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In Search of the Elusive Bitcoin Billionaire

Bitcoin is booming. Libertarians were there first. So where are all the cryptocurrency tycoons?

I am not a bitcoin multimillionaire.

I could have been: I was aware of the cryptocurrency's existence in July 2010.

I should have been: Dozens of smart people with sympatico worldviews to my own eagerly explained to me how the creation of an online "blockchain"—a reliable yet anonymous ledger of transactions—had the potential to change the world.

And I would have been: Had I shelled out, say, $2,000 on this innovative, anti-inflationary currency even a lazy six weeks after I was introduced to it, today I would be sitting on 28,571 bitcoins, the equivalent at press time of over $212 million in cash.

But I didn't.

Libertarians have long contemplated the potential power of a currency free of government interference, control, or devaluation. Unsurprisingly, I found early bitcoin fanatics galore at Ron Paul campaign rallies and meetups, Free State Project get-togethers, and seasteader soirees.

Back in 2011, finding someone to sell you bitcoins was difficult for U.S. citizens. Many of the enthusiasts I talked to then were excited about blockchain "mining" operations—essentially a way to anonymously use electricity and computer processing power to solve cryptographic problems and receive a certain set amount of bitcoin as a reward. This was a marvelous technological leap, an internet-enabled delivery on the promise libertarians had been buzzing about ever since F.A. Hayek's 1976 monograph Denationalization of Money.

"The question we have to consider," the Nobel Prize–winning economist had written, "is whether competition between the issuers of clearly distinguishable kinds of currency consisting of different units would not give us a better kind of money than we have ever had."

There are a number of qualities people might seek in a currency—such as relative stability in value—that bitcoin definitely lacks. But if you measure "better" by an ability to acquire more in goods and services, bitcoin so far has proven far superior to the U.S. dollar and other countries' government-issued "fiat" currencies. Less than a decade into its life, the digital token has enjoyed what is likely the largest, quickest rise in asset value in the history of the human race. From a starting point of $0.003, a single bitcoin is now worth $7,432—an increase in dollar terms of 2.4 millionfold in less than eight years.

Yet those early adopters weren't focused primarily on wealth magnification. "No one thought of it as an investment vehicle" in those first couple of years, says Isaac Morehouse, a libertarian who runs a startup apprentice program called Praxis. "It felt more like fun, and like a charity, even. Like, if you are a libertarian you should buy it and use it, bear this cost and inconvenience, to support it." The concept of having stateless money alone was enough. "It was like Christians saying, 'Go support this movie' because it has a Christian message, not necessarily because it's a great movie. Holding bitcoin felt like being part of history, like holding a piece of the Berlin Wall."

Rich Falkvinge. Illustration by saratm.Rich Falkvinge. Illustration by saratm.Bitcoin always had its bulls, of course. Rick Falkvinge, founder of Sweden's Pirate Party, a political party dedicated to informational freedom and privacy, announced on his website in May 2011 that he was going all-in on bitcoin with everything he had. Why? Because he foresaw a thousandfold increase in the cryptocoin's value within four years.

Falkvinge was brutally savaged on Reddit's "r/bitcoin" online message board for such hubris. The top-voted comment on his post (reflecting mass opinion of bitcoin enthusiasts) declared that "I can't even begin to comprehend the depths of the stupidity of that kind of reasoning."

Well, Falkvinge was wrong. It took six years, not four, for bitcoin's value to first hit $3,000, a thousand times the $3 it was worth when he made the announcement. Then again, it took just another four months for it to break $6,000.

The $74 Million Pizzas

My first traceable record of seeing the word bitcoin was in a pitch email from then–Reason intern Jesse Kline on July 1, 2010, less than 18 months after the first token was sent from its inventor, the pseudonymous "Satoshi Nakamoto," to cryptographer Hal Finney. I know this because after the currency's value first jumped above $1,000, in November 2013, I went back and searched my Gmail to see just how badly I'd missed the boat.

Kline's pitch received serious consideration, but we decided it was too complicated to explain in the tight 165 words of the section it was intended for. So Reason did not publish in our October 2010 issue a brief squib explaining bitcoin (sorry, everyone). Our first mention of the free market cryptocurrency came several months later in an April blog post by Jesse Walker. If you were savvy enough to have dropped two grand on bitcoin that week? Your holdings would earn you $6.1 million today.

I failed to identify bitcoin as a burningly important story in July 2010 not because I didn't grok how amazingly promising the concept was, but because I knew perhaps too much for my own good about the world of experimental internet currencies that libertarians were wont to hype. I remembered e-gold, an earlier attempt to create digital money backed by precious metals. In 2007, as I reported at the time, the operators were shut down by the Department of Justice "on charges of money laundering, conspiracy, and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business." Bitcoin's decentralized nature at least makes that bad end impossible.

After bitcoin broke $1,000, a widely circulated anecdote from three years prior helped fire imaginations about the opportunities one could hit—and miss—using the currency. It seems that in May 2010, a first-mover named Laszlo Hanecz, who'd had the amazing foresight to accumulate many thousands of early bitcoins, made the catastrophically short-sighted mistake of spending 10,000 of the things on all of two pizzas. The valuation of that pair of pies today? Around $74 million. (May 22 was thereafter known as "Pizza Day" in crypto circles.)

