A Response to “Bitcoin’s Existential Crisis”

Nic Carter, one of the General Partners at Castle Island Ventures (a previous edition misidentified the fund), the VC fund infamous for investing in Flipside Crypto who sold baskets of shitcoins, recently wrote an article describing what he called the existential crisis of Bitcoin. If you don’t have 12 minutes to read it, it can be summarized as “Bitcoin has no leader and therefore it forks sometimes.” However, in this article that has some in the Crypto Media referring to Nic as Satoshi 2.0, he has several instances of flawed or incomplete thinking.

The first three paragraphs of this piece are quite well thought out, and if you ignore the usage of phrases like “intersubjective consensus” (for those who do not know intersubjective consensus is an idea that pops up in cognitive and philosophical journals to describe how people create a shared conception of reality) a useful introduction to some of the issues in the identity of cryptocurrency.

“The first and most common method is to give a corporation or foundation rights to a trademark, as is the case with Tezos or EOS.IO. This is the default for non-Bitcoin blockchains and gives an entity the legal force to anoint and ratify a single chain. Of course, no one is bound to follow this, and there could be a fork of Tezos that everyone mutually agrees to use.
However, the trademark carries certain legal protections, and if a fork tried to retain the name, the trademark owner would have recourse, at least where the fork tried to interact with regulated institutions. In this case, the trademark is just one manifestation of the core issue, which is confirmation that the leadership of a blockchain is seeking authoritative ratification of their control. Other activities this entity might engage in would be pressuring exchanges to use one ticker over another or support one fork over another as well as spreading a consistent message to the media. All of these give the entity de facto control over which fork is chosen in a dispute.”

This section is humorous to me because people have tried to trademark Bitcoin. See here, here, here, here (cash), here, here, here, here, and here. (Note many of these are for different products, not actual Bitcoin.) However, Nic is making a good point. Namely, that you can either defend against identity crises with legal structures, which are generally antithetical to the stated goals of this space, or you can embrace the difficulty.

The other approach is to throw caution to the wind and spurn any external marker of identity, relying instead on an intersubjective consensus, such that the system can change over time while remaining faithful to its original goals. This is the approach leaderless (or, more accurately, leader-minimized) systems like Bitcoin and Monero go for. Of course, there are influential individuals in both systems, but neither has a foundation or corporation in control of a trademark or a clear decision-making body. Many critics would say that Bitcoin Core, as the author of the dominant implementation of Bitcoin, wields disproportionate control, but that’s a reductive reading. It is not an official body, and the dominant implementation that they create does not define the essence of Bitcoin but rather its instantiation.

Here is where we get into some of the fun parts of the argument. The idea that Bitcoin Core is solely an instance of the consensus around the rules that define Bitcoin. This is ostensibly true, but it is important to remember that Bitcoin is at its core the software the nodes run. There was a recent instance wherein Bitcoin Core had a massive denial of service and inflation bug. Any inflation bug like that is inherently against the social consensus that governs the emission schedule of Bitcoin, yet it existed nonetheless in the instantiation, suggesting the influence of Bitcoin Core here is much larger than Nic is trying to imply. I do agree that there is no single leader of Bitcoin, but denying the influence of Core is myopic. He tries to cover it up with a Pierre Rochard quote that claims when the software and the consensus conflict, the software is mistaken, however, since we have established the software is the instantiation of the rules, the practical reality is that Bitcoin depends on the software. Without the code instantiating the network, there is a brief paper popular amount cypherpunks. Furthermore, since Bitcoin is decided solely by social consensus, and due to the primary software being written by one body, we actually see an increased likelihood for forks arising when the incentives of Core do not align with the incentives of holders or users.

Absolute commitment to the sound monetary policy (the 21 million hard cap) is a core virtue of Bitcoin but limits its design space and ability to pivot if the fee market doesn’t work. But this is the tradeoff Bitcoin has opted for.

Okay quick pet peeve here: finite supply is not the only way to sound money. Even gold had an elastic supply that inflated over time. Furthermore, in order to accept that Bitcoin has a capped supply, we must accept that forks do not represent an increase in the supply. This is true to a point, in that a Bitcoin will likely always remain capped. However, there is still an incentive to increase supply, meaning that in the future the social consensus around Bitcoin could change and the supply could increase. Claiming that Bitcoin will always have a capped supply is ignoring the practical realities of the incentive model that governs the security of the network. As former Bitcoin Foundation member Brock Pierce once said, “If I need money, I just make a token.” The appeal of determining the values, and taking the lion’s share of the reward is immense and difficult to avoid, even for those closely connected to Bitcoin for years like Brock.

Moreover, when forks occur due to a contentious issue in the community they will likely fracture the community, damage the networks effect around Bitcoin, and may, therefore, represent an increase in supply in proportion to the degree they fracture the community. This point is a little bit difficult to understand immediately and so I would like to break it out a little bit in an attempt to make it more clear.

  1. A significant portion of Bitcoin’s value derives from the network effects and continual strengthening of the community.
  2. The “real” Bitcoin is determined by social consensus.
  3. Contentious forks fracture the community and diminish the ability to reach unified consensus.
  4. Therefore, contentious forks increase the quantity of “effective” Bitcoin by diluting the ability for any fork to clearly claim to be Bitcoin.

The solution to this fracturing that Nic claims is the dedication to a few very stable values. However, we have already established that it is hard to keep this community aligned.

The remainder of the article divides perspectives on Bitcoin into various philosophical camps. I actually believe he may have usefully pointed out the ideological differences. However, I see the existence of these different camps as evidence that Bitcoin may never achieve alignment between these different positions, and is likely therefore to continue to fork as various issues arise. Every contentious fork that arises represents an increased difficulty in Bitcoin ever achieving the network effects it requires in order to be effective.

H/t to Kyle Gibson and Joshua Davis for help editing this