Bitzion: how Bitcoin becomes a state
It probably won't happen. It probably should.
Statelike nonstates fascinate all political engineers. Can a nonstate become a state? How are states born? What paths, if it wants to live, should a baby state follow?
History is full of examples. But most of them are too ancient for most of us to parse. The vulgar and legible present is frustratingly short of high-quality newborn states.
One path to statehood is military. The CJNG or Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a Mexican narco gang, recently posted a video of an impressive military parade, with hundreds of uniformed soldiers and tens of armored vehicles—almost ISIS tier. ISIS in its day, as Gladstone said of the Confederacy, "had made an army, and made a nation."
But having made these things—a state must also keep them. Vae victis! In the end, sovereignty is empirical. Cartels, ISIS, the Confederacy and Rhodesia aren't super encouraging examples.
Yet after this list of almost-states comes very solid and palpable nations, like Israel, Singapore and our own dear United States. Empirically, states do get born.
So, empirically, is Bitcoin a state? Or almost a state? Can it become a state? Or at least, a virtual state?
Bitcoin has not yet made a nation. It has certainly made a treasury. Its path is not at all military—except if math is a weapon. But isn’t math a weapon? Surely math has as good a chance as the CJNG, and you wouldn’t want to mess with the CJNG. “Pura gente del Señor Mencho!” In fact, Bitcoin and the CJNG even have similar market caps…
Three attributes of sovereignty
When we examine the early life of successful states, we see that newborn regimes which live to become stable adults tend to focus on three attributes: independence, legitimacy, and coherence.
Independence means the regime does not depend on the will of any outside power. Legitimacy means that the regime considers itself authentic and official, and conducts itself with the dignity of a state. Coherence means the whole state can act effectively as a single agent, with a united regime calling on the full resources of all its citizens.
In the ways that Bitcoin works well, it has all three. Abstractly, the ledger itself is independent, legitimate and cohesive. But as a new state rises, reality tests it more and more stringently. Some respond to hard tests by becoming stronger. Others crumble.
Bitcoin today has cracks in all three attributes of statehood. These cracks may or may not need to be filled. Filling them may or may not result in any kind of success. We can still describe how they should be filled—as a theoretical lesson in political engineering.
We can also describe how Bitcoin, with these vertical cracks filled, can also expand horizontally. It will both increase its effectiveness, and expand its scope. We’ll project this growth outward until Bitcoin turns into Bitzion—a purely hypothetical utopia, which needs no fiddling with definitions to be a clear and obvious digital state.
Historically, Bitcoin has been extremely resistant to innovation in governance. And, as we'll see, the principles of effective digital governance are extremely counterintuitive. This makes it unlikely that anything like Bitzion will actually happen. But since it could happen, it makes the best possible kind of thought-experiment.
Bitcoin: from algorithm to state
Again, while Bitcoin has made neither an army nor a nation, it has made a treasury. This treasury is its market cap, which indeed resembles the balance sheet of a minor state—without any of the assets. But having made a treasury, it must keep it.
One way to price Bitcoin is as a call option on monetary sovereignty. If Bitcoin becomes a state, or merges with a state—becoming either a standard hard currency, or a national or global hard currency, de facto or de jure—we can expect the option’s price to considerably increase. If this outcome grows less likely, the option’s price will fall.
Are “becomes a state” and “becomes a standard” really equivalent? Certainly not without an argument—and that argument is the crux of this essay.
The difference between Bitcoin as a standard, and Bitcoin as a state, is that a state has a government. The argument: to prevail as a monetary standard, Bitcoin must up its game. Its most effective way to up its game is to form its own government. But once it forms a government, it is a state—contradicting its libertarian, decentralized ideology.
Interestingly, the 13 states faced a similar question in the mid-1780s. The birth of a centralized national government contradicted much of the ideology of the Revolution. Yet the Congress of the Confederation was such a shitshow—almost an 18th-century UN—that the pre-Constitutional United States has been almost written out of history.
The case for Bitcoin as a state is that a monetary standard with a government can work much better than one without one. Bitcoin already has a government; but it is (mostly) algorithmic. A human government can work much better than an algorithmic one.
All Bitcoiners agree that not having a government is an advantage, since a government is inherently a central point of failure. While this is the truth, it is not the whole truth.
Having a central decision point is also an advantage. As hackers, we hate choosing between two such advantages. We would like them both. And if we cannot have all of both, perhaps we can at least get most of both. Such is the good old art of the tradeoff.
Logical case for a Bitcoin government
Why does Bitcoin need a (human) government?
Bitcoin at present is a state without a government. If there is one thing political scientists know, it is that there is no such thing as a state without a government. When a state tries to have no government, it always has something.
A blockchain is statelike because independence is the whole point of a blockchain. Bitcoin or any other blockchain has two layers of governance: serialization, which is inherently algorithmic (execution of the ledger protocol); and oversight, which is inherently human (management of the protocol and its reference implementation).
Government is human; it means oversight. Bitcoin needs a human central government because centralized governments are more effective than decentralized governments. An effective government can be trusted to choose the best serialization algorithm; so algorithmic serialization is just an aspect of human oversight.
Bitcoin today has serious oversight problems. No one even agrees on who has the responsibility of overseeing the blockchain—miners, nodes, or developers? This is why Bitcoin is a state without a government.
The only correct answer is hodlers—who are the only group not now represented. They could be represented only by constructing a central government that represents them. This is just what they should do—though it would change the whole story of Bitcoin.
But since Bitcoin’s independence today is secured by decentralization, any central government would need a different security mechanism to secure its independence. One such mechanism is pseudonymity.
Pseudonymity has many technical limitations and is a broadly inferior substitute for decentralization. Engineers, in pursuit of the perfect tradeoff, must often use limited and inferior substitutes.
Intuitive case for a Bitcoin government
Ultimately, what is Bitcoin? It is a set of human beings with private keys, who all use a technical tool that lets them automatically agree on digital facts. Bitcoin is the people, their keys, and the ledger—the public record of how much money every key owns.
Bitcoin’s algorithm and infrastructure are a cool tool that these people have used to act coherently for their mutual benefit—without uniting or cooperating in any other way. Nakamoto consensus is a rope of sand that can actually pull a load. The hodlers, a completely atomized non-society, nonetheless act coherently when they save in coins.
Collective coherent action for mutual benefit is a tool of essentially unlimited power. Algorithmic, decentralized governance has unlocked a tiny slice of this power. The normal way in which sets of human beings undertake collective coherent action is through central organization. This normal government can unlock the rest of the pie.
Bitcoin, by producing governance without a government, is the exception that proves the rule. What this exception tells us is that whatever Bitcoin has achieved so far, these achievements are a small fraction of what it could achieve with a government.
While this magic rope of sand is cool and all—while Bitcoin could not have been born without it—what about switching to, like, a regular nylon rope?
Must this be done? Why must it be done? Can it be done? How would it be done? If you have a moment or two, dear reader, we’ll answer these questions and more.
Bitcoin’s oversight is a mess
Bitcoin has a reputation for terrible oversight. This reputation is not the fault of anyone involved. It is Satoshi’s fault, for leaving oversight to anarchy. It is not even clear which group holds the power of oversight: nodes, miners, devs, hodlers or users. (Satoshi was a genius; but not a god.) Fact: anarchy can make anyone behave badly.