But surely Hanecz wasn't the only one to accumulate that many, or even more, bitcoins early on. Surely some of the early miners and the folks who bought them for pennies (one token traded for under a dime until early October 2010) didn't blow their stash all on junk food. If even half of the libertarians I'd met in 2011 who were so jazzed about bitcoin had put, say, a month's salary into it within the currency's first year, shouldn't the Free State Project now command a combined wealth exceeding that of some small nations?

One of the bitcoin-wealthiest libertarians I spoke to for this story, who asked to be identified as "Jason," says he took what he admits was a crazy risk by sinking around $100,000—about half of what he'd made flipping Southern California real estate after starting with a small inheritance—into bitcoin in 2011. Its price rise has allowed him to live a very interesting life of travel and to give generously to liberty-oriented causes (as well as more traditional philanthropy, such as ending tropical diseases). His burn rate is $20,000–$30,000 a month.

Yet if many libertarians managed to go from rags to riches by being early adopters of bitcoin, the holders of this new wealth have been stubbornly elusive. An oft-derided radical edge of the American political spectrum may have finally notched a win with an absurdly huge potential financial upside—but the specific winners are, by and large, anonymous.

I managed to find and communicate with around two dozen people whose libertarianism made them aware early of bitcoin's awesome potential. It turns out that converting early awareness and even early adoption into fiat-currency mega-wealth was a good deal trickier than envious boat-missers like me might have guessed.

Bitcoin Barriers

Someone's bitcoin wealth is hard to ferret out if he's not inclined to spill his guts, despite the public nature of the blockchain on which it resides. Coins are tethered to digital "wallets" with specific public addresses on the chain, but those addresses are not necessarily tied to any knowable individual. A few people who I knew to be big bitcoin enthusiasts in 2011 declined to respond to my nosy inquiries about their bitcoin holdings, and many of those who did insisted their names and financial specifics be kept dark.

In the early days—as if to advertise the comparative illiberalism of the existing bank/credit system—bitcoin exchanges, out of fear of onerous U.S. regulations, only did business with American citizens via international wire transfer. Johnathan Reale, an Objectivist libertarian who works in medical software tech (and first heard about bitcoin from Reason), remembers "going to online forums, and learning to go to a 7-Eleven and wire something via Western Union to somebody and give them an address and hope they follow through."

"The only exchanges I knew about were overseas, and I had to do an international wire transfer," another libertarian says, recalling the currency's first 18 months. "So I went to my bank and tried it, and it didn't go through or something. I gave it my all but something came up and it didn't work. So I threw up my hands." Thus did he miss out on the first couple of years of climbing bitcoin prices.

Charles Peralo, an early adopter who ran for chair of the Libertarian National Committee in 2016, remembers just "going on to Facebook groups and asking, 'Hey, will anyone sell me some bitcoin?'" How'd that work out? In part, he says, it "led to some people ripping me off."

Learning how to set up your computer to mine bitcoins in the very early days often involved trying to trace detailed instructions from places such as Reddit. One early adopter, Josh Smith, now a data management engineer who used to work for a state-level free market think tank, missed out on who knows how much wealth because he had a mining apparatus "which was set up to restart whenever the computer restarted," but at some point, "I think I did an [operating system] upgrade and I changed something so it wasn't restarting with the machine." At the time, with each bitcoin still worth less than 10 bucks, it seemed like no big deal. But there's a good chance his mining, had it continued, could have earned him an easy million or more at current bitcoin prices.

In May 2010, a first-mover who'd had the amazing foresight to accumulate many thousands of early bitcoins made the catastrophically short-sighted mistake of spending 10,000 of the things on all of two pizzas. The valuation of that pair of pies today? Around $74 million.

Mike Moceri, a lawyer, was mining back when you got 50 bitcoins for each cryptographic problem your computer solved. (The reward is one-fourth** that now, per the original programming for bitcoin that ramps down the number of new ones created through time; eventually the stock will be capped at 21 million tokens.) "I thought of it as a fun social experiment, a technical project, and I never imagined even in my wildest expectation that it would even go beyond a dollar," Moceri says. He "sent it around to friends, did this and that." But after bitcoin passed dollar parity, then doubled that, "I sold half of it immediately—figured I might as well make $50 off of it."

He mined more later, in the era when the simple central processing units on every laptop were generally replaced by more robust graphics processing units. (Nowadays, more expensive specialized equipment is necessary to be seriously in the game for bitcoin mining.) For Moceri, that "got me through law school" and paid for a laptop and a few months' rent. And now? "I have no bitcoins today," he says.

Libertarians Changing the World

Roger Ver was already a millionaire when he recreated himself as "Bitcoin Jesus," the great evangelist for cryptocoin changing the world and redeeming the many sins of the Federal Reserve.

