I left the Bitcoin community five years ago. My final essay explaining why — “The resolution of the Bitcoin experiment” — is to my great surprise even half a decade later still being reshared on social media every few days and gets a steady stream of visits. I also regularly get emails asking me about it.
Although that was the last essay I published on Bitcoin, it wasn’t the last I actually wrote. The other essay was shared with a few people privately over the years but never made public. There was no deep reason for this: at the time, the New York Times had told me they’d be publishing an article about the ongoing events whether I liked it or not. I didn’t know what their article would say but did know they’d been talking to people who had a habit of lying about me, so I prioritised writing and publishing The Resolution to get my side of the story out. Then it went viral and in the furore that followed I figured that was as good a place as any to draw the line. So the second essay never got published.
I’m releasing it now because somehow over the years it seems to have become more relevant rather than less. At the time I assumed I’d eventually just delete it, as it’s a political and psychological analysis of an obscure and old online dispute that most people have never heard of. But the underlying themes of pseudo-expertise, intellectualist theorising vs pragmatic experience, suppression of debate and the “Conflict of Visions” are highly relevant to both COVID lockdowns and Brexit, both of which are contemporary issues of great importance (to me at least). Although the conclusion at the end is bleak, I’ve not yet been convinced by anyone that it was wrong.
If you have no idea what the block size debate was then please read “The Resolution” first, otherwise nothing written here will make any sense.
Written January 2016.
In today’s article I want to discuss the underlying differences in politics and philosophy that have driven Bitcoin to the brink of collapse. Why has something that started as an apparently minor technical disagreement exploded into the biggest crisis Bitcoin has ever seen? The reason is certainly not technical deep down, so what leads people to act in the ways they have?
I think the answer can be found in a book called “A conflict of visions” by Thomas Sowell, an American academic. This article explains Sowell’s theory and applies it to explain the block size debate.
On collective decision making
For some time I have been fascinated by a disturbing phenomenon: the Bitcoin community is full of people who hold democracy in contempt.
A typical quote would be this one from a man named Michael Marquardt, better known as “theymos”:
‘Democracy is pretty ineffective at making good decisions in general’
Later he elaborated:
‘You can promote BIP 101 as an idea. You can’t promote the actual usage of BIP 101. When the idea has consensus, then it can be rolled out.‘
‘Bitcoin is not a democracy. Not of miners, and not of nodes. Switching to XT is not a vote for BIP 101 — it is abandoning Bitcoin for a separate network/currency.’
‘It is good that you have the freedom to do this. One of the great things about Bitcoin is its lack of democracy.’
His comment about what you can or cannot promote is related to the systematic censorship of the forums he controls: the official Bitcoin website, and the two biggest community forums (on reddit and bitcointalk.org).
The censorship was triggered by the launch of Bitcoin XT, which allowed users and miners to vote for an increase of the block size limit after the Bitcoin Core developers refused to allow such an increase. I explained more about Bitcoin XT and the events that led up to it in my article, “Why is Bitcoin forking?”.
Marquardt claims to be a strident libertarian yet not only erases any posts that mention XT but, naturally, any mention of competing forums and discussion of the censorship itself. He recently started quietly reordering discussions where people are expressing their anger … from being sorted by “best” to being sorted by “controversial”, thus preventing the highly voted comments that criticise him and Bitcoin Core developers from appearing at the top. This kind of subtle manipulation has become endemic.
Marquardt does these things because he doesn’t like the idea of voting, and he is not alone. I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen comments from Core supporters saying that Gavin and I have been engaged in “populism” or whipping up “the mob” or trying to impose a “tyranny of the majority”.
Adam Back, CEO of Blockstream which employs some of the Bitcoin Core developers, told IEEE Spectrum magazine that he thought XT was a “coup” and gave a presentation to the Chinese miners arguing that democracy was the strong preying on the weak:
Someone anonymously released a program that casts fake votes for BIP 101 such that it could be hard to know how much support the proposal really has. Pieter Wuille, a Blockstream employee and one of the few people with the ability to directly change the Bitcoin Core code, also opined on democracy:
‘If you want to let a majority decide about economic policy of a currency, I suggest fiat currencies. They have been using this approach for quite a while, I hear.’
‘Bitcoin’s consensus rules are a consensus system, not a democracy. Find a solution that everyone agrees on, or don’t.’
Wuille’s statement is of course bizarrely wrong — currencies like the dollar or the Euro are controlled by un-elected central bankers, who cannot be influenced by voting. The will of the people isn’t even measured, let alone respected.
