FORTUNE — It’s been a busy couple of weeks for bitcoin enthusiasts, first as they dealt with the volatility brought on by the implosion of the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, then as Newsweek fingered a 64-year-old California man named Satoshi Nakamoto as the creator of the virtual currency.
But compared to the question of whether bitcoin will ever achieve levels of adoption anywhere near the scale of government-backed fiat currencies, these stories are mere trifles. Bitcoin’s biggest obstacle to success has always been receiving the blessing of the very governments that many of its supporters view as enemies one through 100.
Some governments, like China, have taken steps to combat bitcoin’s use. In December, Chinese officials banned financial institutions from dealing with bitcoin though individuals are free to own them. The United States has taken a more hands-off approach, but it is inevitable that the Treasury Department, and especially the IRS, will have to take an official stance on the currency, and its position will have huge implications for the success of bitcoin.
Tax attorney Lee Sheppard argues convincingly in a recent article in Tax Notes that “Bitcoin is not a currency,” despite the protestations of some supporters. According to Sheppard:
Users of Bitcoin should not think that it is exempt from taxation or outside the tax system. There’s nothing that Bitcoin allows anyone to do that they can’t already do in the regular banking system … Libertarians, drug dealers, and tinfoil hatters like Bitcoin because it is not issued by a central government, but the irony is that it is more controllable and more traceable than the U.S. bank notes …
Sheppard points to a United States Tax Court decision from the 1970s that dealt with a company called Barter Systems, which allowed customers to trade in hard assets in return for “trade units” issued by the firm. This was during a time when inflation was high, which explains the appeal of these trade units. The U.S. tax court ruled that Barter Systems was required to report transactions involving these trade units and that the exchange “should be taxed on the fair market value of property received in exchange for trade units.” Continues Sheppard:
Bitcoin is analogous to the trade units considered in Barter Systems Inc. of Wichita. It is a privately issued medium of exchange accepted only in constrained circumstances and not backed by any promise of the issuer. Colvin treated the trade units as property in analyzing their use. The same analysis applies to Bitcoin.
If Sheppard’s analysis is accurate, then how bitcoin users would be taxed when they sell their bitcoins for goods or dollars would depend on whether that person is a trader, investor, or dealer. But one thing is for sure, the transaction would be taxed, as bitcoin transactions are easily traceable.
And if you’re a bitcoin user that is buying and selling the currency on a short-term basis, as one would expect from a person using bitcoin like everyday currency, any gains you realize would be taxed as ordinary income — as high as 39.6%.
One of the main appeals for bitcoin is the fact that it was designed so that there can only be a finite number of bitcoins created. This, of course, will help those who keep their wealth in bitcoin avoid the hidden tax of inflation. The United States has an explicit policy goal of devaluing its currency at a steady 2% per year, and that adds up to quite a bit over time.
But here’s the rub: The IRS will value the gains you make on bitcoin vis-a-vis the dollar. The more inflation in the dollar, the higher your tax bill will be if you keep your wealth invested in bitcoin and transact often using it. There’s also the issue of the high cost of record-keeping and reporting to the IRS an individual or company’s frequent bitcoin transactions.
So, if you’re interested in bitcoin as a currency for its ability to maintain value, you’re also going to have to plan on paying a high price to the feds for the pleasure of using it.
The great contradiction inherent in bitcoin is that so much of its appeal comes from its supposed independence from the government, but it’s increasingly clear that for the currency to be widespread enough for it to be a stable store of value, it will have to have to receive the blessings of governments across the world. And those governments are unlikely to cede their control over the monetary system anytime soon.