A common debate within the bitcoin community centers on authority and power. Where does power emanate from in a decentralized system? Who controls the resources to build this system? These questions may seem like odd questions given that the purpose of a decentralized protocol is to operate without a central authority. Indeed, the virtue of the bitcoin blockchain is that self-interest drives consensus.
But asking these questions isn’t strange, or beside the point. In fact, they are at the core of cryptocurrencies, surfacing as fundamental queries influencing the evolution of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
For example, many people are discussing whether security should be sacrificed for scalability in the bitcoin blockchain. Let me make clear that the purpose of this post is not to debate the merits of each side–both camps of thought have convincing cases to make. I want to focus on the fact that such debates of governance and freedom of a decentralized network are occurring.
In my view, one line of thinking about bitcoin’s governance is misguided. I often hear people talk about the liberating freedom inherent in the bitcoin protocol architecture. This stance is motivated by a rejection of authority and a firm belief in “rough consensus and running code.” Yet, while they prioritize liberty, this group often forgets that their belief is subject to an unstated constraint on freedom. Control not by a government entity or by the concentration of trading in China, but by a less pernicious force: code and the values built into the bitcoin code.
What do I mean by values?
To answer this question, I refer to Lawrence Lessig’s book Code V.2. As a pioneering lawyer and academic on the Internet, Lessig was witness to the ideals enmeshed in its creation–and the disappointment when these expectations were never met. Lessig’s writing is most informative when he draws from his knowledge of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, a process that bears similarity to the creation of both the Internet and the bitcoin blockchain.
Lessig writes that a constitution “anchors fundamental values” into its architecture. It is a “lighthouse” beaming an eternal signal to guide us when we’re at a loss. This may constrain liberty, but such sacrifice is made for the welfare of the greater good. Granted, a constitution, may be amended to change the balance of liberty and security. For example, Lessig reminds us how the Constitution emerged from the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, the fine-tuning of governance is a feature of this legal text. How, then, might code act as a constitution?
Code is law. It defines the terms of how we use applications. It is the reason why new nodes, to draw an example from the bitcoin blockchain, require independent audits from a global log. Thus, code, as a product of human ingenuity, bears and confers certain values. To quote Mark Stefik, “Different versions of [code] support different kinds of dreams. We choose, wisely or not.” A desire for liberty, privacy, and autonomy explains why bitcoin is built on open-source code and aspires to remove centralized authority from P2P transactions.
Commenters on the issue of governance and freedom in the blockchain made comparisons to the drafting the Constitution. To some, for instance, the question of how to best represent,what I’ll call power, was similar to the face off over Federalism. On one side were advocates of a strong central government, and on the other were those who favored devolution and state power. These two sides frequently bickered on the substantive–freedom of speech, privacy, due process–and structural–democratic voting–promises of government. In the end, despite all of the quarreling, the Founding Fathers came to a consensus. By contrast, the solution to the blocksize dispute has been a standstill. The bitcoin community lacks both a mechanism for voting and a clear vision of the values for the network.
Some may argue that shading the development of bitcoin as a constitutional question is off key. Isn’t bitcoin beyond the reach of control?
I disagree. In my view, these institutional values largely determine the future of the technology, influencing adopters, developers, and defectors. New code, better script is one method of control. How the bitcoin blockchain adapts to an uncertain regulatory apparatus is another. These issues go beyond the scope of this post, but I’ll be closely following. The questions that the bitcoin community participants should be asking are the ones Lessig poses in his book:
How do we protect liberty when the architectures of control are managed as much by the government as by the private sector? How do we assure privacy when the ether perpetually spies? How do we guarantee free thought when the push is to propertize every idea? How do we guarantee self-determination when the architectures of control are perpetually determined elsewhere? How do you reconcile these opposing views?
I don’t have easy answers to these issue; no one does. Although the current unalignment in the bitcoin community doesn’t immediately threaten the integrity of the digital currency, this friction is indicative of a larger problem in the community. These debates over governance will define how bitcoin (or bitcoin 2.0) will evolve into the decentralized currency it was idealized to be, or not. I think Lessig is right to say that thinking about a constitution “doesn’t describe a hundred-day plan.” Rather, it is crucial in order to “identify the values that a space should guarantee.” He continues,
[The constitution’s purpose ] is not to describe a “government”; it is not even to select (as if a single choice must be made) between bottom-up or top-down control. In speaking of a constitution in cyberspace we are simply asking: What values should be protected there? What values should be built into the space to encourage what forms of life?