Why Blockchain Technology Could Be the Key to Solving the Developing World’s Biggest Problems

With Darcy Allen

The core of the free market explanation for global poverty is simple and compelling: much of the world’s poor are poor because of institutional failure.

The court systems that service the bottom billion are unreliable or hard to access. The governments impose extractive taxation. The bureaucracies are corrupt.

And some institutions are simply missing in the developing world. A lack of reliable identity services makes it hard to access financial markets. A lack of property titles, as Hernando de Soto famously wrote, makes it hard to use the capital embodied in homes.

Corruption and Monopolies

These explanations are all true. But the free market response to global poverty is insipid to the point of uselessness. Faced with evidence that institutions in developing countries are corrupt, classical liberals respond: well, don’t be so corrupt.

There are other responses, of course. We sometimes adopt the Washington Consensus approach—use the levers of political globalization to force reform on unwilling populations. Or maybe we just hope for a revolution that might turn out liberal. Neither alternatives have good track records.

The problem here is that institutions tend to be monopolies. One country has one court system, one bureaucracy in charge of property titles, one authority giving out birth certificates. To get better institutions, we have to replace the corrupt old ones, and that’s hard to do, especially given the intransigence of rent-seekers who benefit from them.

Institution Innovation

What the developing world needs is a technology of institutions—a way not to replace institutions but to create more of them, experimentally and entrepreneurially.

This is what we see in the blockchain. Blockchain technology is an institutional technology that allows multiple institutions to operate in one place. It is perfectly suited to hostile institutional environments.

There’s been a lot of work, unsurprisingly, on individual blockchain applications that might be helpful for the world’s poor: supply chains, democratic governance, and identity management for example. With these applications, blockchain might allow poor countries to leapfrog some of the stages of development—a poor country might skip the creation of the centralized institutions characteristic of the rich world and instead adopt immediately decentralized ones.

These applications don’t need to replace their competitors, and they are virtually impossible for the beneficiaries of the old order to prevent.

But we think blockchain technology offers something more fundamental than these specific applications.

It offers the possibility of creating new institutions—new algorithmic legal systems, contract dispute resolutions systems, identity technologies, mutual welfare and insurance, and public goods provision—in competition with the existing set of institutions.

For instance, the invention of a smart contracting platform could compete with existing court systems, helping to overcome the problems of hold-up or counterparty risks. The contracting parties to decide which institutional structure they wish to use—the terrestrial one or a near-infinite number of new digital alternatives.

These applications do not need to replace their competitors to function. And they are virtually impossible for the beneficiaries of the old order to prevent.

Institutional Layering

We call this process institutional layering. Blockchain institutions co-exist with existing institutions, effectively layering on top.

Blockchain entrepreneurs in developing economies don’t require international aid agencies or development experts to define economic problems and try to solve them. Rather, they apply their entrepreneurial judgment and skills to define institutional problems and use blockchains to design and test new institutional solutions.

William Easterly famously outlined the distinction between “planners” and “searchers” in economic development. Development economics has been plagued by planners implementing top-down institutions that don’t match local conditions and have a raft of unintended consequences.

Instead of working within the existing institutions, entrepreneurs can use blockchain to operate more effectively.

The capacity of entrepreneurs to search, however, is constrained by the transaction costs they face and the technologies they have available. Rather than propelling institutional change through centralized planners (whether it be through conquest or special economic zones), blockchain enables a new decentralized process of search.

Rather than forming businesses within the existing institutions, entrepreneurs can use the blockchain to more effectively operate on the level of the institutions themselves. Blockchain enables institutional entrepreneurs to search by operating on the governance or “protective-tier” level of entrepreneurship.

Now entrepreneurs can search, discover, and deploy new governance mechanisms. They can attract users by better economizing on transaction costs than alternatives.

Polycentric Institutions

The process of institutional layering will also be more polycentric. Rather than having centralized institutions attempting to fit over broad groups of people within a geographical nation-state, entrepreneurs will, over time, discover the necessary levels of institutional rules within regions and across borders.