Roger Ver. Illustration by saratm.Roger Ver. Illustration by saratm.In December 2013, Ver donated 1,000 bitcoins to the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Had FEE held on to the gift, its value would now exceed the organization's entire yearly take for 2016. Instead, as FEE's finance director, Carl Oberg, explained in an email, "the FEE board addressed it as any other non-cash investment: they directed us to sell most of the coins and put the proceeds into the structure of FEE's normal investment policy."

In September 2017, Ver demonstrated vividly what it might mean for efforts to change the world that at least one libertarian had used bitcoin to become fabulously rich. He and his associates announced they were prepared to spend $100 million actuating an ancient libertarian-movement dream: to create a new sovereign nation, in Ver's case by literally buying land from an existing country. (The deal is still pending, and he won't name any governments he's negotiating with yet.)

Is he just a libertarian lone wolf, or the harbinger of statists' worst nightmare: anarcho-capitalists with earth-shaking budgets? He asserts we're beginning to see the rough outlines of a "giant transfer of wealth to people that are libertarians, cryptoanarchists, people of that mindset," including his public partner in this endeavor, former Bitcoin Foundation board member Olivier Janssens. "We are a very, very small percent of the world population, and feeling rather alone," Ver says. "When I found [online bitcoin forums] in early 2011, I thought, 'Here are my people. They see the world the same way I do.'"

So Ver started trying to grow the pie, including by giving away very small bits—from a fraction of a bitcoin to an entire token at different times—to as many members of New Hampshire's Free State Project as he could. Ver says he's heard from "hundreds" of libertarians who tell him that his advice to get into bitcoin early and heavy made them modest millionaires, if not world-shakingly wealthy power brokers.

In my search for people who struck it rich, I took to asking libertarians in the bitcoin world this question: "Is anyone you knew to be a bitcoin enthusiast exhibiting signs of unusual wealth, publicly or clandestinely?" In response, a Facebook friend mentioned that the host of one of his favorite podcasts was suddenly talking about his new 35-foot catamaran.

That would be Mark Edge, one of the voices of the Keene, New Hampshire, based radio program Free Talk Live. Edge thinks he and his radio partner Ian Freeman were the first nationally distributed media to mention cryptocurrency. Gavin Andresen, who became one of the bitcoin project's lead developers after Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the scene, was a donor to their show. He took Edge and Freeman out to a Thai restaurant to explain to them "this magical internet money," as Edge puts it.

Edge had "all the elementary complaints" about the idea at first, he recalls. "What is it backed by? That sort of thing. [Andresen] adroitly stepped around those questions in a way that I found plausible." Edge, who reckons his show was the first media entity to accept bitcoins in exchange for advertising, claims the mantle of "Bitcoin John the Baptist" since Ver first heard about the currency on Edge's Free Talk Live podcast.

"I graduated to a full smartphone data plan just because I wanted to look at bitcoin prices" all day, Edge recalls. Over the next six years, he and Freeman have helped make their hometown of Keene the per capita U.S. capital for brick-and-mortar bitcoin commerce: You can now use crypto to buy everything from Brazilian jujitsu lessons and haircuts to soda at the corner store and beer at the local bar. Edge likes to pay workers on his farm in bitcoin if they're amenable. Freeman manages a couple of bitcoin "vending machines" in the state, which have dispensed over $140,000 worth of the currency.

So is Edge a digital multimillionaire? Well, there is that catamaran, the Sovereign Nation of Summer Breeze ("I bribed my son by letting him be admiral if he voted against making my wife King for Life"), but he insists he's not living like a mogul. Whatever number of bitcoins have passed through his hands—he won't specify—are now the legal property of The Shire Free Church, an institution he co-founded in 2013 "to bring peace, freedom, and personal responsibility to the world at large." His early adoption is definitely helping to finance ideological goals: "It's not only a political calling," he says, "it's a moral calling we have."

Edge is proud of using bitcoin to raise money for a Ugandan orphanage, and he introduced me to a friend, a Romanian immigrant named Virgil Vaduva**, who used his crypto-wealth to launch Cell 411, a decentralized, non-state emergency response app that has more than 73,000 global users.

Cody Wilson, the inventor of the first 3D-printed gun and also an early bitcoin adopter, is disappointed there isn't more freedom-oriented new big money in the space, instead of the same old tech-industry venture capital. Wilson credits his own startup, which makes the Ghost Gunner (a home mill allowing anyone to produce untraceable metal guns via computerized instructions), to his cashing out 200 bitcoin. But he doesn't think he's seeing "anyone else take a bunch of bitcoin and build a great American company or new innovation."

Computer security can be a stumbling block on the road to bitcoin mega-wealth. In one early storage scam, an unscrupulous operator first claimed a total loss of customer coin, and then, after being convincingly threatened by aggrieved clients, coughed up half of it.

Libertarian singer-songwriter Tatiana Moroz, who says she has "pretty much lived off bitcoin since 2013," runs Crypto Media Hub, a marketing firm for crypto-companies, and recorded the first bitcoin jingle. She developed her own currency, tatianacoin, expanding the do-gooding potential of crypto by more closely linking independent artists and their fans. Giving people the option to support you by investing in your personalized alt-coin can be a tool, she says, to allow artists to thrive even as corporate support gets harder to find. At the same time, it frees those in the creative arts "to take controversial positions without being beholden to some larger infrastructure."

