What will bitcoins be in 2021? This is a question I ask myself often and the answer varies from person to person. Some folks will tell you that they will be the value of gold in a decade; some other folks say it will be cash in the year 2200; and others say it will be digital currency (aka internet cash) by the year 3100.

There are a lot of reasons why I ask this question. The reasons change depending on how the question is asked. Other people will tell you that they don’t care (it’s irrelevant). Others will tell you it depends (yes it does). And some will say it doesn’t matter (they really can’t see the future). But I think it is important to consider why this is so.

Most people (myself included) would say that bitcoins are digital currencies in which case the question of what will bitcoins be in 2021 is irrelevant – one would have been issued at some point. In the same way as the gold and silver coins were issued and then replaced by bartering and electronic money, governments will issue their own bitcoins in order to replace national currencies. However, the value of bitcoins won’t just be determined by governments. Individual users and businesses will value their own units of this new digital currency. It may be worth a lot more than the dollar in today’s economy, but it may also be worth nothing because nobody knows what the future holds.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but I’m not even talking about speculation or possibilities. I’m talking about reality. A government might decide one day that they want to issue a handful of bitcoins as a legal tender – something like a currency. Right now, they are considering doing this through the “leverage” of creating the new units of money. They could either do it by printing more bitcoins (aka “digital gold”) or issuing an entirely new fiat currency, like the US dollar.

If they choose the latter, they could make the new currency worthless overnight as a consequence of their behavior. One thing you should understand about digital currencies is that no government can create them, and no government can force their residents to use them. That responsibility falls instead onto private individuals who voluntarily elect to participate in such a process. It’s similar to a utility company that charges for electricity when you use the grid and then offers free electricity to your home if you sign up for a solar-powered electricity system.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the value of bitcoins won’t be determined by anything other than the future behavior of government. What will bitcoins be in ten or twenty years? That depends on how the government decides to treat digital currencies. Will they allow their citizens some anonymity, or make them available for taxation? Those are real questions that only governments can answer.

In any case, it’s likely that the government eventually does decide to get involved. Some have already made noises suggesting that the government will eventually attempt to impose taxes on digital currencies. What will bitcoins be in twenty or thirty years? That also depends on the government’s behavior.

It’s possible that someday the government will do nothing to interact with digital currencies, leaving them completely autonomous. Even if the government attempts to interfere with something as fundamental as how people spend their money, it will do so very indirectly. For instance, suppose that a government regulated vending machine opens up in front of a shop that sells bitcoins. The customer doesn’t want to use cash, so he just goes into the store, gets a drink, and pays for his merchandise with his digital wallet. That shop won’t be able to charge him any taxes because he chose to work off his own schedule using his digital currency.