Unpacking Bitcoin’s Assurances
It has rightfully been pointed out that Bitcoin’s decentralization is but a means to an end — censorship resistance. This is in response to the decentralization fetishism that has characterized Bitcoin competitors and the blockchain industry in general. This is an appropriate response: cosmetic network decentralization is probably not sufficient if you plan on breaking any serious rules, and irrelevant if the industry you are seeking to disrupt is dentistry.
Bitcoin’s fault-tolerant architecture was designed to survive extreme duress, and its multi-variate decentralization was created (or more accurately: emerged) to promote this. However, censorship resistance — the ability to broadcast information without restriction — does not fully cover the guarantees that Bitcoin provides to users, although it is perhaps the most significant.
In this post I will try and define the various guarantees that Bitcoin users can expect by taking advantage of the system’s features over the entire usage lifecycle — from acquisition to exit. Censorship resistance is central to these but not sufficiently comprehensive. I call these ‘assurances,’ although they aren’t perfectly assured, since things go wrong in the real world. (I’ve been a fan of ‘assurances’ in this context since reading this post.) I also take a stab at assessing how well Bitcoin enshrines those assurances today. This framework can apply to other cryptocurrencies, but I’ve tailored the content to Bitcoin specifically as it is the best understood today.
This is the shorthand for “the right to freely acquire Bitcoin.” No amount of decentralization in Bitcoin’s architecture itself can guarantee this. As many Bitcoiners will point out, free access to the asset requires a vibrant and competitive industry of fiat onramps. The existence of quasi monopolists attempting to build regulatory moats in order to raise barriers to entry threatens this. If acquisition of the asset can only occur in a couple large venues, they are not only susceptible to state action, but also liable to collusively deplatform individuals at will. Imagine what happens to the Venezuelan equivalent of Coinbase during a currency crisis: the government trivially shuts it down to…