Anonymity and private communications online have opened up a myriad of ways for individuals to communicate and transact in cyberspace, in ways that thwart surveillance.
This series of articles will explore some of the notable proposals (and iterations) of digital marketplaces furthering crypto-anarchic agendas. First up: the prediction markets for betting on the lives of individuals.
Even to hardline crypto-anarchists and libertarians, this one is a bit of a stretch – on the surface, it would appear to stand in stark opposition to the non-aggression principle. Jim Bell, however, remains adamant that the ends justify the means insofar as government employees/politicians are concerned, as he explains in depth in his 90s essay entitled Assassination Politics. According to Bell:
In receiving [a paycheck of stolen tax money] and in his various acts, [the government employee] violates the “Non-aggression Principle” (NAP) and thus, presumably, any acts against him are not the initiation of force under libertarian principles.
In the essay, the author discusses the harnessing of public-key encryption and digital cash to create a system where anonymous donors could add to a fund, which would be paid out to whoever correctly ‘guessed’ the date of death of an office holder. Note that the term ‘guessed’ here should be interpreted very loosely — the implication is that a $10m kitty might just incentivise someone to ensure that their guess was correct.
Anarchy Through Fear
Envisaged by a staunch libertarian, Bell’s hypothetical marketplace had an ulterior political motive: the eradication of any hierarchical governmental structure.
He reasoned that, as leader after leader was offed for continuing to “tax us to death, regulate us to death, or for that matter send hired thugs to kill us when we oppose their wishes” (I can’t stress the extent to which he really hates taxes), others would eventually fear assuming office, and government intervention in the lives of individuals would be drastically reduced. From there, everything falls into place – global access to the assassination markets would mean that militaries across the board cease to exist (lack of leaders and lack of funding).
You might be wondering how such a system would remain limited to persons involved with the government. I’m not altogether convinced that the ‘ethical underpinnings’ of the society that uses these would make it infeasible for a competitor to simply start taking bets on anyone (though you might struggle in finding people with enough hatred for your neighbour who keeps blaring music at 3am to contribute to the pool that would be paid out in the event of their untimely death).
That said, Bell argues that if you wanted to hire a hitman (which is what you’d essentially be doing here, as opposed to crowdfunding one), that’s already possible today.
Bear in mind that this proposal was floated at a time before the magic of blockchain or the advent of decentralisation for the sake of decentralisation (and raising obscene amounts of money for mere mentions of the word). In Bell’s model, a centralised organisation is the ultimate arbiter over which names are added to the system, and therefore has certain ‘moral’ rulebook. If, on the other hand, someone were to create a decentralised prediction market, you’d be firmly in the chaotic code is law domain.
Whilst it runs in a decentralized manner, Augur operates much like traditional prediction markets: users trade contracts with payouts tied to a future event. These contracts are binary, meaning that bets are placed on whether an outcome will or will not occur. Can you see where I’m going with this?
You’re by no means limited to attempting to predict the deaths of people here – want to bet on whether Elon Musk is going to cry in a video interview before a certain date? Here you go. When Apple will release a folding iPhone? Right here.
That’s not to say deaths haven’t been predicted – bets on terrorist attacks, mass murders and assassinations of prominent politicians are all there, too. It’s trivial to set them up, though liquidity is still lacking. Not so trivial is shutting them down – the Forecast Foundation burned the escape hatch some months back, effectively removing its central point of failure.
While Bell’s Assassination Markets are abhorrent to most, they’re a textbook example of the markets that will crop up as the result of anonymising technologies and in the absence of legal obstruction. It’s perhaps too early to tell whether decentralised prediction markets will live up to this notorious potential (there’s still some kinks to iron out where oracles are concerned), though it certainly appears that the proverbial table is being set as we speak.
Cover art by author, photo from Pexels.