The only proper interpretation of Bitcoin oversight is that Bitcoin’s principals are its hodlers. Bitcoin is the ledger. The blockchain is an agent that maintains that ledger. The Bitcoin infrastructure must be operated in the exclusive service of the ledger, just as any agent must act in the exclusive service of its principals. Had Satoshi made this clear, or even built a mechanism to enforce it, much suck might have been averted.
Anarchy is not the end of the world. But anarchy still sucks. Objectively minor meta-decisions, like setting the block size, turn into Icelandic sagas. Larger changes are inconceivable. Bitcoin, the OG of blockchains, is the couch potato of blockchains. Everyone knows this, so there is no reason to dwell on it.
Bitcoin’s serialization isn’t perfect, either
Bitcoin's serialization—maintaining the integrity of the ledger—has a perfect record. No power has ever infringed the independence of Bitcoin. Yet hash proof-of-work is not perfect. It is not perfectly secure; and it is extremely expensive.
Today, 65% of the world's mining capacity is in China. So it would be straightforward for the Chinese government to squeeze Bitcoin. The CCP has not felt the need to try—not because Bitcoin is too strong to attack; because it is not important enough to attack. This is not independence but the illusion of independence. If Bitcoin is indeed an call option on sovereignty, these kinds of illusions are dangerous.
The cost of mining is the price of independence. Currently this price is huge: perhaps 5% of market cap per year. Imagine gold had a high vapor pressure—every year, 5% of every Krugerrand boiled off into the atmosphere. In this alternate universe, no one would even think of using gold as money.
Bitcoin hodlers do not think they are paying this immense wealth tax. They are. And it seriously hampers the competitiveness of Bitcoin as a currency. Let’s look closely at how this works—these details matter.
The price of Nakamoto consensus
Mining revenue comes from fees and block rewards. Block rewards are straight-up monetary dilution. Proper accounting must measure ownership of any equity or cryptocurrency not as the number of units, but as the fraction of units outstanding. So creating 1% more units is exactly the same as a 1% wealth tax across hodlers—though easier to implement.
Block-reward dilution is bounded, and fees are not dilutive. But fees have the same direct impact as rewards: since they need to pay for electricity, they are sold for fiat. Miners are generally not hodlers. So $5B of mining means $5B of selling. Obviously, the seller is the natural enemy of the hodler.
As a currency—a stable bubble—Bitcoin acts like a battery or a pressure tank. Its market cap is the pressure in the tank, or the energy in the battery. To counteract $5B in annual outflow and keep the price flat, Bitcoin needs $5B of annual inflow.
This mining leakage gets heavier as the price rises—a vicious stabilization loop which tends to cap the price. This is how the cost of governance by Nakamoto consensus costs the hodlers money—and tends to make hyperbitcoinization impossible.
Imagine Bitcoin’s price if it had no mining leakage—meaning zero automatic outflow. Everyone selling would be a defecting hodler. There has never been a large number of these, even in the worst crashes.
Algorithmic governance was essential in Bitcoin’s childhood. It created a system that was owned by no one. From its genesis block it had this essential quality of a state. Nakamoto consensus made Bitcoin independent from day one. No other design could have achieved this result.
But statehood has its own ruthless laws. No startup can cling to its teddy bear. All must change as they grow. Some of those changes will even be in engineering. Today, the cost of Nakamoto consensus is keeping Bitcoin from advancing as a monetary standard; and its unbalanced decentralization leaves it under China's thumb.
By all except Bitcoin’s proof-of-work purists, it is generally admitted that proof-of-stake is the path forward in both layers of governance—serialization and oversight.
Many alternate chains already use POS—an unfortunate acronym—as well as smarter agreement protocols, chain sharding, and all kinds of other fun stuff. (In fact, it would be hard to boot up a new proof-of-work chain today—it would be attacked as soon as it was worth attacking.) Why not just switch to a newer-generation blockchain platform?
Alas, none of these alternate chains can solve the problems with Bitcoin. Instead, Bitcoin will have to defeat them and erase them utterly from the earth.
Most Bitcoiners believe this victory is in some sense inevitable, and will happen on its own. Is it happening on its own? Or is anyone thinking about how to make it happen? This is the mindset of Augustulus, not Augustus—a poor start for any empire.
For it does need to be made to happen. It is not just a matter of waiting for altcoins to go away. Rather, Bitcoin needs to actively clean them up.
This uber-hardcore flavor of Bitcoin maximalism—call it Bitcoin imperialism—would probably shock even most Bitcoin maximalists. But it is an inherent consequence of the right theory of why Bitcoin is worth anything at all.
Parallel ledgers considered harmful
An alternate chain is a parallel ledger. All ledgers must be unified. Any partition of monetary energy makes not only each side of the partition, but both sides put together, a worse bet than the unified ledger. And there is no stable equilibrium between the sides of the partition.
In any real economy, at least one asset must be overvalued. That asset is money. But given one money that is both standard and perfect, the only stable equilibrium is one in which there are no other bubbles, and all other assets are priced by yield in that standard. Any such asset which has no use has no value, and will sell for no price.
There is one mathematical revolution in money. Forks and altcoins are just bad for it. The revolution in money will be complete when there is one standard digital money. This means one standard ledger—the “Highlander principle.”
This standard ledger has to begin with Bitcoin. Bitcoin is the gorilla. In any world where Bitcoin ends up worthless, lesser cryptos end up worthless too. So there are two ways to resolve any parallel ledger: merge it with Bitcoin, or send it to zero.
Generally, any alternate chain worthy of any notice at all has some technical advance, purported or real, over Bitcoin. This may be privacy, computation, finalization time, mining leakage, Byzantine security, or some other useful area of improvement.
But the real competition is monetary competition between ledgers. This, it is hard to imagine Bitcoin losing. Muscle matters more than mind. The chimpanzee can ask for a banana in sign language. The gorilla is three times as big as the chimpanzee.
The traditional Silicon Valley approach to this conundrum is for the gorilla to just kill the chimpanzee and steal his banana. Sometimes, the chimp can jump the gorilla from behind, and get him with a rock.
Neither outcome seems quite right. A cryptosystem that aims at the legitimacy of a state cannot behave like any kind of ape. We’ll return to this issue with an actual plan. However: there can be only one.
Proof-of-stake and political engineering
Altcoins delenda est. But while their parallel ledgers must vanish with the Oscans and the Samnites, as their genuine engineering innovations are shamelessly looted like Houston lifting the Nazi space program, many have also innovated in governance. Scholarship asks us to start by noticing their work; and we will start by following it.
While proof of work is one thing, proof of stake is a huge family of things. This family is united by one general principle. The general principle of proof-of-stake is that the ledger belongs to its owners—who must therefore be charged with governing it.
That principle is sound. Bitzion uses it. But it is as general as the principle that the nation must be governed by its citizens—and as vague. Even if everyone agrees on democracy, there are infinitely many possible democratic constitutions.
Proof-of-stake is not democratic, of course, because power is by wallet, not by head. The ledger belongs to its owners, in proportion to their ownership. The ledger is managed for the benefit of its owners, in proportion to their ownership of it.
The proper term for voting by wallet is plutocracy. That this is a pejorative makes it all the more delightful. But a plutocratic republic is still a republic—and faces the same general challenges in political engineering that vex any democratic republic. Here we will say democracy when we mean plutocracy. Since head-counting is impossible, there is no ambiguity; and euphemisms are nice.