Another ongoing problem of institutional change in the developing world is aligning formal institutions with the underlying informal norms. Blockchain-based institutional layering—using governance approaches developed by local entrepreneurs—might better match the underlying norms, or what James C. Scott describes as metis.

New, digital, uncensorable, trustful institutional technologies open up enormous opportunities for decentralized economic development.

Because blockchain institutions are built from the bottom-up and draw on local entrepreneurial knowledge, we might see greater levels of institutional stickiness, where formal blockchain institutions better match underlying norms and therefore are embedded and longer-lasting.

Our argument risks techno-utopianism. We are confident that blockchain—or successor distributed ledger technologies not yet invented—might solve several institutional problems within the developing world. It will not, of course, solve all of them.

Nevertheless, the invention of a class of new, digital, uncensorable, trustful institutional technologies opens up enormous opportunities for decentralized economic development.

And it allows the same entrepreneurial creativity that has driven prosperity in the rich world to be turned to the causes of poverty in the developing world.

Some Economic Consequences of the GDPR

With Darcy Allen, Alastair Berg, Brendan Markey-Towler, and Jason Potts. Published in Economics Bulletin, Volume 39, Issue 2, pages 785-797. Originally a Medium post.

Abstract: The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a wide ranging personal data protection regime of greater magnitude than any similar regulation previously in the EU, or elsewhere. In this paper, we outline how the GDPR impacts the value of data held by data collectors before proposing some potential unintended consequences. Given the distortions of the GDPR on data value, we propose that new complex financial products—essentially new data insurance markets—will emerge, potentially leading to further systematic risks. Finally we examine how market-driven solutions to the data property rights problems the GDPR seeks to solve—particularly using blockchain technology as economic infrastructure for data rights—might be less distortionary.

Available here.

Byzantine political economy

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts.

Abstract: For decades, computer science and economics have been working on the same questions in parallel. But each field has offered strikingly different answers. This paper examines the close relationship between what the study of distributed systems describes as Byzantine consensus and what the study of institutional economics describes as robust political economy. These parallels have become evident after the invention of distributed ledger technology (blockchain) via the Bitcoin cryptocurrency which provides a new technology for managing and coordinating knowledge about property rights. Blockchain is the instantiation of a new form of social infrastructure that securely decentralises property ledgers. As such it represents a shift in the role of government as a centralised property ledger.

Available at SSRN.

Blockchains and institutional layering as a new approach to economic development

With Darcy Allen.

Abstract: Since the mid-twentieth century, development economists have identified barriers to economic growth including financing a savings-investment gap, planning investments, and making lasting institutional change. Efforts to overcome these development barriers range from centralised planned intervention to decentralised entrepreneurial search. In this paper we analyse the impact of blockchain technologies on economic development. We propose that blockchains facilitate a more decentralised entrepreneurial process of economic development through institutional layering. This dynamic leads to a more permissionless, polycentric and institutionally sticky economic development process. Blockchains shift the entrepreneurial process by which development problems are defined and ameliorated through time.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry

With Gus Hurwitz.

Executive summary: The analysis in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Preliminary Report for the Digital Platforms Inquiry is inadequate in several ways, most notably:

  • It mischaracterises the relationship between changes in the economics of media advertising and the rise of digital platforms such as Facebook and Google.
  • Its analysis of the dynamics of media diversity is misguided.
  • Its competition analysis assumes its results and makes unsupportable claims about the division of advertising markets.
  • It is recklessly unconcerned with the freedom of speech consequences of its recommendations.
  • It fails to recognise, and proposes to supplant, the ongoing social negotiation over data privacy.
  • It provides a poor analytic base on which to make policy recommendations, as it applies a static, rather than dynamic, approach to its analysis.

There is a real danger that if the policy recommendations outlined in the preliminary report were to be adopted, Australian consumers would be severely harmed.

Available here.

Towards Crypto-friendly Public Policy

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Published in Melanie Swan, Jason Potts, Soichiro Takagi, Frank Witte and Paolo Tasca, 2019. Blockchain Economics: Implications of Distributed Ledgers, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, pp. 215-232.