You Will Always Regret Using Bitcoin

When they first accepted bitcoin for ad payments on Free Talk Live, Edge recalls, "at the time you couldn't buy anything with it; maybe [virtual private network] services, alpaca socks, chicken eggs, porn.…I didn't need any of them and my wife wouldn't let me pay for porn. It wasn't particularly useful." Edge guesses those most primed to accumulate big piles of bitcoin in the early days were not necessarily libertarians, but cam girls.

Tatiana Moroz. Illustration by saratm.Tatiana Moroz. Illustration by saratm.Remember those $74 million pizzas? The vibe I got from everyone I talked to is that on some level, you will always regret spending bitcoin. Travis, a libertarian who works in health care tech, was excited to find the Dish Cable Network accepting bitcoin, but now wonders why he paid what would now be a $36,000 cable bill. One attendee at the Free State Project's 2012 Porcfest now deeply regrets his $7,000 smoothie.

Reale remembers a metal band in early 2013 selling an album on a custom flash drive for three bitcoins—over $21,000 now. But back then it was still an economy of enthusiasts. "Everybody who was selling anything seemed to be basically a bitcoin evangelist, just selling something on the side." And if you weren't part of the world of obsessives, he recalls, "nobody else in my life knew anything about it, even after the big price spike. Well, they'd maybe heard about it, but still no one knew anything about how it worked."

One person recalls spending 20 bitcoins for a single sheet of acid a few years back on Silk Road, the since-shuttered darkweb site that facilitated controversial transactions via cryptography and bitcoin. But he's philosophical: "If I hadn't spent it, and if other people hadn't spent it…to create the bitcoin economy—we'd have bitcoin worth zero now if everyone just sat on it when it was five bucks."

Security and Loss

Another stumbling block between early bitcoin awareness and contemporary mega-wealth involves issues of computer security. Edge of Free Talk Live was a victim of an early storage scam, in which an unscrupulous operator first claimed a total loss of customer coin, and then, after being convincingly threatened by aggrieved clients, coughed up half of it.

Other sad stories included attempts to send coin to a digital wallet they'd already terminated, or old wallets full of coin becoming unusable when the transaction costs switched to amounts the old wallet was not programmed to pay. (Moving bitcoin from wallet to wallet dings you for a small transaction cost, which has trended up with time.) While none of the libertarians I spoke to had this particular problem, many early bitcoin collections were lost to fried hard drives or even just forgetfulness. The most notorious bitcoin loss, which hit a few of my interview subjects, happened when what had been in 2013 the world's biggest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, went under after "losing" around 750,000 bitcoins it had in customer accounts.

Reale remembers how holding bitcoin made him "incredibly conscious of what it means to keep something secure." He became obsessed with keeping flash drives containing the private key to his wallets with him, with his wife, and at his office, "in case the house burned down," he says. "All of a sudden, this is a lot to worry about."

An American bitcoin enthusiast currently living overseas had in the week we spoke in July likely lost seven bitcoins (about $50,000 today) when the BTC-E exchange was busted by a multi-agency U.S. government effort for money laundering and other alleged crimes. Still, he says, "I'm so far ahead it's hard to get too upset." Having missed the days of bitcoin under $10, he began heavily mining another cryptocoin, litecoin, when it was still between $2 and $3. (It's now at $62.) He's in a situation he'd rather not discuss publicly in which he is not on the hook for his own power bills, so he keeps running the computer operations even though the days of private individual mining for profit are largely over. "The idea is to get as much performance as you can without cooking yourself to death. In the room I'm sitting in right now [it's unusually hot] and I just live with it. It's like I'm paying myself to be hot."

Smith loaned around 1.6 bitcoins in the early days to a friend, who lost them in a microlending program he was running. The friend offered to return the coin—or, if Smith preferred, a one-ounce silver round. With that old libertarian affection for hard money, Smith went for the silver. He can sell that today for around $17. He could have sold the bitcoin for over 10 grand.

Travis, the health care tech sector worker, once accidentally emptied his entire wallet while donating bitcoin to Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht's legal defense fund. Lyn Ulbricht, Ross' mother, who ran the fund, happily returned the unintended portion of the donation, but that's not a kindness one could expect from everyone accepting the tokens; Travis allowed her to keep a full 10 percent of his wallet for her honesty.

Irenaeus Miller, who relocated his family to Panama off bitcoin money and runs six bitcoin ATMs there, says "just about anything you can think of, any way to lose bitcoin, I lost it. At different price levels, I lost almost half a million dollars over a dozen events."

Sell in Haste, Repent at Leisure

The most common choice diverting early bitcoin adopters from marching proudly into a future of unimaginable crypto-wealth was exemplified by Free Talk Live's Edge: "I spoke to a man today, he thanks me for telling him to buy bitcoin at $10. And he sold at $18, and made a lot of money! He was telling the story wryly, as you can imagine."

