Crypto constitutionalism

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

Blockchains are constitutional orders — rule-systems in which individuals (or firms, or algorithms) can make economic and political exchanges.

In this sense, blockchains look a lot like countries. They have currencies (tokens), property (digital assets), laws (protocols), corporations (DAOs), and security systems (proof-of-work, or proof of stake, or delegated byzantine fault tolerance, etc.).

And like countries, blockchains have systems of governance.

Satoshi built one system of governance into Bitcoin: how the network comes to a consensus when miners announce two equally valid blocks to the network. The protocol (the constitution) resolves this problem by incentivising nodes to prefer the chain with the most work.

But this is a tiny fraction of the governance questions that just surround Bitcoin. How should the Bitcoin network be upgraded? Who decides? How should the various interests be accommodated — or compensated?

In these blockchain governance debates — disputes about whether governance should be on-chain or off-chain, who writes the rules, who can be a node, the role of voting, and the relative position of protocol developers, miners, block producers, HODLers and third party applications — we’re seeing the history of thinking about political economy being rediscovered.

Happily there exists an enormous body of thinking on governance, constitutions, the function and efficiency of voting and voting mechanisms, and how power is allocated in a political and economic system.

Blockchains as constitutional experiments

Historically, experimenting with new constitutions has involved things like civil war, secession, conquest, empire, and expropriation. The English fought civil war after civil war to limit the power of the monarch to tax. Expanding the franchise involved protest and violence.

In the real world, constitutional experimentation is costly and slow: limited by the rights and preferences of real populations and the real endowments of physical land and property.

By contrast, blockchains offer a space for rapid, hyper-experimentation. New constitutional rules can be instantiated by a simple fork. New protocols can be released in months or weeks.

Blockchains are an environment for institutional innovation — a place to apply hundreds of years of thinking about political governance.

Why vote?

For instance, networks such as Decred, NEO and EOS use voting to manage their decentralised consensus mechanisms. Vitalik Buterin and Vlad Zamfir have argued that on-chain governance is overrated.

What this debate is missing is an understanding of the economics of politics. Blockchain developers aren’t writing protocols — they’re writing constitutions. And we know a great deal about constitutional design and voting mechanisms.

The first thing we know is that choosing the rules of a voting system is effectively choosing the result of the vote.

The eighteen-century mathematician the Marquis de Condorcet found that a three cornered vote using a simple majority rule might not come to a clear consensus on the winner. A might beat B, B might beat C, but C might beat A. The ‘ultimate’ winner of this cycle will depend on how the votes are ordered.

Kenneth Arrow generalised this into his impossibility theorem: there’s no unique procedure that reliably comes up with a stable ordering of aggregated preferences. A set of quite reasonable institutional assumptions — such as no dictator, the independence of irrelevant alternatives and so forth — can’t be combined.

The lesson economists have taken from all this is: tell me what you want, and I’ll design you a mechanism to get it. What matters is how we decide how to decide.

Public choice scholars have focused on problems how political agents shape their policy positions to suit median or marginal voters. Retrospective voting models suggest that voters assess how happy they are (in general, not just with politics) at the time of voting and vote for or against incumbents on that basis.

Other scholars have focused on why people even bother to vote — given there is a miniscule chance that they can change the outcome of a vote. This had led scholars to the theory of ‘expressive voting’, where voting is effectively a form of consumption or signalling.

This is a rich body of political and economic theory that has been absent from the blockchain governance space. For instance, is voting a positive or negative externality?

It depends on what the purpose of the voting is. If preference aggregation is your goal, ‘low-information’ voting is a problem — it introduces noise. Blockchains should then tax voting.

However, if simple legitimation is the purpose of voting (as Vlad Zamfir argued at the Ethereal conference) then even low-information voters add value. Ideally the mechanism would subsidise all voting.

The incentive design problem for blockchain voting depends on what you think the purpose of the voting is.

And it turns out that this question has been one of the over-riding concerns of economists, philosophers and political scientists for hundreds of years.

Only A Flesh Wound

With Sinclair Davidson

Howls of outrage from the ABC and its fans on social media over the most mild of cuts to the broadcaster’s budget ignore the fact of an institution that has drifted far away from its charter’s demands for objectivity.

Judging by the howls of outrage echoing through twitter it seems that the Turnbull government has destroyed our democracy, if not Australian civilisation itself. But no. The Turnbull government has frozen ABC operational funding for three years. That translates to a ‘funding cut’ of some $83 million.

Not $83 million per year, mind you. Over three years.

Not quite a rounding error, but hardly a crisis.

The ABC only has itself to blame. In the pre-budget period it went well out of its way to annoy the government. The prime minister – a former communications minister – is something of a fan. Yet the ABC chose to publish a highly opinionated and factually challenged analysis by the ABC’s Chief Economics Correspondent of the government’s centrepiece economic policy. Then there was the small matter of pooh-poohing the current communications ministers’ complaint about a conservative politician being pointlessly abused in a comedy skit.

These hostilities have not come cheap.

There may well be a market for ‘edgy’ humour, but the ABC’s efforts tend to boorishness. Reproducing flawed ALP and Greens talking points on company tax cuts as being ‘independent’ and ‘trust worthy’ is arguably a greater problem. These are not minor lapses in editorial policy – the ABC is politically biased and incapable of self-regulation.

Rather than viewing the ABC as a ‘trusted’ news source we should recognise it as being a political actor in its own right. Not just any sort of political actor. Journalists, as David Marr has suggested, are usually ‘vaguely soft-left’ and sceptical of authority.