Most proof-of-stake altcoin designers are not trying to innovate in political theory. But their political engineering is still awful—because it comes from the awful fashions of an awful period, in which they happen to live.
Why would they realize that following the fashionable ideas of their era would produce awful results? If everyone is using the same bad ideas, everyone’s results will be awful, and no one will notice. They will just think the problem is very hard—which it is.
Let’s look at how to take this principle, proof-of-stake, in an unusual direction. Instead of building ideal governance structures, let’s reengineer existing governance structures.
These designs are not fashionable—since they predate the 20th century. No one would invent them now. But everyone still inhabits them. Isn’t that weird?
If our fashionable ideals are realistic, this plan will just mean inheriting ancient cruft. If today’s ideals are not realistic, it may produce dramatically improved governance.
From Bitcoin to Bitzion
To turn Bitcoin, the ledger and blockchain, into Bitzion, the digital state, we adopt the plutocratic principle of allocating authority and responsibility by stake. We declare that Bitcoin is the ledger, not the protocol or the infrastructure. We declare that the ledger is owned by the hodlers; it should be governed by the hodlers, for the hodlers; and we, the hodlers, will cultivate it into a virtual state that will astonish the world.
Although it uses proof-of-stake, Bitzion makes three large theoretical adjustments to the viewpoint of most classic altcoin-style POS governance designers. These are not technical changes; but they lead toward completely different technical challenges.
First, most designers focus on ledger governance (algorithmic serialization); we’ll focus on systems governance (human oversight).
Second, most designers consider direct democracy the ideal form of democracy. Actually, indirect democracy creates much more effective governance structures.
Third, most designers think decentralization is the only tool for secure independence. But there is another such device: pseudonymity.
Serialization, oversight, and trust
Serialization means recording a fair, unified, reliable and independent ordered list of transactions. Serialization is the job of every blockchain. Centralized, trusted serialization is easy. Decentralized, untrusted serialization is hard. So serialization is what most cryptosystem architects think of, when they think of governance.
Of course, humans cannot be in the serialization loop. Serialization is inherently algorithmic, if just because it has to be fast, secure and scalable, as well as fair (it does not censor or reorder transactions) and independent (no outside force can influence it).
Here is a small philosophical crack in the thinking of most cryptointellectuals. Why is Bitcoin like a state? Because it is fair, reliable, and independent. Why is it fair, reliable, and independent? Because it is decentralized. We all agree on this, but—
It is easy to overlook the small but important fact that what users value in Bitcoin is not its decentralization. What users value is a consequence of its decentralization: that Bitcoin is fair, reliable and independent. More broadly: that it is legitimate, effective, and sovereign. Still more broadly: that it is good at being like a state.
The Bitzion thesis is that Bitcoin has ways to become much better at being like a state. If Bitcoin is an option on statehood, this should make its price much higher. Any tactical path that produces this result must be at least worth considering.
It is essential that we understand this difference between cause and consequence. We trust that Bitcoin is fair, reliable, and independent, because math proves that its decentralized protocol makes it so.
Or so the nerds tell us. Most of us cannot do the math—we probably don’t even know what an elliptic curve is. Byzantine what? But we trust the nerds. Trust is beautiful.
Suppose we trust that Bitcoin is fair, reliable, and independent, because it is run by the god Apollo. Apollo keeps the ledger on a big SCSI RAID rack in his basement, with a nest of ribbon cables running into a Compaq 386 PC-XT. It’s as fast as Nakamoto consensus, and even as reliable—because he’s Apollo, and Apollo is perfect.
Or so the priests of Apollo tell us, and we trust the priests. Trust is beautiful. The only relevant statement in both cases is: “we trust that Bitcoin is fair, reliable, and independent.” The cause of trust, whether decentralization or Apollo, makes no difference. What counts is the trust itself. (It’s better if the trust is rational, though.)
Besides serialization, which is governance in the proper blockchain sense, all chains have parameters; all chains have protocols; some have full operating systems. The power to update these rules, values, and systems is oversight.
Oversight is an inherently human function—though the identity and procedure of those humans may depend on the state of the ledger. Since all blockchains require some oversight, there is no choice but to trust the oversight nerds. Trust is beautiful.
As previously mentioned, oversight in Bitcoin has historically been a shitshow. In POS altcoins, extending voting by stake from serialization to oversight is a natural idea. But that makes oversight a natural afterthought.
Bitzion attacks the same problem from the other end. It reasons: effective oversight can choose the best serialization algorithm. Get oversight right, and oversight will get serialization right.
Again, oversight is just government. The solution to the serialization problem is: form an effective government, and trust it to develop and manage an efficient serialization network resilient to attacks by global adversaries.
Animal control is a natural function of physical government. Serialization is a natural function of digital government. Both powers can be extremely dangerous if misused.
Malicious serialization cannot forge transactions, but it can censor and revoke them. Malicious animal control can dart and capture humans, bundle them into white vans, do some processing in an underground lab, and peddle the organs on the dark web. Don’t a lot of people just disappear? What do you think is happening to them?
When citizens of a physical government think about how to keep bears and leopards off the street, without opening the door to rogue dogcatchers who secretly moonlight as human organleggers, they tend to focus not on this specific state function, but on delegating their consent and loyalty to a whole government which is stable and sane. Citizens of a virtual government also trust that their stable and sane government will operate a secure and efficient serialization mechanism. Again, trust is beautiful.
Since Apollo isn’t returning our calls, any serialization network will almost certainly be decentralized. The government that creates it, since it must be highly effective, is likely to be… centralized. Obviously, to any cryptointellectual, this is a huge red flag.
By default, any central organization is a big step away from sovereignty. Independence is one of the three attributes of sovereignty. A decentralized non-organization is very hard to pressure. By default, a centralized organization is very easy to pressure—
By default. To apply the lesson we just learned, decentralization is not a design goal of a cryptostate. Decentralization is a mechanism. The purpose of this mechanism is independence. The purpose of independence is sovereignty—or at least, monetary sovereignty. So as engineers, we are free to use other mechanisms of independence.
But independence, in Steve Jobs’s words, is a feature—not a product. Let’s design our new regime, then figure out how to make it independent.
Indirect democracy: magic in plain sight
The main assumption that makes proof-of-stake governance ineffective is the almost wholly false assumption that direct democracy is better than indirect democracy.
This is a weird belief in a civilization whose realization of democracy is, and has always been, indirect. Democracies are rare in history. But direct democracies are extremely rare. Nor has the judgment of the past given them great reviews. When Athens was a direct democracy, it was the assembly who voted to execute Socrates.
But direct democracy is more consistent with 20th-century ideology. We feel, quite reasonably, that indirect democracy is one of our many quaint legal anachronisms.
Obviously not everyone had Internet in the 1780s. They had to use dialup, or horse-drawn ballot wagons, or something. Even now, attention is in limited supply—but, at least in theory, every citizen should have the right to vote directly on every decision. Also, politics sucks and politicians suck. That’s the normal perspective.
We love democracy and hate politics. When we realize that our new cyberstate can have democracy without politics or politicians, since it can count zillions of ballots in zilliseconds, this seems like an easy win. We don't even think of doing it the old way, even though everything in the real world works the old way—indirect democracy.
Actually, direct democracy sucks. Virtual states will be weak and passive at best, chaotic and ineffective at worst, until they somehow reinvent indirect democracy.