It's tempting to offload the tokens because, although their value has increased dramatically over time, the journey hasn't always been linear. (After breaking $1,000 in late 2013, for example, bitcoin sank slowly and then spent much of 2015 languishing in the $200s.) Edge ponders what watching something you invested in at $5 go up to $30, say, and then dive again must feel like. "All these cryptoanarchists on all these boards and forums, who knew about bitcoin even before the 10,000-bitcoin pizza was a thing," were likely people "working for a living [who] have car payments," he says. Even if they invested as much as one could reasonably imagine from a person in such a position, the likelihood that they could live through a downturn and not cash out when they saw the value start to rise again seems slim to him. Edge knows a lot of libertarians, and "I haven't heard legends of hundred-millionaire libertarians."

Those who did get exceptionally rich "likely already had a great deal of money and went in deep," he says, like Ver. "People who went from rags to riches probably haven't gone to those kind of riches."

Jason, who spent $100,000 on bitcoin early, has sold them off "at $10, at $20, at $100, at $200. I sold all the fucking way up. It's so much regret," he admits. But he also figures that "with something that might collapse at any moment"—this sense that bitcoin might not be invincible was widely shared by the people interviewed for this story—it might be best to constantly take some profits, "rebalancing" your bitcoin holdings while never getting out entirely. Jason even pre-paid for a seat on a future Virgin Galactic flight into space using bitcoins. He later sought a partial refund on that ticket. Because bitcoin's dollar price had sunk by nearly 80 percent in the meantime, he ended up buying back bitcoin with that refunded ticket money whose subsequent rise may have earned him millions.

One specific scenario bitcoin holders might have to worry about, according to one early hoarder, is that future quantum computing innovations could conquer the currency's encryption. If it all went away tomorrow, Jason estimates his early involvement, which arose from his belief in liberty, would have added around $10 million in spendable cash to his life from what he's already taken out.

While the couple dozen early adopters I interviewed do not constitute a scientific sampling, the overarching story is that they and their compatriots mostly didn't live out the wisdom of "HODL"—a bitcoin in-joke based on an old message board typo for "HOLD," exemplifying the spirit of hanging on to all your bitcoins no matter how high or low the dollar price might get. Few people seem to have done that.

Cody Wilson says that "I definitely remember in 2013 the ride up to $1,000." There were, for a moment, many more very well-off libertarians than there are now. But "a lot of people sold out on the ride back down to $200, and a lot of people [who got rich] back in the day didn't spend it well, and they don't have it now."

The earliest libertarian adopter I interviewed requested anonymity. He started buying in the 20- to 30-cent range. "I stopped buying it when it hit $1.20, and then it quickly jumped up to $2 and that seemed insane. Man, it just doubled, no way I'm going to keep putting money into a thing that goes up in value that fast. It can't be sustainable." He laughed, as many people interviewed for this story did when revealing their most costly mistake.

An American bitcoin enthusiast living overseas had in the week we spoke lost seven bitcoins (about $50,000) when an exchange was busted for money laundering and other alleged crimes. Still, he says, "I'm so far ahead it's hard to get too upset."

He started buying in again at a higher price, and had 4,000 coins at his personal peak. He began selling them and re-buying on downswings, a pattern he recalls doing successfully "about 13 times."

Then came a moment of personal crisis. A woman he'd been involved with got pregnant, and they decided to travel to a nearby state to avoid their own state's restrictive abortion laws. He had just sold 3,000 of his coin at $100 and intended to buy them back at $90, and that day the price dipped all the way to $70. His exchange, however, required a security measure called two-factor authorization, which he did via a device he didn't have on him in the waiting room. The rate went back up over $100 before he could finalize that trade and never looked back. "I can't think of anyone who bought around the time I did and held until now," he says—except Ver.

Reale began buying in late 2012, and by the end of January 2013 had 314 bitcoins. But then, well, "here was an opportunity for a vacation," he says. "The car died, time to replace the car.…It was very handy to have that [bitcoin] around and bleed off some from time to time over the course of three years."

In late 2016, he sold off his final chunk for some of the hottest alt-coin, ethereum, buying in at around $8—yay!—then selling out again at around $11. (It's around $300 now.) There had been a publicized hack in an ethereum application that sounded bad, and he had some shortfalls in his work income to make up. "In retrospect, I should have sold my car, should have sold anything other than the ether, but it was the most liquid asset I had," he says with a pained laugh. Between the bitcoin and the ether, "that's over a million I'd have if I'd held."

Peralo, the libertarian activist, describes his profits from early adoption as "more than half a million but less than a million." At one time he had an amount that, if he'd kept it, would be worth well above $30 million now. "My girlfriend and family members tend to ask me about that, and it does sting significantly." Still, he believes the cryptocoin space continues to have room for insane upsides, and "millionaires can still be born every week."