Even Coinbase, the leading Bitcoin startup in Silicon Valley, was erased from the bitcoin.org website as a punishment for announcing support for XT. Coinbase employee Charlie Lee said on that discussion: “It scares me what the Bitcoin community is turning into. Any opinion that’s not the party line is being stamped out.” The Coinbase website was then forced offline for hours by a denial of service attack — direct retribution for their stance.
I could keep going … but take a moment and ponder how weird this all is.
People who grow up in the west grow up in a culture that reveres democracy. Every year in the UK there’s a minute’s silence for the soldiers who fought and died in World War 2, ‘for our freedoms’. The story of the cold war is told as a story of democracy vs dictatorship. Our leaders give entire speeches and justify entire wars on the basis of spreading democracy. In Europe and America democracy is widely regarded as an idea that should be worth dying for. Saying you hate democracy is more socially acceptable than saying you are sexually attracted to 13 year olds …. but not by much.
Yet the Bitcoin community is filled with people who believe exactly that. What’s going on?
A conflict of visions
In 1988 Thomas Sowell published a book that sought to explain why people end up being political adversaries on so many different and apparently unrelated issues. If you hear that someone supports strong military spending and free markets, you can probably guess that they’re against gender quotas for company boards, even though these issues have nothing to do with each other. Sowell wanted to know why.
I’d never heard of this book before 2015. It was recommended by an anonymous observer and at first I was sceptical — what relevance could a book written in 1988 have to the block size debate? But I was intrigued enough to buy it.
Sowell argues that political conflicts have their roots in a difference of deeply held intuitive assumptions about human nature itself. These assumptions are so deep they are rarely articulated or discussed directly, but they lead by logical extrapolation to a whole host of viewpoints that colour our outlooks on almost any political debate. He calls these different assumptions “visions” and describes a spectrum between two opposing visions: the constrained and the unconstrained.
People with the constrained vision believe human nature is essentially flawed and unchanging. They believe that deep down we’re all pretty much the same, always have been the same and always will be the same. Individuals in the constrained vision cannot comprehend the whole vastness of the world and attempting to do so is overreaching. By implication then, the spectrum of human potential is small: the difference between the most moral/intellectual people and the least is fairly trivial.
People with the unconstrained vision believe human nature is malleable, perfectible and essentially good. They believe that deep down there are big differences between people’s moral and intellectual potentials, and that people at the upper end of the spectrum are more immune to greed, dishonesty, stupidity and corruption than people at the lower end. Advancement to the summit of human nature comes through thought, reflection and debate.
Obviously almost nobody is fully constrained or fully unconstrained and people’s views can move around as they progress through life. But from this simple starting point Sowell explains how the visions quickly lead to a variety of other less abstract opinions.
Because people with the constrained vision believe everyone is pretty much the same deep down, they conclude that wisdom and knowledge are spread out across the whole population. They prefer to trust systems that gather and process decentralised wisdom … processes like markets, referendums and the evolution of traditions. If these systems sometimes result in an outcome that seems undesirable, that’s a pity but unavoidable unless the system can be improved. Compromise is essential because nobody has the full picture. And because man’s wisdom is inherently limited, direct intervention often causes unexpected side effects. By implication there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. The value of intuitions or ideas is low, and the value of practical experience is high.
People with the unconstrained vision tend to feel the opposite. They often distrust or lose patience with large institutions and decentralised processes that constrain human action. They focus on solutions and find tradeoffs or compromises to be unacceptable. Because human potential is a path, by implication some people are further along it than others and decision making is therefore best done by finding those people and putting them in positions of power. Those with the unconstrained vision often believe in delegation of authority to powerful people whose legitimacy is derived from their moral purity and the complexity of their ideas. Sowell refers to such people as “intellectuals”.
Sowell’s theory talks extensively about the role of intellectuals, so we must review his definition of the term: someone whose compensation or status in society comes from their production of ideas. This is subtly different to the definition of expert;Sowell distinguishes between intellectualism and expertise.
The existence of expertise is uncontroversial: people with all visions agree on the value of experts and who they may be. The disagreements are about intellectuals: people who are believed to be generically smart or good, and who often have expansive ideas about how to restructure society. Academics often fit Sowell’s definition of an intellectual as they are paid for their production of ideas rather than, say, correctly drilled oil wells or efficient computer programs. Academics can be experts, but experts are much more numerous than academics.