A jury is not a government
All systems of direct democracy, including all proof-of-stake designs that I know of, use their stakeholders as a jury. A jury is a group of people who vote to ratify or reject decisions framed and proposed by some other process.
A legislature is a jury in which the members themselves have the right of proposal. All actual legislatures either delegate this power to external structures, or evolve internal structures (a cabinet in the UK, committees in the US) which are hierarchical.
Direct democracy just expands the jury to the whole electorate. While nowhere in the world, except perhaps some Swiss cantons, even pretends to be governed by direct democracy, many jurisdictions have adopted the referendum as a decorative bauble.
Digital governance can trivially borrow the referendum, and count itself democratic. A proof-of-stake blockchain can use a jury, full or sortitioned, for serialization and/or oversight. Even Bitcoin oversight only differs from POS in that the jury is the nodes.
Actually, juries suck. The jury is the most passive and reactive form of government that can be devised. It is so reactive that it is not even a complete government—it lacks any real executive arm.
Any vacuum in sovereignty will fill itself. A sovereign jury evolves its own informal leadership. When Parliament replaced the Crown as the locus of English sovereignty, to replace King and Privy Council, it evolved a Prime Minister and a Cabinet. This was not anyone’s plan, or anyone’s theory—it happened only because it had to happen.
Luckily the delegation from MPs to this pseudo-king, the PM, was well-structured. Normally, the outcome of the sovereign-jury design is an illegitimate and informal leadership agency, plus a jury which at best is a rubber stamp and at worst a zoo.
What the jury design is best at: making large numbers of people feel important. As members of the jury, everyone can feel in charge of everything. This potent narcissistic energy is the principal marketing advantage of direct democracy—and what better moment for it to shine, than our historic golden age of narcissism?
If a machine was designed to minimize generated power, while maximizing perceived power, it couldn’t be better designed than a gigantic jury. Let's illustrate the difference with a design which minimizes perceived power, and maximizes generated power.
The political amplifier
Indirect democracy is not an anachronism. The reason that indirect democracy is more common than direct democracy is that delegation is amplification. Indirect democracy generates concentrated, coherent power. Direct democracy does not.
Delegation is amplification because delegation concentrates and focuses trust—a laser for trust. A weak, coherent laser is stronger than a strong, incoherent flashlight. You can look at a 40-watt bulb. A 40-milliwatt laser will rip a new asshole in your eye.
A mob, in which every participant retains freedom of action at all times, is much less effective than a much smaller army, whose soldiers delegate their freedom of action upward to one commander. The difference between a mob and an army is so strong and clear that it suggests the analogy of turbulent versus laminar flow.
In indirect democracy, citizens delegate power to politicians. Citizens cannot act directly, only by voting. There are fewer politicians than citizens; so elections must concentrate power. But voters can use power only by deciding whom to give it to.
Even in our indirect democracies, though their rational choice is between politicians, voters still think more about issues. They seem to feel they can somehow act through the politicians they elect—though there is little evidence that this works. On paper, their democracy is indirect. In their hearts, it is direct.
So while they love democracy, they hate politics—or to be exact, they hate their enemies’ politicians, while merely disliking their own. Can we blame blockchain designers for starting from an ideal, rather than reverse-engineering this mess?
In direct democracy, where there is no delegation, every citizen can act directly on every issue. There is no need for an illusion of indirection. You actually matter. Your voice is heard. And there are no politicians.
But you are collectively weak—because you, the people, are a mob and not an army—a bulb, not a laser. If an electorate as a whole does not matter—just because it is not strong enough to keep its dominance, or even relevance—no one's voice matters at all.
So the narcissistic desire for power, which is the desire to feel good and powerful, and the ethical desire for power, which is the desire to see power do good, are generally opposites. Almost always, the strongest thing to do with power is not to use it, but to give it away—concentrating it in the hands of someone who can use it more effectively.
So when we measure the power of an indirect democracy, we measure the amount of power that citizens delegate to politicians. This is the delegation efficiency of the election. If this is 1, the politicians have the unconditional loyalty of everyone who voted. If it is 0, voters voted for random, ironic, frivolous reasons, and didn’t actually care at all. And again, delegation is amplification.
Here’s an example of how constitutional designers can adjust this knob: the length of a politician’s term. In the electronic world, terms could last any length; they could as easily be a week. When we shorten terms, does amplification decrease, or increase?
It decreases, of course. When we elect a President every week, we the citizens are saying to the election's winner: we trust you to serve, but just this week. We have our eyes on you! Right now, we definitely think you're hot stuff! See you next Sunday!
Obviously, if you have to run for President again next week, and you have no way to be sure anyone won't change their mind about you, you are on a pretty tight leash. The shorter your chain, the weaker you are—simply because the voters who voted for you made a much smaller commitment.
So shorter elected terms mean weaker delegation, which mean weaker amplification. Let's go to the other extreme. We'll elect a President not for four years, but forty. Or why not... life?
If we mean our votes sincerely, when electing a President for life, we are making a permanent political promise—half election, half marriage. The candidate for whom we are voting can expect our unconditional and lifelong loyalty and obedience. (Of course, our Supreme Court, for whom no one ever voted at all, is in exactly this position.)
Surely any President-for-life will be much, much more powerful than any President-for-a-week. So the delegation is stronger. So this design gives the voters themselves more power—since the more power their delegates have, the more the voters have.
By going from an election every four years to one every forty years, we concentrate the power of ten elections into one. At this point perhaps the awful irony is almost clear. But let's go even farther. How would a constitution generate maximum amplification? How would we design the most powerful possible election?
This election would elect not many politicians, but just one. No organization is so big it needs multiple leaders—in fact, the bigger it gets, the more important unity becomes. So the President would have unconditional control of the whole government. Crazy! Also, optimal for that attribute of sovereignty we were talking about—coherence.
And there would be no term at all, not even life. The President would designate a successor. This would be the most powerful election ever—and, of course, the last. Until the next revolution, of course.
So… we’ve just shown that absolute monarchy is the strongest form of democracy. An interesting result, n’est ce pas? Wily intellectuals have all seen proofs that 2+2 is actually 5. They may amuse themselves by checking the above logic once or twice.
It is also worth noting that the constitution this election would create is merely that of the Roman Empire under the Antonine emperors—which Gibbon, 1500 years later, felt was the best government humanity had ever experienced.
Amplification versus sensitivity
This is not a suggestion that either Bitcoin or America should adopt the constitution of the Antonines. Either could certainly do worse; both can probably do better. But we are just illustrating a theoretical tradeoff that often goes unobserved.
This is the tradeoff, in any republic, between sensitivity and amplification. Sensitivity is how accountable the leaders are downward to the will of the voters. Amplification is how much energy the voters delegate upward to the leaders.
Our one-time election maximized amplification and minimize sensitivity. Our weekly elections maximized sensitivity and minimized amplification.
When designers opt for high sensitivity, their decision suggests a powerful fear by themselves or their customers of a failure mode in which agents betray principals. Government is a dangerous agent and must be tightly leashed.
But when principals micromanage their agents, the leash is so tight that it chokes—and the agent cannot serve at all. You can walk a dog on a leash. You can’t hunt with a dog on a leash. The optimal leash is the leash that does not even exist, except in the unlikely case where it is actually necessary—and in that case, the leash is inexorable.
