In this opinion piece, Harper lays out how politics controls many of the choices being made within the bitcoin scaling debate, offering an answer for those involved.
Software programmers are usually collegial and collaborative, but parts of the bitcoin developer community are displaying the type of acrimony familiar to political capitols like Washington, D.C.
Understanding the character of the scaling debate might help the bitcoin community better iterate on the protocol and software within the future. What’s behind the strife when amendments to bitcoin’s rules – or stasis – become so controversial? What unrecognized dimensions of the talk have allowed it to become so divisive and debased?
One is collective resistance to the very fact that decisions about bitcoin’s direction are political decisions, which technical decisions must follow. Priorities vary, but the bitcoin community’s aims include global financial inclusion and economic development, human liberty and dignity, privacy and a very stable funds .
By debating only in terms of technology, the leading advocates for various paths have did not articulate any unifying human vision for bitcoin’s future. That’s a recipe for alienating intellectual war.
The news isn’t all bad: The scaling debate are going to be concluded using economic process . Bitcoin escapes politics as practiced in coercive government.
It just doesn’t escape politics all the way.
Group choices are political
The bitcoin protocol and software are technical, obviously, therein they involve the appliance of technology to interesting challenges. the way to configure bitcoin is political, though, because it involves choices made by groups.
Choosing in groups is not any simple thing. the primary step in group decision-making is to constitute a gaggle . People are usually more happy once they work together under a standard set of rules. Bitcoin’s protocol may be a clear example. But what commits them to any group?
Social contract theory is that the leading explanation in modern Western philosophy for all times under governments. Nobody ever actually signs that contract, so it’s a touch dissatisfying.
Bitcoin’s version of the agreement is “consensus.” That commonly used word contains the thought that using the bitcoin protocol reflects agreement with its terms. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Treating use as agreement is perhaps insulting to dissenters from the established order – a bit like “social contract” dissatisfies many U.S. citizens obligated to pay taxes for unending war.
Confusingly, “consensus” is additionally wont to denote synchronization of blockchain data among bitcoin nodes.
However they feel about it, bitcoin users have joined a gaggle , and that they have choices to form together.
Once a gaggle is constituted, “it may appear that the chiefs, leaders or shamans of the group exert coercive force on members.” Those are the words of public choice economists Michael and Kevin Munger in their book Choosing in Groups.
Happily, there’s no literal coercion in bitcoin-land, but it harkens to the observation of Konrad Graf that the utmost block size, a “production ceiling” on transactions, is economically like a government intervention. Dissenters from the established order feel the familiar strains of tyranny, which they thought bitcoin would help everyone escape.
That is nonsensical and shocking to the Core side, who see themselves as following standard open-source development processes. Their conservative approach, including maintenance of the 1MB limit on bitcoin blocks, safeguards a $40 billion asset, securing it against the predations of real governments.
To them, the foremost satisfying explanations for opposition to their approach range from simple ignorance to profit-hungry short-termism on the a part of bitcoin companies.
Open source within the commercial layer
The software development mode exemplified by Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standard-setting processes is a beautiful and successful model of cooperation. But bitcoin development may diverge from the idea about open source that the IETF helped spawn.
Open-source development doesn’t automatically digest and balance community values, enshrining them in code. within the dominant bitcoin implementation, alittle number of individuals have commit access, and that they have disproportionate power to work out what goes into the code base. These humans, intending only the simplest , are subject to the influence of their own premises, their social circle and an easy incapacity to capture and prioritize all the interests that might be served by a worldwide utility like bitcoin.
The user side of the equation also fails the idea , stated well by economist Vili Lehdonvirta that “Bitcoin is only ‘math-based money,’ and every one the developers do is only apolitical plumbing work.”
Developers have relatively greater power because many bitcoin users don’t have the technical capacity to reconfigure their own code or to settle on wisely from among competing implementations.
Bitcoin developers have also had far fewer meetings than the IETF did at an identical stage. The reservoir of goodwill was already low before the scaling debate drained it.
And bitcoin development could also be materially different from other standards-setting efforts. We could also be seeing for the primary time what happens when open-source software development hits the commercial layer.
Technical communications standards are essentially neutral on the content or meaning they’re going to convey. Bitcoin standards define and shape markets.
One illustration of the facility of the protocol is that the rise in transaction fees, which for the nonce has stop use cases like payments and savings for people in poorer parts of the planet . that’s no technical engineering decision. It delays crucial economic development that otherwise would sustain and convey joy to potentially millions or maybe billions of individuals .
Needed: visionary leadership
That vision – of bitcoin at its best, having its most tremendous consequences – has been notably absent from the scaling debate. If at all, the edges represent their animating goals ambiguously as “payments” on the one hand or “digital gold” on the opposite .
Among many of its social capital deficits, bitcoin lacks visionary leadership.
The outcomes sought by the bitcoin community are widely prescribed , but they’re typically left unspoken.
A development team that articulates a view of bitcoin’s horizons in human terms could unify the community. Then, given more study of the economics of bitcoin’s systems, technical decisions could follow. Such decisions might be made with wide understanding that the trade-offs involved are faithful to the bitcoin community’s widely agreed-upon goals. at the present that’s left unclear.
Network effects, of course, are the shackles that keep many dissenters chained to bitcoin, and (they feel) under the yoke of Core. the present threat of chain splits may produce a real-world test of what percentage bitcoin versions can exist.
Experience with ethereum and ethereum classic suggest that multiple chains can co-exist. And, for 3 reasons, network effects don’t dictate disaster from chain splits:
It is easy to transfer among cryptocurrencies, as an example via Shapeshift.io. this suggests there are often a viable digital gold, a viable payments crypto and lots of others.
At a worldwide scale, there are enough users to take care of several currencies. a worldwide niche market should be an enormous market.
It is a comparatively small technical iteration to form all wallets, exchanges, payments gateways, etc. accept all major cryptocurrencies. The relevant “network” might not be anybody cryptocurrency, but all of them.
The bitcoin community features a lot to find out about itself and what it’s doing within the scaling debate.
The debate’s tenor – those angry words and base insinuations – are commonplace in political capitols like Washington, D.C. But at the top of the day in those places, vicious political opponents also can get together to cooperate on matters of agreement.
Whatever the outcome, bitcoin users should expect that sort of professionalism and maturity from all participants within the scaling debate.