Another couple of libertarians who had watched bitcoin for years but didn't start buying until it first rose above $1,000 did very well this year grabbing up a lot of ethereum when it was under 10 bucks. But they tell me if they'd been nervy enough to sell all their bitcoin and turn it into ether, they'd be millionaires. Vaduva, the friend of Mark Edge's who started Cell 411, got entirely out of bitcoin this year and into a currency called monero, where he says he's seen a 40-fold return.

Fretting about lost opportunities is a bad way to look at this whole phenomenon, says Free Talk Live's Freeman. "You can't beat yourself up" over what you didn't do fast enough. "People were saying when bitcoin was $30, 'Oh, it's not the right time to buy, wait until it goes down again.' And it never went down. We're looking at four, five thousand now, but it could be $20,000 in two years and people will be kicking themselves about not having bought in at four."

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story was just a smarter decision or two away from crazy crypto-wealth. For me, it's tough to cope with the realization that the greatest gold rush of our generation was right in front of my nose. Libertarians knew all about bitcoin, yet most of us failed to get as much out of it as we coulda shoulda woulda.

One guy commiserated with me over hours of phone interviews and instant messages. He got in late but managed to turn a $10,000 investment into more than $100,000. Still, he's "haunted," he says. "I can't see [my gains] outside the context of how much better it could have been. I could be retired right now, have an island, all the problems in my life could be gone."

The anonymous person who essentially lost 3,000 bitcoins while in an abortion clinic waiting room admits he "feels a screwdriver in my guts sometimes when I think about it. I was legit depressed.…I still get upset if a friend pulls out their phone to check bitcoin prices in front of me."

As Smith, the man who took a silver round instead of 1.6 bitcoin in 2012, says, "If I really let myself think of how much my life would have been changed by that amount of money [by investing more and holding on to it], there is deep, deep sorrow and regret. But it doesn't last. It's a fantasy. It's not what happened. It's wrong to focus on things you can't control."

Most of the people I spoke to about my own regrets were surprisingly cheerful. Moceri is just happy that he has a successful law practice. "I'm not hurting," he says. "If I was somebody into bitcoin early who just had a fine arts degree and was not making any money, maybe I'd be kind of upset. But I'm young. There will be a lot more bitcoins in the future, or bitcoin-like things. As long as you're having fun, who cares?"

Moceri also contends that libertarians have a streak that made them in some cases the last to embrace cryptocurrencies, recalling bull sessions at Institute for Humane Studies seminars in which "I'd get big pushback from half the people in the room that bitcoin was just another fiat currency—it's not based on anything."

Jeff Berwick, who runs an investment newsletter and an anarchist conference in Acapulco, recalls that "when I started talking up bitcoin in 2011, many in the anarchist and Austrian finance communities thought I was crazy. 'It's a Ponzi scheme, it's not really money because it doesn't adhere to a certain principle,'" namely, Ludwig von Mises' belief that true money had to be something, such as gold, with value that was initially independent from its use as currency. A Reason reader named Warren, who had been an early bitcoin advocate at a message board called Grylliade full of fellow libertarians, found himself arguing that there was something to this crazy crypto stuff against nearly everyone else on the site.

Jeff Berwick. Illustration by saratm.Jeff Berwick. Illustration by saratm.Every crypto-enthusiast I talked to agrees that my plausible-sounding fantasy of the stereotypical libertarian in a basement piling up tens of thousands of bitcoins back when they were less than five bucks, and keeping them until now, probably doesn't exist—and if he does, he's certainly staying off the radar.

One New Hampshire early adopter who could, if he wished, retire in his early 30s off his alt-currency investments says that "many people like me are waiting for crypto to go up just a little more...just a little more…and who knows when it'll collapse? So selling off just enough to buy a car or house is the safe bet, but no one's going hog wild buying yachts in my community. I myself am starting to liquidate to [U.S. dollars] to start a business," but he doesn't know many others doing the same.

"We do have political campaigns being financed by crypto donations," he continues. "But by and large, so far, most crypto-wealth is being sat on. It's formed the retirement investment portfolios of middle-class libertarians who maybe never had a 401(k)."

People like Moroz and Berwick, who do the international libertarian conference circuit, say there are definitely many more people able to travel the world at leisure in the libertarian-anarchist space than there used to be—just not on the Ver level of purchasing their own country.

Jason, who from his account seems to be the richest, or at least the largest-living, bitcoin adopter I interviewed after Ver, says he "knows a lot of libertarians who had nothing in 2010 and now have a few million." But it's not enough to be a world-changing new class of wealth and power. He admits that he was well-positioned with some of the newer crypto gold rushes, such as the frenzy over ethereum; had he jumped at the right time, it could have pushed his own crypto-wealth up 10 times or more, but he missed out "because I'm lazy and I get drunk a lot."

"The trick is not just buying it," says the man who was accumulating bitcoins at 20 and 30 cents. "It's hanging on to them. No one times things perfectly. This asset is growing and growing rapidly, and you start to get nervous. Like, hold on: Will I regret selling too early, or regret holding onto it until it disappears?"

On the date of that interview in late July, bitcoin's dollar price was around $2,700. By early November, it had gone up by 175 percent.