We are the hodlers. Government is our dog—but a dog that must hunt. Fortunately, we have the technology to let a dog run free and wild as a wolf, until its owners blow a magic whistle. This recall-only republic will be low in sensitivity, high in amplification; but its sensitivity is not zero. It is not (quite) the constitution of the Antonines.
Pseudonymity versus decentralization
Bitzion needs to retain Bitcoin's independence and would ideally enhance it. How can a centralized organization achieve this?
Simple: by replacing open decentralization with closed pseudonymity. Decentralized open networks are hard to kill because they are built out of many small fish, each hard to catch. Closed pseudonymous networks can be built out of a few big fish, each almost impossible to catch. Satoshi's identity is still a secret—so it can be done.
Again: decentralization is the means; independence is the end. Pseudonymity is trickier and more complex than decentralization. A gasoline engine is trickier and more complex than a steam engine. It has many more ways to go wrong. Sometimes the simplest answer ends up being the right answer. But you don’t drive a steam car.
Independence is inherently a security problem. In all security problems, we need to begin with a threat model.
The threat is a global adversary—a government or quasigovernmental force—which wishes to involve its will in our governance—to pressure us. Independence is boolean. Unless this pressure has absolutely no effect, our independence is compromised. History suggests that independence, once compromised, is quickly rent asunder.
The power available to this adversary is not a constant. It will tend to increase over time. It also increases as a function of the nefariousness of its prey. Therefore, one core security measure is legitimacy—maximizing compliance, both legal and social. Any future state demonstrates heaven’s mandate by complying both with its own ethical standards of tomorrow, and the bizarre whims of today’s armed clowns.
Suppose our closed pseudonymous system is a small committee—with between five and fifty members. Groups this small, if well-organized, can act with perfect cohesion. Ownership of a pseudonym is possession of a key, ideally sealed in a physical object—like one of Tolkien’s magic rings. Strong pseudonyms are synthetic—random syllable or word strings, never nicknames.
Can a global adversary find any of the keybearers—assuming all their opsec is strong, and so is their compliance? Its best bet is to trace their patterns of communication. So their best bet is to communicate as little as possible. It is quite hard to trace occasional signed statements dumped onto the Internet.
And when keys are literally passed from hand to hand, tracing custody chains is hard, even for a global adversary. Even if the first link in the chain is a known individual, one link that refuses to break, cannot be found, has randomized the transfer, etc, sends the adversary back to looking for the physical origin of an encrypted communique.
Can pseudonymity deliver a more secure level of independence than decentralization? With a majority of mining capacity in China, decentralization is not very secure at all. What if all these keybearers were in China? Could they still communicate securely? It would be difficult—but possibly doable.
In today’s West it is certainly doable. For economic reasons, China is a great place to mine Bitcoin—Satoshi never realized that the easiest way for a state to capture Bitcoin would just be to suck in the most miners with the cheapest electricity. China is not a great place to be part of any kind of secret organization, however legit. So probably none of the keybearers would be there.
What if the Western Internet became as well-controlled as China’s? Politically, this is not utterly implausible. Technically, it would involve Western governments being as competent as China’s. This couldn’t happen right away. There would be time to evade. And it is impossible to devise a plan so perfect that it always wins without a struggle.
Bitzion in a nutshell
Bitzion is a design for a human government for Bitcoin. The goal of the design is to be independent, legitimate, and coherent—as befits a virtual state.
(“Zion” can be interpreted in many senses—Biblical, Israeli, Mormon, Wachowskian or, of course, Rastafarian. The analogy to the LDS may be especially apropos.)
The fundamental principle of Bitzion is that Bitcoin is the ledger. Therefore, Bitcoin is the property of its hodlers. It must be governed with their exclusive consent, and in their exclusive interest. No one else gets a vote—”no god or government.”
Miners, nodes, developers, and even algorithms are infrastructure that serves the needs of the hodlers. Their opinions will always be interesting, relevant and valuable. They are not stakeholders in any legitimate decision process.
All power to the hodlers! To paraphrase John Jay, a currency must be governed by those who own it. Such is the creed of Bitzionism. Until this creed is widely known and broadly agreed, Bitzion is not ready to happen.
Technically, Bitzion must begin as a fork of the Bitcoin ledger. It cannot work as designed unless it is born as the dominant fork—ideally, roughly the relationship between Ethereum and Ethereum Classic.
This requires Bitzion to achieve human reputational consensus, or something like it, before it can even launch. At best, this would be long, tough sledding! But afterward, the rest of the plan is actually quite realistic.
The hodlers declare their sovereignty. To take what is theirs, they seize the ledger. They own and will now control it. The Bitcoin ledger, once managed by a Mos Eisley of miners, nodes, developers and algorithms, will now be managed by a new human regime, whose exclusive mission is to serve the hodlers of Bitcoin.
This new regime, Bitcoin’s new government, is Bitzion—still the one and only Bitcoin. Samuel L. Jackson would like to know if you have any questions about the new regime.
To govern Bitzion effectively as possible, the hodlers delegate their power to a board of trustees, whom they elect. These trustees inherit all the power of the old government.
They cannot forge transactions. They do not filter transactions. They can and may do anything else—including creating any number of coins. Satoshi’s constitution is dead and overthrown. The hodlers, acting through their trustees, are now fully in the saddle.
There are two reasons for the trustees to create coins. Regular: as a dilutive tax, to fund the normal operations of government. Special: as an assessment to fund some one-time event—which usually means cleaning up some altcoin.
Every revolution has a financial premise. The financial premise of this revolution is that one of Bitzion’s first tasks will be a dramatic reduction in mining leakage. Since Bitcoin is currently leaking about 5% of its market cap per year via mining, it seems fair to assume that grateful hodlers would be happy to approve a dilution tax up to a tenth as high: 0.5% of market cap, more comparable to an expensive gold vault.
This serious budget is wholly under the control of the trustees. But the trustees take no operational role in spending it. Instead, they delegate all their power to a single coordinator, who coordinates all the operations of Bitzion.
The trustees’ job is: hiring and firing the coordinator; reviewing the coordinator’s performance; and approving regular and special tax requests. The coordinator can request and spend regular and special taxes. The trustees do not micromanage the coordinator. The coordinator has no secrets from the trustees.
And the hodlers still have a job. If they become unsatisfied with the performance of their government, they can recall it—electing new trustees, who will choose a new coordinator. To trigger a recall, they need a quorum defined as a percentage of the stake that voted in the previous election.
The trustees are securely pseudonymous. No one knows who they are. No one can pressure them. But given the legitimacy of Bitzion and its commitment to compliance, the coordinator’s office must be completely open, public, and transparent.
But since the coordinator works for the trustees, the coordinator is a disposable part. All kinds of powers can pressure the coordinator. The coordinator’s job is to either perfectly resist any such pressure, or resign—but never to bend. A coordinator who bends will just get fired by the trustees, a very bad and shameful outcome.
The trustees can spin up a new coordinator in another jurisdiction, or even fall back to pseudonymous coordination. This defense works best when the coordinator sources as much labor as possible not from employees, but from pseudonymous contractors.
So the government of Bitzion has three teams: accountability (hodlers and trustees); coordination (mahogany desk, press releases, lawyers, interviews, conferences); and production (coders, writers, designers, etc).
The accountability and production teams are pseudonymous (its members never leak their identities, even to each other); the coordination team is transparent (its staff are regular employees and have their pictures on the website).