People with the unconstrained vision tend to conflate expertise and wisdom, thus they highly value intellectuals and put significant effort into searching them out. The opinions of small groups of intellectuals is weighted heavily, and obedience to their suggestions is seen as obviously the right thing to do, even if what they’re saying might seem to violate common sense. Indirect mechanisms like voting and markets are unnecessarily roundabout, so it’s preferable to directly give intellectuals power. Those with the unconstrained vision often see a problem and conclude the solution is a regulator: someone who can overrule the system when the less wise, honest or more corruptible people that inhabit it screw things up. The EU’s “Committee of Wise Men” is a classic example of this mentality.
But those with the constrained vision believe the opposite. They regard even the existence of “intellectuals” as a suspicious proposition, because they don’t believe that some people are just inherently better than others. They see direct intervention as likely to cause collateral damage and elevate common sense over the abstract, academic ideas of the ‘ivory tower elite’. To someone with the constrained vision, you should listen to an expert when they speak on a topic that’s within their narrow area of specialism, but that doesn’t imply the expert should be given any power. Rather, their views should inform the market or when that isn’t possible for some reason (e.g. defence policy), inform a vote.
The political spectrum
So far there seems to be a fairly direct mapping to the political left and right, so why are we futzing around with this constrained/unconstrained terminology?
Sowell does this because the typical left/right terminology doesn’t always map exactly to his theory, and often the conventional mapping of an ideology to the left/right spectrum is debatable at best. By defining his own terms, Sowell avoids these problems. For instance Nazi-ism is regarded as an extreme right wing ideology although their policies and actions were very similar to those of communist regimes.
To make things even more complicated, sometimes people arrive at similar conclusions for very different reasons. Different visions don’t own specific policies and you can’t always pick an individual policy preference then find someone’s vision from it.
But let’s try applying Sowell’s theory to a non-Bitcoin topic and see how it holds up: conflict.
People on the left tend to be pacifist and consider social/welfare spending a higher priority than spending on the military. They are often in favour of nuclear disarmament. People on the right often have opposite views.
To someone with the unconstrained vision, war is a grievous fault of human nature: a deviation from the natural state of things, which is peace. War demands an explanation and a solution. The explanation is people lower on the moral/intellectual spectrum. The solution is engagement, debate and peace conferences to raise the other side to our level. The decreasing frequency of wars over time on the other hand is almost too obvious to need explaining: human nature has got better, exactly as you would expect. A good way to avoid war is therefore to simply avoid weapons.
But to someone with the constrained vision it’s not war that demands an explanation, it’s peace. Because they assume human nature is fixed and unchanging, war is the natural state of humanity. Peace is explained not by improvements in human nature itself, but by the creation of armies and weapons so terrible that it would be insane for countries to attack each other, along with ever-greater trade integration that makes war economically infeasible. The solution to a conflict is to win it, through overwhelming military might. The best way to avoid wars is therefore a mix of greater defence spending and the creation of free trade deals.
The cryptocurrency world is full of people who claim to be libertarian (American definition). It isn’t immediately obvious how libertarianism fits in with this theory. On one hand, libertarians seem right wing: they like small government and dislike regulation. But on the other hand, they tend to be against big militaries and strict adherence to tradition.
Maybe the theory is wrong?
Or maybe libertarians arrive at some conservative sounding conclusions by a different path?
Imagine yourself to be someone in the west with an extremely unconstrained vision. You believe there are vast differences in people’s moral and intellectual potential … so huge that to those at the top the people at the bottom are little better than ants. You believe this so deeply that it’s not even worth mentioning, as it seems obvious to you. What might you conclude?
- You might conclude that democracy is not a virtue but a threat, as the vast majority of people are stupid, immoral, easily misguided and corrupt. To put power in their hands seems like dooming humanity to rule by mediocrity at best, or disastrous incompetence at worst.
- But you live in a country where democracy is revered, and there is no chance of another system of government taking over any time soon. To even voice such a thought is tricky as it risks you being labelled an extremist, a communist or mentally ill.
- And besides, who cares? It’s unclear what would replace democracy if it was to be removed. There are so few people who really get it that to find them and collect them into some sort of power structure would be hard … and in the quantities needed to run a state? Impossible. So revolution would be worthless anyway.
- If democracy is the tyranny of the majority, yet making a better State is impossible, then obviously the only alternative is no State at all. Hence, extreme libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism of the Ross Ulbricht variety, and the use of “statist” as an insult for the lesser beings who somehow still don’t get it.
Visions of Bitcoin
One day, you find Bitcoin. How would you perceive it? You might read the forums, attend a few conferences and conclude the following:
- The goal of the project is to create a perfect kind of money.
