political philosophy and latest startup ShapeShift.
Voorhees had early success with his Satoshi Dice phenomenon that was responsible for popularizing Bitcoin’s frictionless capacity to handle fair online gambling as well as private stock trading. After being fined by the SEC for not paying their protection-racket toll, he created a platform to send Bitcoin using SMS demonstrating how it could be used with dumbphones.
Each of these innovations continues to be disruptive to famously fraudulent industries with entrenched gatekeepers. Voorhees denies that his intent is to agitate anything. He says that he just wants to get rich creating useful services. Yet he does concede that authority disruption is endemic to Bitcoin itself.
Bitcoin doesn’t need to violate privacy or block certain transactions to keep users or itself safe. It seems that the more capital controls governments impose, the more Bitcoin will disrupt it — perhaps even displace it.
Voorhees thinks that Bitcoin will eventually out-compete national fiat currencies because he says it is fundamentally better money. Bitcoin has built-in encryption, a tamper-proof ledger, a fixed supply of currency and microscopic transfer fees. The Fed offers debt, corruption and violence. Voorhees may be right.
For now, his latest company empowers individuals and makes a mockery of arbitrary permission slips. Just another day at the office for Voorhees. ShapeShift.io is a new way to instantly exchange different cryptocurrencies without needing to login to a custodial account.
Check out this short video about how it works:
My email interview with Erik Voorhees begins below:
Q. How do you describe your political philosophy? Has discovering Bitcoin changed your politics?
My political philosophy is my application of my moral philosophy to the realm of politics. Morally, I believe people should leave each other alone – not hurt, steal, or defraud. From a political perspective, this means any government program which causes harm, theft, or fraud to occur is illegitimate. Since the government only seems to exist on the back of taxation, which is theft, the government is fundamentally illegitimate and should be curtailed and removed wherever possible. Bitcoin hasn’t so much changed my opinion on this, as made me excited about the ability to now escape much of the government tyranny that is inescapable when one is tethered to fiat and central banks.
Q. All of your startups almost appear to be designed to agitate the State. Is that your deliberate intent, or is authority disruption just the most interesting promise of this technology?
I don’t want to agitate anybody. I want to build services that people like and find useful, and through which I’ll get rich doing so. I’m a capitalist, after all. “Authority disruption” is endemic to Bitcoin itself, so to the extent I’m building Bitcoin businesses, it’s inevitable that such businesses will disrupt authority. Most honorable men who are remembered fondly disrupted authority in some way, so I’m in good company.
Q. Recently on Let’s Talk Bitcoin you said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Because of their hubris governments and central bankers don’t think Bitcoin poses an existential threat to their money, but they’re wrong.” Why are they wrong?
They’re wrong because ultimately money is a good, and competes with other forms of money in the marketplace. Because Bitcoin is simply better money – it is fundamentally better – it will, over time,
out-compete fiat. Gold is better money than fiat also, but was unable to displace it because it had to be centralized and digitized to be convenient, and any such system of digital gold can be shut down once it achieves enough success. Bitcoin cannot be shut down, so it is free to compete indefinitely. Our children will laugh that fiat was ever a thing.
Q. What do you think the fiat system will do once they realize cryptocurrency is a threat to them? Will it be too late by then? Is it already too late for them?
The “fiat system” is defended primarily by three groups: governments, banks, and mainstream economists. The first two will do everything they can to stop Bitcoin once they realize its potential, it will be messy. The best hope is that the population of society will be used to using Bitcoin by then (just as its used to using the Internet) and will protest/revolt if it is curtailed (just as we’d expect if the governments tried to cut off the Internet). Mainstream economists can write all the articles they want demonstrating why Bitcoin will fail. I’m not worried about them, they’re welcome to have that opinion and they’re not trying to use force/coercion to enforce such an opinion.
Q. You used to oppose altcoins. Why, and what changed your mind about them? Was there a specific altcoin that converted you?
I opposed altcoins because I felt they were sucking attention and talent away from Bitcoin, and were just basically clones with no real economic purpose. Ultimately, I changed my mind because I realized that if an altcoin actually does something distinctly useful that Bitcoin does not or cannot do, then it has a legitimate economic purpose for existence. Consider Nubits or bitUSD which track USD value, or Dash which provides far more privacy, or Dogecoin which brings a fun element of humor. These are all unique from Bitcoin and useful to a subset of people.
I do still think most altcoins are pretty useless and will go to zero, but there are enough interesting ones doing unique, economically-useful activities that we should expect a marketplace for such assets, and that is ShapeShift’s reason for existence.
Q. What motivated you to start ShapeShift, and what are its most interesting features?
I was motivated because I wanted to buy an altcoin a year ago and it was going to take a couple hours to do so. This is not acceptable. Digital assets should be immediately available & immediately liquid. So I tried to figure out how to make an exchange that didn’t have any of the time delay of a normal one. Turns out, you don’t need accounts whatsoever to do exchange with cryptocurrency, so that’s what we built. We realized, happily, that ShapeShift was actually the most secure/safest exchange as well, because nobody had to leave funds on deposit. This makes it much safer for users, and vastly reduces liability/risk for ShapeShift.
Q. So ShapeShift acts as an exchange and has a button that can be embedded on anyone’s blog or website, correct?
ShapeShift is an instant exchange for digital assets. It can be accessed by humans via the website (ShapeShift.io), or by machines via the API. The button to which you’re referring, called the Shifty Button, is just one tool that makes it easy to accept altcoins and automatically convert them into Bitcoin (just as BitPay helps merchants accept Bitcoin and automatically convert into dollars easily). The button is just one way to use the service.
Q. You set up shop in Switzerland because they don’t regulate digital tokens like money. Why is this important?
Switzerland provided a favorable legal opinion regarding the activities of ShapeShift. Basically, because money is not involved, and because no funds are held on behalf of customers, it does not fall under their banking or money transmission laws. Plus, Switzerland has a better corporate tax rate than the USSA.
Q. It seems like ShapeShift could underpin or facilitate many other applications. What are some of the ways affiliates are using ShapeShift? What other ways do you envision it will be used?
Our favorite right now is the Coinomi Android wallet. It’s a multicoin wallet, so you can hold a dozen different cryptocurrencies easily on your phone. Beautiful interface as well. Inside the app itself, there is an exchange function, which lets users convert between coins. This is done with the ShapeShift API and is a beautiful thing to see and experience. We also foresee it being used by anyone who accepts Bitcoin on their site, to automatically accept all other altcoins as well (it’s no extra work for them, and opens up new markets of customers).
We also built CoinCap.io which lists altcoin market data in real time, and we have some fun plans for the future with that and ShapeShift 🙂
Q. What advice would you give to young activist entrepreneurs?
Find legally-defensible ground on which to take your stand. Don’t make stupid mistakes. Don’t try to break the law. Do something useful which pushes the envelope, and which, if shown to the world, the world would tend to view as legitimate/innovative/useful, and not evil.
Follow Erik Voorhees on Twitter.
Eric Blair writes and curates news for Activist Post.