The security of trustee identity is mission-critical. The production team can be more casual. As a labor pool, it will always experience attrition. But any producer or trustee whose identity is revealed must quit and cannot return, even under a new pseudonym.
The trustees’ job is: hiring and firing the coordinator; reviewing the coordinator’s performance; and approving regular and special tax requests. (“Tax” means dilution.) The coordinator can request and spend regular and special taxes. The trustees do not micromanage the coordinator. The coordinator has no secrets from the trustees.
And the hodlers still have a job. If they become unsatisfied with the performance of their government, they can recall it—electing new trustees, who will choose a new coordinator. To trigger a recall, they need a quorum defined as a function of the stake that voted in the previous election. The trustees can call a new election, too.
The sophisticated observer will recognize that this version of indirect democracy, while owing little to historical Anglo-American political constitutions, is kind of a blatant ripoff of Anglo-American corporate governance.
This is unsurprising in an architecture designed to get things done. No one says our corporations aren’t sharks. Which do you want on your side—a shark, or a hippo? As an ex-CEO, the joint-stock company has an antiquated, paper-belt feel in many ways. If there was anything much more powerful, some asshole would have invented it.
That’s the whole constitution, except for one little detail: how the election works. Again, Bitzion is designed to have only one election ever, unless the hodlers or the trustees get unhappy with its results and decide to press the reset button. There are a lot of ways to elect trustees, but here is a clever one.
A hyperelection is an election in which anyone can vote for anyone—so long as they’re not creating a loop. At the start, you have one election point for each coin you own. If you vote, you have zero points, and all your points, both from your own coins and from whoever votes for you, flow to whoever you vote for. The purpose of this design is to channel trust, respect and loyalty upward to the most trustworthy, respectable people.
At the end, the N leaders become the N trustees. The trustees’ votes are weighted by the number of points they got. During the election period, the scoreboard is public, and anyone can switch their vote at any time (or this can be quantized into rounds). After the election, any trustee can resign their key to anyone else.
As a total noob, the way you participate in a hyperelection is: (a) register your wallet; (b) figure out who you know that knows the most about Bitcoin; (c) ask that person for their pseudonym; (d) vote for them. If you want people to be able to vote for you, also register a pseudonym. If you have to, vote for a public candidate; but it’s always better to just vote for a friend.
If you are a serious candidate, campaign. Publicize your pseudonym, with or without your real name. Speak publicly to the hodlers; speak privately with whales. During the election, if you’re not winning, vote for someone you admire who could win.
The best precedent for this kind of social gameshow mayhem is an early 20th-century American political convention. In the end, most peoples’ votes will end up going to one of the winners, through a path of mostly ascending respect.
But if the election leverages existing reputations by letting pseudonyms campaign under their real names—how pseudonymous is it? It isn’t, of course.
We fix this problem with another rule: after choosing the first coordinator, all the initial trustees resign immediately—each giving their key to someone they know, who they think will make an even better trustee. So the first board of trustees after an election has two jobs. They select both the first coordinator, and the second board.
The result of initial abnegation is a political structure in which the second board did not choose the coordinator, so feel no attachment to that choice; the first has no lasting power, so cannot have been attracted to power; the second did not campaign, so were not selected by their craving for power or status; if the second board needs to ever use any power at all, something has already gone wrong; and the second board is securely pseudonymous, so membership cannot confer status on the humans behind it.
This structure is a shock absorber. Its goal is to dampen inappropriate energy in the governance process. This bad energy could be external pressure; it could be internal cupidity; it could even just be bad luck. From the crooked timber of humanity nothing can be made straight, but a good engineer can do a lot with geometry and redundancy.
Can anything that is not a physical state ever be impervious to state pressure? Can all the devils of human cupidity ever be thoroughly banished? These are easy questions. The answers are “no” and “no.”
But a stronger fortress than Bitzion will be hard to build. (The main risk is probably that the hodlers go collectively crazy—a risk we have to accept when we choose low, but not zero, sensitivity.)
Although adapted to the very unusual conditions of its birth and existence, Bitzion is basically built like an early 21st-century technology company. For all their faults and the faults of their world, these can be very effective organizations—even at scale. Their devotion to their shareholders is generally not in question; and their shareholders take no actual part at all in managing them.
Let’s assume that the hodlers and trustees make good personnel choices, and create an organization as effective and aggressive as a top technology company. What will it do?
The Bitcoin space program
Bitzion is Bitcoin—plus a trusted central government that has no excuse not to be as effective as any startup, if only because it is shaped like any startup.
Let’s assume that, if the coordinator can demonstrate a use for it, the trustees will grant the coordinator a dilution tax of up to 0.5% per annum. At present valuations this is $500M, which is a serious budget: certainly enough to start a space program. Again, it is only a tenth of the present cost of Nakamoto consensus.
The mission of the coordinator is to advance the interests of the ledger—meaning the weighted interests of the hodlers. There is no other restriction on the scope or nature of Bitzion’s actions. All prudent actions designed to benefit the hodlers are authorized.
If the hodlers needed a space program, it would be proper for the coordinator to start one. But other problems seem more pressing.
For instance, it would not be hard to spend the budget of a space program on the full-stack Bitcoin user experience. And UX is inherently a shallow problem. Here are three of the deep architectural challenges Bitzion has to master.
Nakamoto consensus is a security measure. Like any security measure, its effectiveness must be evaluated relative to the threat model. Like any measure, its productivity must be evaluated relative to its price. And its price is insane.
With Bitzion as a trusted coordinator, the threat model assumes a different shape. The Bitcoin ledger must be more trusted than the coordinator, or even the trustees. In this design, we have not one but two layers of security: government and decentralization.
The threat model of coordinated serialization is halfway between the threat model of Nakamoto consensus, and the threat model of a permissioned blockchain. It is neither completely wild, nor completely tame.
Consider the classic threat of a 51% attack—hardly an abstract danger when most mining is in China. 51% of all Bitcoin holders by position are not in China or under Chinese control, so staking is more secure against China than miner or node voting. Also, controlling miners is easier than controlling nodes; controlling nodes is easier than controlling hodlers.
Stake attacks also exist. But a governed ledger cannot be attacked in any such way. Not only can Bitzion reverse any such attacks, it can punish the attacker—by banning the staked coins from the serialization market.
Bitzion, like all governments, governs by combining the predictable power of law with the unpredictable power of the prerogative or exception. Judicious use of exceptional power can curate a reliable, well-distributed volunteer serialization department.
But since the ledger must be more secure than the government, there must be a way for the ledger to keep working if the government fails or, worse, goes crazy. It makes sense to tie this safety mechanism to the hodler-initiated recall mechanism.
While the serializers remain decentralized and uncoordinated volunteers, it is hard to imagine a dying regime convincing or coercing them to filter out a valid recall. They have no incentive to obey the regime, and every habit and incentive to obey the recall.
Any coordinated serializers constitute an attack against the regime, which the regime must repel assertively by one-strike banning. In practice, it can easily verify that most of its serializers are independent from most others. But any hint of an attempt by the regime to coordinate its own serializers cannot go undetected, nor can it succeed instantly; and it justifies an immediate recall.
While a new government is being elected, the ledger is in “safe mode.” There is no exception. The volunteer serialization department operates as usual, but without any supervision, and with higher safety margins—which may be more expensive.