Abstract: Distributed ledgers are institutional technologies that pose complex challenges regarding regulation and inter-jurisdictional competition. This chapter introduces ‘crypto-friendly’ public policy as a way to understand these challenges. Blockchains are relevant to public policy in at least three ways. First, they can be adopted by governments for the provision of public services. Second, many blockchain applications interact with existing regulatory frameworks and may provide new regulatory challenges. Third, they present the possibility of ‘crypto-secession’ as a form of privately provided public goods provision. The chapter applies an institutional theory of regulation to assess how blockchains effect relative institutional costs and guide public policy choices. Blockchain applications such as property rights and identity management are also considered. Finally the chapter considers the possibility of crypto-friendliness as a dimension for international regulatory competition.

Available at World Scientific.

Britain and Western Civilisation in Australian Undergraduate History Courses: An Institutional Approach

With Bella d’Abrera. Published in Catherine A. Runcie and David Brooks, 2018. Reclaiming Education Renewing Schools and Universities in Contemporary Western Culture, Edwin H. Lowe Publishing, Sydney, pp. 91-99.

Abstract: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft”, said Winston Churchill. He could have added that in history lies a guide to many of our most important contemporary questions: national identity, human freedom, our shared democratic stake in society, and the relationship between individual and community. In Australia, as in every other country, history is a battleground on which politics is fought. But Churchill’s advice is incomplete. What history should be studied? In this essay we explore this question in relation to the teaching of history in Australia in undergraduate history courses.

Available at Amazon.com

The use of knowledge in computers: introducing nanoeconomics

With Sinclair Davidson, Jason Potts and Bill Tulloh. Originally a Medium post.

In his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, Friedrich Hayek first drew attention the knowledge problem. Information is distributed throughout an economy. No central planner can effectively bring it together.

Hayek, obviously, was talking about a human economy, where people exchange with people. But machines suffer from knowledge problems too. This is the domain of nanoeconomics — which we suggest is the study and evaluation of the economics of machine systems.

Hayek in the machine

Nanoeconomics is about human-machine exchange, and machine-machine exchange. It is the economics of distributed ledgers and artificial intelligence, of object-capability programming and cybersecurity, of ‘central planning’ in the machine, and of ‘markets’ in the machine.

As we’ve come to understand blockchains and other distributed ledger technologies as an institutional technology, we’ve also learned that not only can blockchains coordinate and govern decentralised human economies (as governments, firms and markets do) but they can coordinate and govern decentralised machine economies (or human-machine economies).

This extends what Hayek called catallaxy — the spontaneous order of the market — from the market coordination of human action to the coordination of human-to-machine and machine-to-machine economies.

Nanoeconomics is not a new idea. In their Agoric papers published in 1988, Mark Miller and K. Eric Drexler developed the idea of a computational system as a space for economic exchange. The development of object-oriented programming has created software agents, which vie for scarce resources in the machine. But right now, these agents are governed through planning, not markets. Miller and Drexler suggested an alternative: a market-based computation system. In this system:

machine resources — storage space, processor time, and so forth — have owners, and the owners charge other objects for use of these resources. Objects, in turn, pass these costs on to the objects they serve, or to an object representing the external user; they may add royalty charges, and thus earn a profit.

With global computers like the smart-contract platform Ethereum we now have the bones of such a market-based computational architecture.

Nor is the idea of an analytical layer below microeconomics a new idea. Kenneth Arrow used the word nanoeconomics for the study of single buying and selling decisions. But that line of research has been subsumed into behavioural and now neuroeconomics. Alternatively it is used to describe the economics of nanotechnology.

But in an age where we deploy digital, quasi-autonomous agents to act on our behalf, and where the traditional economic problems of opportunism, asset specificity and bounded rationality are intimately tied into cybersecurity and digital services, we have to drive our economic analysis — and our institutional choices — into the machine.

Nanoeconomics is the study of an economy of software agents, using market institutions and property rights to order computation and bid for computational resources. It is the study of choices and market exchange that occur between computational objects in object-oriented software architectures, and which are economically coordinated through blockchain infrastructure.

