Years ago, Roger Ver earned the nickname Bitcoin Jesus thanks to his hardcore evangelism for the original cryptocurrency. These days, however, some members of the cryptosphere see Ver as more of a Bitcoin Judas, given his controversial opinion that BTC is no longer bitcoin. “If you’re not trying to build a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, you’re not bitcoin in my book,” says Ver, now a proponent of Bitcoin Cash, which hard-forked off the original bitcoin blockchain in August 2017.
Ver tells me this—and much more—during a video chat from his home in Tokyo. He’s lived in Japan since 2005, after serving a 10-month prison sentence in the U.S. for selling fireworks on eBay. A voluntaryist and an outspoken critic of the U.S. government, Ver renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2014 after becoming a citizen of the Caribbean nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. (Contrary to what you may have heard, he says he is still allowed to visit the U.S. as often as he’d like.)
Ver, who turned 40 in January, spoke to BREAKERMAG about his infamous high-seas debate with Jimmy Song, lessons learned from his time in prison, and the sobriquet he’d prefer to Bitcoin Jesus.
You’re a high-profile proponent of Bitcoin Cash. What’s your relationship with the BTC community like these days?
Depends on the person. If they’ve been around a long time, we get along just great. If they’re new to BTC and they’ve been influenced by the censorship that’s going on to this day within the community, then a lot of them think that I’m some guy that’s trying to attack BTC. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve seen you make that that charge before, that there’s anti–Bitcoin Cash censorship happening on Reddit. What is going on?
It’s not just anti–Bitcoin Cash censorship. /r/Bitcoin is a subreddit with more than a million subscribers, where more people probably get their general bitcoin news and information than any other source on the entire internet, and it’s larger than most other sources combined. If you post anything that doesn’t toe the official party line of the BTC core developers, your posts will literally be deleted. I think that’s a really, really big deal. Bitcoin is supposed to be censorship-resistant money. The community shouldn’t be engaging in massive censorship in regards to it, but that’s exactly what’s been going on for a couple of years now. On both /r/Bitcoin and Bitcointalk.org.
Is there anything in your mind that can be done about that?
I don’t know. I offered at least $100,000, it might have been even half a million dollars, to the charity of Reddit’s choice if they simply appoint moderators to /r/Bitcoin that allow people to talk about bitcoin. And so far, that has not happened. But that seems to be the easiest solution, to just let people actually discuss bitcoin, exchange ideas freely on these forums. But instead, there’s a really tightly controlled narrative, and anybody that posts anything that’s not in step with that narrative, they’ll literally have their post deleted and their account banned from that subreddit.
"I like the idea of being able to advance cryptocurrency adoption around the world more than I dislike having debates with some guy wearing a suit and cowboy hat in 95 degree weather."
Speaking of people you’ve clashed with, you and Jimmy Song got into a legendarily heated debate during last year’s Blockchain Cruise. Looking back, do you think it got out of hand?
I think it was out of hand from the very beginning, because unbeknownst to me they decided to have Jimmy Song be not only a participant in the debate, but also a moderator in the debate. And then like five minutes before the debate was supposed to start, he’s like, “Oh, by the way, here’s the debate format.” Which was [Lincoln-Douglas style]. I had to look up exactly what that that debate format was.
It seems like people online are always wanting to debate. Is that something that appeals to you?
To be honest, the thing that appeals to me the most is being left alone on my computer without other people or distractions. I’ve had plenty of debates, but it’s not because I particularly like them.
In our article on the cruise, you expressed that same sentiment: that you’d rather be at home in front of your computer. Then why go on a blockchain cruise where you’re trapped on a boat with hundreds of people?
I think cryptocurrency technology is so important for improving the entire standard of living of everybody across the world that I value trying to work toward that goal more than I value being alone at my computer in my room. I like the idea of being able to advance cryptocurrency adoption around the world more than I dislike having debates with some guy wearing a suit and cowboy hat in 95 degree weather.
You renounced your U.S. citizenship in 2014, and you’re now living in Japan. You’ve been back to the U.S. at least once that I know of—
I’ve been a bunch of times. Like I said, I like to be alone with my computer, and if I tell everybody I’m going to the U.S. then a million invitations come: Go to this meetup; go do this, go do that.