The art of solving this design problem is the art of a serialization solution which is cheap and secure, while the government is operating properly; and less cheap, but no less secure, if the government disappears, fails or turns evil. In other words: without a government, this solution must degrade into conservative proof-of-stake. This is not an easy problem, but intuitively it feels solvable.
We return to the problem of altcoins and forks. The existence of parallel ledgers may not be a showstopper for Bitcoin—but it also might be a showstopper.
The goal of Bitcoin is to become a standard. A standard must be certain. Competition between coins creates uncertainty. Without these alt-dogs nipping at its heels, Bitcoin has a stronger claim to be the one. As a challenger, it needs all the strength it can get.
Standardizing digital money is just a flex. It demonstrates strength. It creates strength. All healthy and growing organizations are obsessed with their own strength. And since it must be done fairly, it it is a chance to demonstrate the grace of kings.
So here is how Bitzion can execute a historic program of Bitcoin imperialism, crafted in the old Silicon Valley tradition of “extend and embrace” or “copy, acquire, kill.”
Start by evaluating all the scarcity-based tokens currently trading (not “utility tokens,” which are virtual stonks, or “address space,” which is virtual real estate). Classify each as worthy or worthless. Publish this official directory and the research behind it.
A worthy altcoin is one which has made a significant contribution to the cryptosphere—in technology, traction, or both. A worthless altcoin is every other coin—or any new coin started after the official directory was published.
Bitzion will never recognize these worthless ledgers. It condemns them. They will go to zero, become deadcoins, and be forgotten. If you still have any after the directory appears, try to sell while there are buyers.
Bitzion recognizes the worthy ledgers and declares its intention to merge with them—whether they like it or not. Hopefully most will like it. The task is not easy; just doable. This makes it an excellent flex.
First, Bitcoin will incorporate all worthy innovations of these altchains. Second, it will emulate their protocols and semantics—including a computational emulator for computational chains. Third, it will build a completely smooth migration path in which anyone working with the altchain can trivially move to the real blockchain. Most users will not even notice the difference; developers will flip a few switches.
Now the engineering work is complete, and the marriage can be consummated. Like a corporate merger, a blockchain merger is a diplomatic and financial affair. It requires (a) the consent of the altcoin holders to (b) accept some ratio of real coins per altcoin, which can be stated as a premium or discount relative to the current market ratio.
A corporation’s board can typically force its shareholders to accept a merger. None of these altchains has a board; and there are no decentralized involuntary transactions. Therefore, to merge with these anarchic collectives, Bitzion must find, assemble, and negotiate with an informal reputation pool of potential endorsers.
These negotiations will succeed or fail—which decides whether the merger is friendly or hostile. Even a friendly merger cannot be enforced, though its chances are better. If negotiations cannot set a fair price, Bitzion will set one. Generally the hostile price is lower than the friendly price—pour encourager les autres.
Then, altcoin holders have a short period to make a decision. They can either sell their altcoins for real coins at the final ratio, or grimly hold on. If they sell, they get new but genuine coins—which the coordinator has minted with the trustees’ approval..
In exchange, the coordinator gets all their altcoins. After the merger and migration, the coordinator sells these altcoins—using the revenues, if any, to purchase real coins.
If even a low double-digit percentage of altcoins gets tendered, selling them blows through the altchain’s whole buy-order book like a firehose up a salmon’s asshole, and takes the market price of this legacy chain to zero, where it should stay: a deadcoin.
So grimly holding on is kind of a bad move. Are these the tactics of Genghis Khan? Yeah, kind of. Do you know more about imperialism than Genghis Khan?
Bitzion starts this imperialist program on the bottom end of the worthy list—taking down its feeblest competitors first. As these involuntary mergers succeed, reducing any foolish holdouts to pyramids of 256-bit skulls, the empire’s negotiating position grows stronger and stronger. Oderint dum metuant!
The Bitcoin intelligence agency
The most important problem of any regime is security. For a blockchain, security is serialization plus imperialism. The second most important problem is intelligence.
This isn’t James Bond stuff, of course. Intelligence in the modern sense of the term just means collection and analysis of accurate and official information. It doesn’t require any kind of secret volcano island base—although that would certainly be cool. There are no martinis and no silencers. Yes, we do like cats.
Why do blockchains need official government intelligence? Intelligence is data plus analysis. Analysis is great—but the first thing blockchains need is data. They even have a word for an official data stream: an oracle.
The Sun has been around for four billion years. On the full power of a computational blockchain plus an official data stream, the Sun has never yet looked. In theory, it is possible to build prediction markets with oracle reputation as a second moving part. In practice these weird, wobbly markets suck.
Without this concrete and certain connection to official facts, a computational chain simply cannot think about the real world. A blockchain which can compute with facts about the real world is a different class of tool. “Prediction markets” does not cover the potential power of this architecture.
Of course, the difference between data and analysis is not always clear. Once Bitzion becomes comfortable with its right to curate official data, it will inevitably find itself considering the next step of composing official analysis.
Data feeds algorithms. Analysis feeds humans. The algorithms on a blockchain can only use data. But those algorithms are ultimately working for humans; and humans can use both data and analysis.
The mission of Bitzion is to serve the hodlers. Authoritative open-source real-world intelligence, also known as “news,” is often suspect—less the data, more the analysis. If the only narrative available to the hodlers is this “news,” and the “news” contains systematic misjudgments, the hodlers must be likely to make systematic mistakes.
So Bitzion’s intelligence agency starts by collecting real-world facts—which helps blockchain programs think about the real world. Finding its feet with this easy work, it continues by constructing real-world narratives—which helps blockchain users think about the real world.
Again, these are exactly the nominal functions of any 21st-century intelligence agency. All these agencies still have some kind of weird 1950s James Bond historical mystique. The James Bond era was real; if it even lasted into the ‘50s, that would be surprising.
Today the intel agencies are mostly just government think tanks, whose wisest wisdom is not much different from the wisdom of the press and the universities. The best test of whether they matter is what would happen if they disappeared tomorrow, which is absolutely nothing.
Yet their nominal function—research and analysis—remains real and relevant. Nothing, moreover, could be more legitimate. This proposed Bitcoin intelligence agency is, in the words of our peach-haired President, “very legal and very cool.”
Of course, Bitzion keeps no secrets. All this intelligence product is public. And like the rest of Bitzion, it is independent of real-world power.
Needless to say, raw input from “the news” or even “science,” even from the most “reliable” or “respected” sources, is never incorporated directly and without a clear positive argument into the output of the analysis directorate.
Rather, its mission is to understand the world anew from scratch. Everything “known” is an invaluable resource, of course. But just a resource. How do we “know” this? Imagine trying to recreate Wikipedia with no “reliable” sources—but instead, the conviction that all information from the 20th century is unreliable until shown otherwise.
So is all external information. While an intelligence agency wants to hear everything, its mission is to think entirely for itself. Nothing in its raw input stream is true until the agency has some clear positive reason to consider it true. “Always trust content from Microsoft Corporation” is not a valid form of reason.
This question need not be asked story by story or paper by paper. It is best asked field by field, department by department, agency by agency. If the old 20th-century truth is a blueberry pie, we can pick out the moldy parts slice by slice, not berry by berry. The whole pie is never moldy—however old, there are always good parts in a pie. Pure math, for instance, remains sweet and delicious with only a very mild fermented bite. Then again, pure math did pretty well in the USSR.