Given this history of price rises, Edge admits that spending bitcoin rather than hoarding it "is to some extent activism" in itself—helping the bitcoin ecosystem become not just a wealth-accumulating mania but something that might actually be a widely used universal currency outside government control.

And that, to the true-blue bitcoin maven, is what it's all about. As Irenaeus Miller says, "I have a 10-month-old daughter, and I'm far more concerned with where she can be a citizen and what kind of world she'll live in than her financial state. I hope with technological change we can live in a world with new, voluntary states and break down a lot of the sanctions and economic barriers. If we can do that, then I'm not too worried about money."

Editor's note: All the calculations for current value of bitcoin were made the day before the print version of this was sent to press, in early November, when the price was around $7,400 in U.S. dollars. As of today when this is first posted to the Web that price is over $10,000. What that U.S. dollar price will be when you read this can be learned by consulting any cryptocurrency price chart, but will certainly be different.

**Virgil Vaduva's name was misspelled in original posting of this article. The current mining reward was misstated as half of 50, rather than the correct one-fourth of 50.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

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  • Stormy Dragon||

    Alternate Headline: Brian Doherty does not understand survivorship bias.

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    $10k -- Holy shit the burn is deep. Sure I would only have been purchasing it with credit card debt but it would have worked. Fucking fade me fam.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    My advice: just make sure that you get out before some Preet Bahara - like shithead eventually decides to shut them down the way they did most of the major internet poker sites on Black Friday.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Can't be done. That's the whole point. Bitcoin and other cryptos are DISTRIBUTED all over the world. No government can stop it.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    That's exactly what Raymond Bitar and the owners of some of the poker sites thought too, until suddenly they found themselves getting arrested at the airport one day.

  • CE||

    Bought it when? If I had bought 2K worth in 2010, I most likely would have sold it when it grew to 20K.

    If you had bought tulip bulbs in 1636 you would think you were getting rich too.

  • josh||

    I know what it is, but little else about it.

    So, help me out...is this the future, wishful thinking, or somewhere in between?

  • Eric||

    Blockchain currencies may be the future, I don't know about Bitcoin.

    Right now the Bitcoin hype is from speculators seeking alternative forms of investment from the market since interest rates are so low. There is probably a bubble forming and there will be some sad people holding the bag when it bursts, but the alpha is super tempting.

    One thing people may not know is that you don't have to buy or mine bitcoins to take advantage of the hype. If you have a brokerage account, you can invest in an ETF called Bitcoin investment trust (Ticker GBTC). I generally keep 10% of my portfolio in speculative investments. I bought in at $850 at the end of October and just sold half of my holdings today at $1,590. It's a hell of a ride, and you shouldn't participate if you aren't willing to lose money.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I feel like with 100 million I'd just cash out. Maybe I could make more, but I doubt I could even begin to notice a difference in my life. Anything less than 100 million is chump change.

    Also, this article is like starring into Doherty's hurting soul.

  • Juice||

    "I am not a bitcoin multimillionaire," writes Senior Editor Brian Doherty in the current issue of Reason magazine. "I could have been: I was aware of the cryptocurrency's existence in July 2010.

    All sorts of shit could have happened by then.

    Sure, you could have bought 5000 bitcoins when they were under $1, but you probably would have sold them when they hit 2. Definitely when they hit $30. No question when they hit $400.

    Or, you could have lost them due to a hard drive fuck up, or losing a thumb drive, or having your wallet bug out on you like so many others.

    Or, someone could have stolen them somehow and drained your wallet with nothing you could do to stop it, which happened to many people.

    Or, you could have been storing many of your bitcoins with Mt. Gox or any other scam exchange that made off with everyone's money.

    So, don't think that "I shoulda bought a ton 7 years ago" means you would have bought at $1 and sold today for $10k.

    And would you sell today? Maybe it'll be $50k next year. Unless you lose them, have them stolen, or confiscated or whatever.

  • ||

    This all also presumes you aren't drinking the whole glass of kool-aid and asking for another with regard to the hype. If you really believed bitcoin to be the index currency you'd actually be looking at it as you've incurred no risk, gained marginal amounts of wealth while we poor suckers continue to trade in $ and spend 10:1 (or more) paying the gov't to prevent us from incurring risk.

    The only reason you think "Holy Shit my bitcoin would've been worth $212M!" is because, paradoxically or antithetically, $212M is a lot of value.

  • Juice||

    "I can't see [my gains] outside the context of how much better it could have been.

    No matter what, the emotions related to trading stocks and commodities always seem to be so negative. Even when you make out like this guy did with 10X returns. He's lamenting the fact that it wasn't 100X.

    Be happy with your fucking 1000% gains, motherfucker. It's a hell of a lot better than those of us who never touched it and are still watching from the sidelines. Talk about FOMO.

  • GlenchristLaw||

    Can we please adopt a Godwin's Law sort of rule for the morons who adhere to the wholly improper analogy to the Tulip saga (sorry, "bubble").

