Someone at the Mises Forum asked me to explain about intrinsic value, and how it applies to bitcoin. Without further ado:

To sum up what is happening with intrinsic value. It is one of those phrases whose meaning changes depending on the context.

1. When Austrians say nothing has intrinsic value, that all value is subjective, they are speaking in a certain context. The discussion there centers about the question, why does bread cost a dollar a pound? What makes it worth exactly a dollar?

The old way of thinking was that there was some mystical entity hidden in the loaf of bread that made it worth a dollar. That’s what they meant when they were discussing the intrinsic value of a loaf of bread. There were those who thought that the mystical entity inside the bread is “cost of production”. Others thought that the mystical entity is “amount of socially necessary labor put into the loaf”.

The Austrian conclusion is that there is no mystical entity, no intrinsic value. The price, the value, of the bread comes from something outside the bread, mainly, from the potential customer who is willing to pay a dollar for it. In other words, its value is subjective, not intrinsic.

That is one context in which intrinsic value is used, and in that context, there is no such thing as intrinsic value.

2. The other context in which the phrase is used is when discussing the value of money. In the article in my blog, Bitcoin Takes a Beating, I quote and explain Mises at length on this subject. Mises analyzed the value of money, say of a gold coin, as being made up of two elements.

The first value comes from answering the question, “What could Robinson Crusoe do with it?” Crusoe had nobody on his island to buy from or sell to, so the gold coin had no use as money. But it did have some use. He could use it for jewelry, if he was vain. He could use it as a component of his computer chips, or whatever.

OK, now Crusoe comes off the island back to civilization. He finds that everything has a price pretty much as he valued things on the island, except for one thing. His gold coin, he finds, is worth much more than he thought. “Why are people setting such a high value on something of so limited a use?” he wonders. Then he finds out that gold is the coin of the realm. Aha, that explains it. It has a use in civilization it never had on the island. You can easily buy stuff with it, anything from everyone. That is a useful feature, that increases the usefulness, and thus the price, of gold.

So those are the two sources of value that money has. Mises gave those values clumsy names, industrial value for the first, and exchange value for the second. As time went on, people [including Mises himself and other respected Austrians, as I have quoted at length somewhere in these forums] instinctively starting calling that first value, that Robinson Crusoe had for it when alone on the island, its “intrinsic value”.

Now one can readily understand why someone who wrote in the forum that bitcoin has “intrinsic value, as money”, was being quite amusing, like a clown falling off a bicycle. Intrinsic value is what it has on the island, and there it has no use as money.

[Note that in this context, intrinsic value is also subjective, because the two concepts are not contradictory.  Whereas in the first context a subjective value and an intrinsic value cannot be the same. If you grasp these last statements, you now understand the two meanings of intrinsic value.]

Mises’ Regression Theorem states and proves that a money cannot have that second value, what Crusoe saw off the island back in civilization, unless it first has intrinsic value, meaning that Crusoe had a use for it on the island. In the article Bitcoin Takes a Beating, I explain his reasoning at length.

Since bitcoin is totally useless on the island, obviously, then by the Regression Theorem it will remain useless off the island. The bitcoin crowd howls at this obvious statement, trying to find some flaw. The most common thing they try is saying that we see it has some value, just go to mtgox.com. So Mises must be wrong.

The second thing they try is to say that bitcoin has some magical property that excludes it from the Regression Theorem, which was only talking about non magical objects. I’ve addressed both these arguments many times.

[ADDED 2/3/13: Discussion of this article here, and in the comments to that link].

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