As Miller and his colleagues have pointed out, a key problem with ‘centrally-planned’ computation are the implications for computer security. A decentralised software economy would instead seek to operationalise tradable property rights for access to objects through the principle of least authority.

Contract theory, not choice theory

Nanoeconomics is not simply a new field of economics — it is a significant extension. Where the choice-theoretic branch of economics has managed to drive its analysis down into the brain, the contract-theoretic branch has stopped at the level of human-to-human exchange.

What do we mean by choice-theoretic and contract-theoretic? Choice theory studies why people make the choices they do. This branch has traditionally been split into macroeconomics (the study of the aggregate economy) and microeconomics (the study of individual market choices).

In recent decades many economists have sought to drive their analysis deeper into the brain. Why do they have different preferences? Behavioural economics applies psychology to economics, and even more recently neuroeconomics applies biology. The choice-theoretic branch of economics goes: macro, micro, behavioural, neuro.

The contract-theoretic branch is the economics of Ronald Coase, James Buchanan, Oliver Williamson, Friedrich Hayek, and Elinor Ostrom. This branch looks at exchanges (that is, contracts) and the human institutions we have devised to constrain or facilitate those exchanges. Firms, markets, governments, clubs and commons (and now blockchains) are institutional environments to make exchanges, sign contracts, and otherwise pursue economic goals.

Contract-theoretic economics starts with constitutional economics — the macro level structuring of political and economic choices. It applies a transaction cost approach to microeconomic analysis. And with nanoeconomics we can start look at machine agents as economic actors, making exchanges — and acting opportunistically.

As more and more of the economy becomes machine-mediated, we need to worry about the security and efficiency implications of centrally-planned machine economies. But the underlying knowledge problems are general.

We’ve previously argued that blockchains are constitutional protocols for catallactic ordering. Nanoeconomics is about how they can not only facilitate improved decentralised economic coordination for humans, but also for machines.

Blockchains and Constitutional Catallaxy

With Alastair Berg and Mikayla Novak

Abstract: The proposition that constitutional rules serve as permanent, fixed points of interaction are challenged by observations of contestable rule amendment and the emergence of de facto authority. This observation not only applies to conventional political constitutions, but to the fundamental rules which govern interactions by numerous people using new forms of technology. Blockchain technology aims to coordinate action in a world of incomplete information and opportunism, but the governance arrangements in blockchain protocols remain far from settled. Drawing upon recent theoretical developments regarding constitutional change, we interpret changes to the fundamental working rules of blockchain protocols as central to the adaptive, emergent nature of activity within this technological space. We apply this concept of “constitutional catallaxy” to selected blockchain platform case studies, illustrating the dynamism inherent in establishing protocols within the blockchain. Blockchain coordination changes and adapts not only to the technological limitations of the available protocols, but to mutual expectations and influence of interacting stakeholders.

Available at SSRN

From Industry Associations to Ecosystem Associations: Blockchain, Interest Groups and Public Choice

With Mikayla Novak, Jason Potts and Stuart J Thomas

Abstract: Conventional public choice literature suggests that interest groups have a largely malign effect upon the economy. Suggesting that interest groups are primarily established to lobby governments for rents, the public choice approach essentially rests upon normative presumptions concerning the appropriateness of relationships between interest groups and the state. This analysis tends to overlook constructive roles undertaken by interest groups to facilitate economic coordination, including the facilitation of technology adoption, and to collaborate with political and other actors to overcome obstacles to innovation and industry dynamics. The development of blockchain technology in recent years serves as a useful case study illustrating the role of interest groups in contributing toward the development of a blockchain-enabled economy. We provide support for our general hypothesis of a beneficial economic contribution by interest groups by profiling the activities of blockchain industry associations. This paper also considers to what extent interest group involvement in blockchain coordination and governance is designed to pre-emptively avoid more stringent governmental action, or respond to perceived inadequacies in public policy settings. This study contributes to a revision of public choice scholarship regarding the appropriateness of interest group activity.

Available at SSRN.