  • Myshkin78||

    "wholly accurate analogy"

    FTFY

  • μ Aggressor||

    I had actually tried to buy bitcoin when it was somewhere around $14 per but after spending a shiltoad of time just looking for where and how to wire transfer money to get it I pretty much gave up. No doubt had I made a successful bet I would have sold it on the first peaks and today I'd probably be even more pissed than I am for failing. I did not have a ton of spare income at the time so it's not like I would have sunk a couple thousand and just left it. It's like winning the lottery really

  • Merl3noir||

    I nearly purchased bitcoin in 2011, as I was having trouble getting a mining rig to work properly. Decided to get my feet wet with a purchase. I walked away from bitcoin after an exchange site where a lot of people kept their coins got hacked. The price dropped from close to $12 all the way to $0.01. When I would have made my first $100 trial investment it had recovered to $0.03. It spooked me enough to turn the mining rig into a gaming computer, and I ignored bitcoin for few years. But most galling of all was that in 2012, a colleague wanted to transfer money back to his bank in Singapore. I suggested he could likely avoid most the fees by using bitcoin. He Not only did that, he started buying small amounts of bitcoin. A few years ago, he retired, having paid off his mortgage, and having re-invested some of his gains in bitcoin into more stable investments. He's not a bitcoin millionaire, but he is comfortable with the money he has made from bitcoin. and how he has re-invested it. It's like a knife in my back everytime he thanks me for my advice.

  • IMissLiberty||

    "So where are all the cryptocurrency tycoons?" I'm sure the I.R.S. is asking the same question.
    But, for the record, this libertarian liked the ideas that excited all her fellows, but recognized that we are in the minority, still. Most people want tangible money, not electrical or ethereal or fiat. When competitors and reality pop the bitcoin bubble, don't let them blame it on libertarians.
    (INTJs are in the minority. I'm sure the technology will develop and improve, but this one has limitations as long as its primary attraction is how many dollars you can get for it.)

  • Eric||

    My wife's an INTJ. I find her both amazing and quite terrifying.

  • JFree||

    Bitcoin is proving to be a good case study that the 'store of value' (bitcoin/dollar exchange rate since lets face it - EVERYONE is using dollars not bitcoins as unit of account) function of money can be directly at odds with the 'medium of exchange (cost of transferring bitcoins to someone else). The more the bitcoin/dollar price rises, the more the cost of transferring bitcoins (now $45?) rises.

    Anyone here think a $45 transaction price deadweight loss is gonna sell people on using bitcoin to buy groceries/etc or anything else in real life? As long as those transfer costs are measured in satoshis/byte - that deadweight loss will get even worse. And the moment it gets measured in dollars/byte - then guess who owns the property rights to 'dollars'?

  • JFree||

    Right now - bitcoin miners are using as much electricity as Nigeria - to process 300,000 transactions/day (most of which are supposedly microtransactions).

    Whodathunk a cryptocurrency would be the most energy-wasting thing on the entire planet. Now all it needs to do is squeeze the utility bills of poor people - and the stage will be set for the next Cross of Bitcoin speech.

  • gphx||

    Sure - a computer network uses more energy than a bank and ATM on every corner and their computer networks. I see what you did there.

  • gphx||

    Get a Segwit address. Last I checked $.30 got you a transaction in the first block. If you're paying $45 it's because you're doing it wrong using a non-Segwit address.

  • D.A. Ridgely||

    In fairness to Grylliade, Warren is usually wrong.

  • Warren||

    9 out of 10 times you've claimed I was wrong, history has proven me right.

  • BYODB||

    Wouldn't you need to find someone to actually pay you those millions of dollars to buy your imaginary electric coins? (As opposed to your real, but not inherently valuable, dead tree bits?)

  • Myshkin78||

    Exactly. At least tulip bulbs serve an actual purpose.

  • Lawn Darts||

    The idea is to buy STUFF. I just did the math on some drinks I bought with bitcoin in a saloon in 2014. They seemed like free drinks at the time. In todays BTC it's equivalent to $1,362 USD. But, hey, as someone in the article mentioned, if people didn't spend them and trade them, they'd be worth zero.

  • BYODB||

    Bitcoin as a proposition is interesting, but entirely digital money is a fools errand even while one could convincingly say our current economy is just that.

    Our currencies are like our people; divorced from the physical plane.

  • JFree||

    Digital money is very valid. But the only value that that would have over some other form of money is if it were far more scalable than a 'real-world' alternative. And blockchain is not scalable - and probably can't ever be unless the ledger itself is owned. See Tragedy of the Commons.

  • BYODB||

    I only meant a fools errand in the sense that it's not a tangible asset, which in my view is what constitutes a 'real' asset but I'm admittedly a beneficiary of credit cards and online transactions like everyone else. I suppose it's an economy based upon faith on the worldwide power grid. ^_-

  • Bra Ket||

    "You Probably Should Have Bought Bitcoin..."

    Yeah no shit.

  • Stilgar||

    Bitcoin has become a ponzi scheme. It has virtually no use now as a method to transact business because the time to record anything on the block chain is prohibitively long. There are other coins that are far more suitable alternatives as a useful store of value that can actually be used.

  • sticks||

    Does Brian still abuse people?