What do you generally do when you go to the U.S. then?
I see my parents, and I see my brothers. I spend time with my family.
Do you miss the U.S.?
I miss the weather of California. I miss the big parking spaces. In Japan, there are no parking spaces. I have a 10-year multiple-entry visa. I can go as much as I want. Some trolls on the internet like to claim, “Oh, he’s not allowed back,” but that’s not true at all.
You are a major critic of the U.S. government. How much are you paying attention to what’s going on here politically at the moment?
Not too much. I guess the biggest U.S. political thing that I’ve been paying attention is that they’re trying to finally extradite Julian Assange. [Note: The WikiLeaks founder was arrested in London the day after this interview.] I think that’s horrible. Julian Assange is a hero that the entire world should be thankful and grateful for.
What are your feelings on Trump?
I’m not a fan of politics, period. And our politicians, period. Or government, period. And if I had to choose between Trump and Hillary in the last election… It’s a horrible choice to make is how I feel. Being able to continue to see my family and friends in the U.S. is more at risk with Trump in office than it would have been with Hillary in office. On other things, I probably agree with Trump more than Hillary. But I’m a voluntaryist; I don’t think we need a president at all. I think people can figure out their own ways in life.
"Running for office in the U.S.? I learned that it's about as effective as joining the Nazi Party and trying to change the Nazis from the inside."
You ran as a Libertarian candidate for California State Assembly back in 2000. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned it’s about as effective as joining the Nazi Party and trying to change the Nazis from the inside. Or if you’re opposed to slavery, becoming a slavemaster and changing the system from the inside. Or if you don’t like ISIS, joining ISIS and changing ISIS from the inside. It doesn’t work is what I what I learned. But [running] was interesting. Maybe some people were exposed to new ideas that they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.
You have a lot of controversial views. In 2017, you described insider trading as a “non-crime.” Do you stand by that?
I should probably clarify what that means. I think that it should not be a crime. It currently is illegal—people go to jail for it—but it’s one of those things that should not be a crime, just like marijuana smoking. But I do stand by that.
So you don’t see any problem with people benefiting from knowledge that the rest of the population doesn’t have, for their own personal gain?
The entire point of markets is to allocate capital as effectively and efficiently as we possibly can. When people have information about what product is going be coming out or what business is going to be happening, you want to trade on that as soon as possible so that the capital can be allocated in the most efficient way possible. This may sound like an extreme position to most people, but it’s actually the position of most people that have studied the situation—Nobel Prize–winning economists, most of them agree with this.
Get the BREAKERMAG newsletter, a twice-weekly roundup of blockchain business and culture.
Milton Friedman’s a great example. Before I read Milton Friedman’s work, I was of the same opinion as the masses are: The government says insider trading is a crime and the government must really know what they’re talking about, so yeah, it should be a crime. But after I studied the issue, I came to a different conclusion. You want as many people trading on as much information as we possibly can. The entire point of markets is to harness the wisdom of the crowd and to have the most effective allocation of those resources as possible. If people aren’t allowed to trade on the information then the markets are less efficient, and the rate of of economic growth is not as high as it otherwise would have been.
You’re very open about having gone to prison for 10 months for illegally selling fireworks. What did you learn during your time there?
Probably the most useful thing I learned in prison was that the theories that I’d read about in the economics textbooks—about the origin of money and how something comes to be used as money—I saw with empirical evidence right before my eyes in the prison economy. Having that double confirmation from both the books and the prison economy, that’s what makes you so confident that people would want to start using bitcoin as money early on. So I guess I can thank prison.
Can you elaborate on that? Were people in prison, say, trading cigarettes?
In the theories put forth in economics books about the origin of money, things that have additional use cases just naturally become useful as money. That’s number one. Other than that, it has to be easily recognizable, easily divisible, you can store it for a long time and it’s not going to go bad, it has to be easy to transport, it has to be hard to counterfeit, and have a limited supply. That sounded reasonable in the economics books, but then I saw in person that, sure enough, things that have those characteristics people naturally start using in prison. The most common example is tobacco, which in prison people used as money. They used Top Ramen soups and postage stamps, as well. It was really amazing to see the amount of ingenuity people have in this little internal prison economy.
What was the most ingenious thing you saw?