- Perfect money is, almost by definition, money that is designed by people at the top of the moral/intellectual spectrum. Such money cannot be democratic also by definition, because democratic money would be mediocre, and that would be against the goals of the project. Bitcoin wouldn’t have been created if existing currencies weren’t mediocre, therefore, by logical implication existing money must be democratic (see the reasoning above by Wiulle for an example of this). Ergo the best kind of money is designed by the best people and then frozen such that it can never be changed again.
- This is the meaning of decentralisation — the abolition of power such that nobody can wield it, once the wheels are set in motion.
- You might conclude that because Bitcoin involves maths and because true intellectuals would recognise the threat posed by democracy, that Bitcoin must be “ruled by the laws of maths”. You might tell people that Bitcoin is a kind of “digital gold”, the nature of which cannot be changed no matter how many people demand that it be done.
- In its cleverness and complexity, Bitcoin would seem like a solution designed and shepherded by intellectuals … people who are not only computer experts but morally and ideologically pure as well. You might begin to regard the Core Developers, whose arcane arts you barely comprehend, as superior beings whose wisdom and committed libertarianism are fundamental to the success of the project.
- Their decisions are not always understandable but they were reached via long and complex debates, so the outcome must be correct. If they often seem to reject a piece of code that would be useful on the grounds that a more theoretically perfect solution might exist, this is only evidence of their intellect and admirable commitment to finding solutions instead of trade offs.
Then one day, something terrible and unthinkable happens. The Core Developers disagree with each other! They are fighting over the “block size limit” and are splitting into two factions! How might you perceive this event?
- One faction, led by Gavin Andresen who was famously left in charge by Satoshi, wants to increase the limit. Allowing the block chain to grow seems obvious but wait … another faction, led by Gregory Maxwell, claims raising the limit would be dangerous because it would threaten decentralisation for technical scaling reasons.
- Gavin and Mike have written many blog posts on the different arguments involved but the posts are long and complicated and I’m not an expert so I don’t know who is right. I’m suspicious that they’re bypassing the rest of the experts and wonder if they’re trying to manipulate the masses somehow.
- But I don’t worry. Because hard problems always have a solution, if the developers cannot currently agree on one then they must engage in more debate. With sufficient debate and reflection a solution is always found.
- Gavin, Mike and those who agree with them are stating that the other side is refusing to negotiate and time is limited, but this is unthinkable because Core Developers are amongst the best of us and would never stop striving to find a solution no matter how long it takes. So the only plausible explanation is that for some reason Gavin and Mike are less intellectual or moral than the others and lack their patience.
- Blockstream/Core Dev have proposed the terribly clever sounding Lightning Network, which they say is the final solution to scalability and involves no tradeoffs. This sounds ideal and it’s frustrating that Mike and Gavin don’t seem to be on board with this plan.
- The fact that Blockstream are organising not one but two conferences to debate “Scaling Bitcoin” is clear evidence that these men are of superior intellect and temperament. Debate, reflection and peace conferences are always a good path towards a solution. As us mere users are not worthy or capable of judging their discussions, the safest thing to do is wait and accept the outcomes, whatever they may be. It is inconceivable that the conferences will not result in a solution because the Core Developers have the best interests of the project at heart.
- But Gavin and Mike don’t seem to care about the conferences. They think the conferences will go nowhere. Instead they are proposing ….. a vote! If only 75% of the miners support BIP 101 then it will activate and the minority would be forced to go along with it. This is horrible and clear evidence of their power hungry, dictatorial tendencies. If voting works to raise the block size then Bitcoin’s guarantees lie in ruins, and … gulp … even the 21 million coin limit isn’t safe.
The other actions taken by Bitcoin Core supporters flow naturally from Sowell’s theory of the unconstrained vision. For instance, censorship is justified because otherwise “the mob” would be misled by “slick marketing” (i.e. blog posts with pictures at the top). The right alternative to voting is “consensus”, which means everyone must agree for something to happen. This is good because it means the most intelligent people always have a veto. Unless of course, someone is disagreeing with a change the Intellectuals want. In that case consensus is optional.
And most unfortunately of all: lying is cost-free, because the people you’re lying to didn’t have any insight to contribute anyway, so it doesn’t matter if they’re misled for the greater good.
The opposing vision
What if you’re of the constrained vision? How might the same project and the same events be interpreted?
- The goal of Bitcoin is to create decentralised money, where “decentralisation” means the spreading of control over the population of users. This is good because central bankers and other regulator-type figures aren’t really wise enough to control a system as complex as the economy; indeed nobody is.
- The rules of Bitcoin are just common sense and anyone can be convinced of their merits. The 21 million coin limit is protected by the fact that in the end “escaping the arbitrary inflation risk of centrally managed currencies” is best for everyone.