At this point we imagine a genuine conflict between virtual and physical power—but this is probably a good stopping point for today. Once Bitcoin has gone so far toward making a nation that it has made an intelligence agency, the point seems proven.
Both necessary and impossible
Of course, the CJNG must feel the same way about its little panzer parade— and that actually happened.
Anyone who has actually read all this perhaps feels the same intuitive sense as me: that Bitzion theoretically should happen, but actually can’t happen. It is both necessary, and impossible; both fantastic, and pragmatic.
I have put a lot of words into why Bitzion is necessary. I already warned you that it is impossible. If it becomes possible, it will not become possible easily.
Our theoretical interest, as political engineers, in what should be done, remains legitimate. But a thought-experiment and a practical conspiracy are two things. The conversation is not over without talking about why it cannot happen. So let’s do that.
It’s simple. Bitzion cannot happen because vanity is poison and everyone is poisoned.
Recently, Marc Andreessen wrote a much-cited essay which asked everyone to build. Everyone should build. Not everyone should be an architect.
The trouble with asking the whole world to build is that this world is so poisoned by vanity that it can only hear one message: be an architect. Almost all these people should be learning to put one brick on top of another. But once a thousand architects have argued about how to build the house, there is often not a bricklayer to be found.
Having done both—metaphorically speaking—I will tell you straight-up: it is more honorable to be a bricklayer. Architecture is a gift. Masonry is a craft. Never trust anyone who has a gift but no craft. If you have a gift, pursue your craft. Only fate can make you an architect; but fate seems to like a man who can lay a brick.
To lay a brick is to pursue the path laid down for you; it is to follow. The mason is not an artist but an artisan. For an artist, the definition of perfect is broad; for an artisan, it is narrow. The same amount of effort and achievement can go into either.
Yet the architect, who is an artist, leads; the mason, who is an artisan, follows. The wall needs to go where it is supposed to go. It needs to look like what it is supposed to look like. Yet in the hands of an ordinary mason, it will be okay; in the hands of a fine mason, it will be striking; anyone can tell the difference and no one can say quite why.
While the society that forces an artist to be an artisan has failed, so has the society that forces an artisan to be an artist—or that exalt the artist above the artisan. The latter is simply a society without artisans—which is a society that cannot build. Oops.
(In fact it is a curse to be a real artist or scientist. These people should be derided and shunned. It’s an admission against interest—but that way, they’ll do their best work.)
This is where Bitzion fails. Bitzion is obvious. Bitzion would already have happened— in a world where people thought about collective action not in terms of leading, but in terms of joining and following—where they knew how to be masons, not architects.
Not that anyone knows how to be an architect, either. Being an architect means making plans which masons follow. There are no masons; so there are no architects. No one has any experience in the actual profession of architecture. There are just dreamers who try to build beautiful dreams, by themselves, sloppily. Many houses are started; few are finished; many of these fall down. But the rest are beautiful.
This metaphor is just a metaphor. It could describe many careers and professions. In all such cases, there is one factor in common: vanity is poison.
In the case of Bitzion, vanity manifests itself as an inability to trust. To the average hodler, the thought of delegating collective control to the board of trustees—even through this clever mechanism, by which no one’s vote is lost—is horrifying.
Even the thought of trusting the hodlerate collectively would horrify most hodlers. Literal collectivism? Why, isn’t Bitcoin supposed to be the exact opposite of that?
But worst of all—hyperdelegation, or any sort of delegation, or election, or indirect democracy in general, means you are giving away your power. Why vote, when you could rule? It’s going from weed to meth—having ruled, it will never be enough to just vote.
For example, when you vote, you vote every four years—for four years, except one day, you have zero power. When you rule, you get to rule every day of the week. And even worse: when you vote, you follow. You literally submit to another person. You almost feel your genitals shrinking.
To be a mason is to say to some other human or humans: I will obey you, I will follow your directions, I will put the bricks how and where you tell me to put them, I will not create my own whimsical Art Nouveau motifs.
Of course, to join together and follow a common leader, or leadership, or government, or constitution, is the fundamental act which creates all regimes. This act is necessary. Without such an act of common consent, no political structure can be created.
But one and only one word of this recipe is utterly impossible. That word is follow. No one wants to follow. Worse: no one even knows how to follow.
The practical consequence of this deficit is an inability to trust. The project of Bitzion is impossible because it depends on taking a hodler community dedicated, X-Files style, to trusting no one; and moving it to trusting each other; and implementing this by trusting a roomful of people, who then trust a single person.
To a true Bitcoiner, this seems completely insane. It is also how every company in the world, major or minor, works—and Bitcoin has the market cap of a major company. And in any major company, the amount of time the shareholders spend even caring about the governance of the company, let alone trying to change it, is epsilon.
If they are not delegating unconditional trust, they are delegating something close. They have no plan at all for running the company themselves, or even interceding in its decision loop. There are always exceptions; but this is the normal operating loop. The shareholders seem to trust their direct representatives, the directors, no less than they trust the CEO selected by those directors. This is an amazing amount of trust—which can only exist because the joint-stock company was invented long ago.
Everything big that works is worked by these companies. They are clearly the most effective way to operate at scale. Yet we are incapable of recreating this level of trust in a new context. The joint-stock company design survives because it is grandfathered—and because it works so well. Nonetheless, a “capitalist” government is no more than one which allows joint-stock companies—so there remains a huge target on its back.
And yet, the idea of the hodlers of Bitcoin collectively agreeing to turn themselves into the sharehodlers of Bitzion, which is the same as Bitcoin except that it governs itself rather than being governed by math, seems at a certain level preposterous—because it goes from trusting math, to trusting humans. And trusting humans is following. And following is servitude—which was exactly what we were trying to escape from, right?
In practice Bitcoiners have to trust humans anyway; only a government which is both legitimate and human can be proactive, which means only such a government can be effective; and government by hash is incredibly expensive. And yet Bitcoin remains the leader—proving the power of monetary incumbency.
Bitcoin can’t do a 180 and treat decentralization not as an end, but as a means—to the real goal, independence. This would open the door to independence through a wholly different means, pseudonymous centralization. It seems like a minor, obvious change. But it would require Bitcoin to entirely change its mind—or at least, its religion.
Bitcoin is a cult, for better or worse. Cults don’t change their collective minds from the bottom up. Bitcoin is a cult with an accidental and mathematical government. Bitzion is the exact same cult, with an conscious and human government.
An altcoin or a fork with this design could still be organized; but it would still be an altcoin. Please don’t try this. Bitzion has to be all of Bitcoin, or most of it; and if didn’t ask you to follow, it might have a chance at that. But it exists to ask you to follow.
Honor still demands honesty. In a society where everyone is too good to lay bricks, no one can build a house. It’s a hard problem, and it won’t get solved here. But solving the problem has to start by talking about it.
Consider the irony. This ancient human talent—the reflex for unconditional loyalty—which could make Bitcoin a thousand times more powerful—is, for a bunch of peasant narco-soldiers from Jalisco, as easy as falling off a log.
Yet you might as well ask the hodlers, our fellow autistic rationalist superbrains, who whether they like it or not are citizens of this new thing with a B, to dunk a basketball. Our 20th-century prejudice is that intelligence is power. Sometimes it is weakness; and all we have to fight this weakness is intelligence itself.