People making their entire own tattoo guns and tattoo ink and giving each other tattoos with items found around the prison. It was incredible. I am not a fan of tattoos—I don’t have any—but the [prison] tattoos looked every bit as good as what somebody would get from a normal tattoo parlor in a normal shop on Main Street.
"Even to this day, if I hear keys jingling on a keychain, I just get really nervous, because in prison the guards would always let their keys jingle on their keychain."
You mentioned an economic lesson. But what did you learn about yourself when you were in prison?
It sounds kind of sad and pessimistic to say, but if you’re in prison the way to make the time easiest and not feel depressed or really upset or, I guess, the way to have the happiest time you can in prison, is to just basically forget about everybody on the outside. That sounds really defeatist to say, but if you’re constantly thinking about your friends or family or loved ones outside of prison while you’re in prison, it really makes things hard.
Is the experience something that sticks with you to this day?
Absolutely. In a big, big, big way. Even to this day, if I hear keys jingling on a keychain, I just get really nervous, because in prison the guards would always let their keys jingle on their keychain. And the main reason they would do that is because they wanted the inmates to hear that they were coming so they could put away the tattooing or whatever else they were up to that they weren’t supposed to be doing. Most of the guards didn’t want to deal with catching people doing something you’re not supposed to do. But anytime you hear a guard coming, bad things are… Guards only do bad things to people. So even to this day, I get a queasy feeling any time I hear keys jingling. And I’ve been out about 20 years now.
From speaking with you before, I know that you think people should be able to put anything into their bodies that they want to. I’m curious: Do you personally use drugs?
I’ve never even tried a cigarette. I’ve tried alcohol, but I rarely drink alcohol. I’ve never tried marijuana. The hardest drug I’ve ever tried is alcohol. I didn’t even taste my first sip of alcohol till I was 22 or 23. And it wasn’t because I was waiting for the government’s permission when I turned 21. It was never something that was interesting to me.
Trying to alter your consciousness is interesting to most people.
If I were to try something like that, I think probably the psychedelics would be the most interesting to me. But my my mind is currently the only mind I have. I guess I’m worried, maybe in part due to government propaganda, about damaging my mind. My mind is my most useful tool, and I don’t want to damage it.
Switching gears a little bit: You came out on Twitter against the #DeleteCoinbase campaign. Weren’t you troubled by their hiring of the Hacking Team members?
Incredibly troubled. That was a really, really stupid mistake on their part. But people make mistakes sometimes, and I don’t think that it was an intentionally bad mistake on Coinbase’s part. Once they saw the error of their ways, they fixed that. And Coinbase has onboarded millions and millions of people to cryptocurrency. I think Coinbase is a huge net positive for not just cryptocurrencies, but for the world.
"I'm not here to be popular. I’m here to advance the knowledge and understanding that I have of the world and help with the knowledge and understanding other people have of the world we live in."
Some people in the bitcoin community take umbrage at the fact that you don’t consider BTC to be bitcoin anymore. Do you get a lot of online hate?
There’s a bunch of people that said that I’m a scammer because of that, but I don’t hear arguments, I only hear name-calling. But I’m very open to hearing arguments and having my mind changed because of those arguments. I certainly wasn’t born with the views that I have today. I came to those conclusions based on the logic and reason and evidence and arguments that favored those positions. And if someone wants to try and convince me that BTC is bitcoin, even though it’s not a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, I will listen to those arguments and evaluate them based on their merits. And maybe I can have my mind changed. but I haven’t heard any arguments that are compelling at this point. I just hear a lot of a name-calling.
Does that just roll off your back?
Yeah. I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to advance the knowledge and understanding that I have of the world and help with the knowledge and understanding other people have of the world we live in.
You earned the nickname Bitcoin Jesus for your bitcoin evangelism. How do you feel about that nickname now?
Things definitely did not turn out well for the original Jesus, so I’ve always been a bit afraid of that nickname. If I could have chosen my own nickname, I think Bitcoin Johnny Appleseed probably would have been a bit more appropriate. I feel like I planted all of these bitcoin and cryptocurrency seeds that have sprouted up into the trees that are going to become bigger and bigger influences in the world. So I would prefer Bitcoin Johnny Appleseed. But I’ve been called worse things than Bitcoin Jesus.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Roger Ver.