- The developers of Bitcoin are not particularly important. Nobody knows who Satoshi is and that doesn’t matter, because his work speaks for itself. The political beliefs or moral purity of the developers are irrelevant. Developers can and should be abandoned if they stop building what users want, as would the developers of any commercial product.
- Bitcoin is better than PayPal because it’s open source, and so anyone can innovate without asking permission. The mechanism behind this is forking of software, thus to criticise this is to miss the point of open source and decentralisation itself.
- Bitcoin uses maths to coordinate social decisions over the internet. The Bitcoin white paper talks about the block chain as “voting with CPUs” and the community often discusses the “51% attack” in which a dishonest majority could break the system. So it isn’t ruled by the laws of maths any more than a search engine is, in fact it can’t be, because it’s just software that people can change any time they want. That means Bitcoin is actually a democracy.
- The block chain is a tradeoff. It takes anywhere between 10 minutes and hours to confirm a transaction, and wastes a lot of electricity on solving arbitrary puzzles, but these downsides are worth it to get the upsides.
- The “Core Developers” are a group that can’t even be enumerated, but appears to be simply made up of whoever was around early on. Whilst a few of them are clearly experts in very narrow fields, this doesn’t imply any wider expertise in other areas like economics/software usability/business, nor any particular wisdom or intellect — obviously it can’t, because according to the constrained vision nobody is much wiser than anyone else and developers have no special importance.
- Censorship and DoS attacks are abhorrent because they interfere with the flow of information and the gathering of wisdom from the whole community.
And the interpretation of the block size debate?
- Blockstream’s position gives them severe commercial conflicts of interest. As knowing whether they’re corrupted by that or not is impossible, the traditional thing for people in such positions to do is resign rather than risk the credibility of the project. But Blockstream ignore this tradition and claim to be offended at the mere suggestion that they may be conflicted.
- Raising the block size limit is just common sense. The arguments for it being a bad tradeoff are weak and the arguments for it being a good tradeoff are strong. Also, Gavin says it’s the simplest thing that can work, and that sort of practical thinking appeals to me.
- Gavin and Mike have written many blog posts on the arguments. I like how they take the time to explain things to us ordinary users, this shows respect. The Bitcoin Core developers don’t bother writing responses, and this is concerning. If they can’t explain their position then this could mean it doesn’t make sense.
- It’s normal for people to disagree, even experts. Full agreement is impossible, so the best you can ever do is establish a process for resolving disagreement. A committee might work, but as Bitcoin rests on user consent a referendum of the users through a free market of competing implementations is always the ultimate option.
- The Lightning Network is a completely new design that bears no resemblance to the Bitcoin I learned about and told everyone else about. It is exists only in theory, which makes it inherently worse than an existing system that we have practical experience with. As time is always limited, improving what we have is obviously better than throwing it all out in a quest for unattainable perfection.
- The fact that Blockstream are organising one conference that isn’t intended to produce results, and simultaneously organising another conference three months later, proves that they are academics who prefer talking to writing code. As ideas are cheap and practical experience is important, this indicates that they aren’t qualified to be running a live payments network.
The Bitcoin block size war is best understood not as a technical debate about the setting of a number, but rather as a fundamental conflict triggered by differences in underlying assumptions about human nature.
As should be obvious, the tension between the political left (unconstrained) and political right (constrained) is something that has existed for centuries, almost since the birth of democracy itself. Now it’s re-emerged in a different context we can predict the outcome: the two sides will never agree.
With the breakdown of the blockchain’s voting mechanism due to censorship, DoS attacks and miners refusing to run anything except Core because they are afraid that ‘conflict’ will lower the price, there is no process in place to ensure the proponents of the two visions fairly compete over the project’s direction.
In such an environment it is inevitable that people with the unconstrained vision will win because their beliefs naturally justify wildly aggressive tactics. Deception, censorship, obfuscation, delaying, making the rules up as they go along and outright criminal attacks on people who disagree with them can all be justified as being necessary to ensure the right outcomes are achieved. Their feelings of superiority combine with severe levels of groupthink to blind them to their own mistakes. The howls of anger and frustration from across the community are ignored and written off as merely the ‘baying of the mob’.
Finally, switching to an alt coin won’t solve anything. The problems are psychological and not technical, as the owner of the ProHashing mining pool discovered when he repeated the XT exercise with Litecoin.
These factors lead to the conclusion that Bitcoin-style cryptocurrency has structural flaws that mean it cannot ever achieve the goal of true decentralisation (defined as the absence of ruling authorities), because deep down, the idea of “digital gold” is too attractive to people who simply don’t agree with that goal in the first place … even if they may claim they do.