Unpacking Bitcoin’s Social Contract

A framework for skeptics



Illustration: engraving by Abraham Bosse via Wikimedia

Bitcoin is a novel social and economic institution. It is so different from our existing institutions that we should be skeptical and ask as many hard, pressing questions as we can before trusting it with any economic value. Some answers will only reveal themselves with time (or Lindy, as the cool kids say), but that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with theories or frameworks. One such framework that has helped me a lot in understanding bitcoin is social contract theory.

First, fiat money is the result of a social contract: The people give the state control over the supply and other vital functions of money. The state, in turn, uses that power to manage the economy, redistribute wealth, and fight crime. But many don’t realize that bitcoin works through a social contract as well.

The social layer and its rules are the heart of bitcoin.

And that social contract framework can be used to answer some essential questions: Why did bitcoin come into existence? Who decided its properties? Who controls it today? Can a critical bug kill bitcoin?

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory starts with a thought experiment: It assumes a hypothetical state of nature full of violence, that is unbearable for people to live in. Driven by a desire to improve their situation, they come together and collectively agree to empower Leviathan, the sovereign government, to protect them. Each gives up some of their freedom (to, you know, steal, and murder and stuff) while the Leviathan is granted the power to create laws, enforce them, and protect the people from violence.

But the theory is not constrained to the relationship between the people and the state. We can apply the same thought experiment to economics. If enough people are unhappy with the barter economy, they can collectively agree to use money, credit, or something else to improve the quality of their trading.

The process of money or credit happens implicitly. Every person asks the question of what outcomes they prefer and how they can achieve them. If many people in a society want the same outcome, we can call the result a “Schelling point” or social…