The ABC, however, is not so vague and not so soft. A 2013 survey of journalists revealed that 41.3% of ABC journalists intended to vote Greens at the 2013 election. That compares with 19.8% of journalists at both Fairfax and News and just 8.7% of the electorate.

ABC journalists are well to the left of journalists in general, and nearly five times more likely to vote Greens than the general public.

To be fair – there is nothing wrong with voting Greens or being left-wing. Journalists are citizens too. But the ABC claims to be a bulwark of our democracy. While nearly 80% of Australians claim to believe that the ABC is balanced and even-handed there is a huge drop off in actual audience numbers. There are three to four times as many Australians who claim to trust the ABC than who actually watch the ABC. Sure 86% of Australians value to ABCs service to the community, but that probably reflects its status as an emergency broadcaster.

Generally there is no reason why political opinion should cloud professional performance. Coalition voting journalists are a minority even at News. Yet none of the mechanisms that crowd out personal preference operate at the ABC. It does not have to please advertisers, it does not have to earn a profit, nor does it not have to explain itself to controlling shareholders.

To claim that the ABC Charter constrains it is laughable. The Charter is written in legislation but it is not law. It doesn’t require anyone to do anything, it contains no penalties for non-compliance, and it has no enforcement mechanism. If only the Tax Act worked on the same principles.

The ABC pleases itself; in practice that means it pleases its staff. To the extent that many ABC journalists are professional in their activities that is a personal preference and not institutional discipline.

Unsurprisingly the ABC does as it pleases and largely it gets away with doing as it pleases.

Being stripped of a mere $83 million over three years is a very mild rebuke from an otherwise indulgent government. Yet the ABC seems to have chucked a temper tantrum in response. Threats to bully the government into restoring funding indexation should be resisted.

Rather than simply restore indexation after three years the Turnbull government should be looking at innovative market solutions to commercialise and professionalise the ABC. Expecting value for money from the ABC is not an attack on its independence but rather a minimum expectation of any government program that costs the taxpayer $1 billion per annum.

Some economic consequences of the GDPR

With Darcy Allen, Alastair Berg and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

At the end of May 2018, the most far reaching data protection and privacy regime ever seen will come into effect. Although the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a European law, it will have a global impact. There are likely to be some unintended consequences of the GDPR.

As we outline in a recent working paper, the implementation of the GDPR opens the potential for new data markets in tradable (possibly securitised) financial instruments. The protection of people’s data is better protected through self-governance solutions, including the application of blockchain technology.

The GDPR is in effect a global regulation. It applies to any company which has a European customer, no matter where that company is based. Even offering the use of a European currency on your website, or having information in a European language may be considered offering goods and services to an EU data subject for the purposes of the GDPR.

The remit of the regulation is as broad as its territorial scope. The rights of data subjects include that of data access, rectification, the right to withdraw consent, erasure and portability. Organisations using personal data in the course of business must abide by strict technical and organisational requirements. These restrictions include gaining explicit consent and justifying the collection of each individual piece of personal data. Organisations must also employ a Data Protection Officer (DPO) to monitor compliance with the 261-page document.

Organisations collect data from customers for a range of reasons, both commercial and regulatory — organisations need to know who they are dealing with. Banks will not lend money to someone they don’t know; they need to have a level of assurance over their customer’s willingness and ability to repay. Similarly, many organisations are forced to collect increasingly large amounts of personal data about their customers. Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing legislation (AML/CTF) requires many institutions to monitor their customers activity on an ongoing basis. In addition, many organisations derive significant value from personal data. Consumers and organisations exchange data for services, much off which is voluntary and to their mutual benefit.

One of the most discussed aspects of the GDPR is the right to erasure — often referred to as the right to be forgotten. This allows data subjects to use the government to compel companies who hold their personal data to delete it.

We propose that the right to erasure creates uncertainty over the value of data held by organisations. This creates an option on that data.

The right to erasure creates uncertainty over the value of the data to the data collector. At any point in time, the data subject may withdraw consent. During a transaction, or perhaps in return for some free service, a data subject may consent to have their personal data sold to a third party such as an advertiser or market researcher. Up until an (unknown) point in time — when the data subject may or may not withdraw consent to their data being used — that personal data holds positive value. This is in effect a put option on that data — the option to sell that data to a third party.

The value of such an option is derived from the value of the underlying asset — the data — which in turn depends on the continued consent by the data subject.

Rational economic actors will respond in predictable ways to manage such risk. Data-Backed Securities (DBS) might allow organisations to convert unpredictable future revenue streams into one single payment. Collateralised Data Obligations (CDO) might allow data collectors to package personal data into tranches of varying risk of consent withdrawal. A secondary data derivative market is thus created — one that we have very little idea of how it will operate, and what any secondary effects may be.

Such responses to regulatory intervention are not new. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was at least in part caused by complex and rarely understood financial instruments like Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) and Collateralised Debt Obligations (CBS). These were developed in response to poorly designed capital requirements.

Similarly, global AML/CTF requirements faced by financial institutions have caused many firms to simply stop offering their products to certain individuals and even whole regions of the world. The unbanked and underbanked are all the poorer as a result.

What these two examples have in common is that they both have good intentions. Adequate capital requirements and preventing money from being cleaned by money launderers are good things, but good intentions are not enough. Secondary consequences should always be considered and discussed.

Self-governance alternatives, including the application of blockchain technology, should be considered. These alternatives use technology to allow individuals greater control over the personal data they share with the world.

Innovators developing self-sovereign identity solutions are attempting to provide a market based way for individuals to gain greater control over — and derive value from — their personal data. These solutions allow users to share just enough data for a transaction to go ahead. A bartender doesn’t need to know your name or address when you want a drink, they just need to know you are of legal age.

Past instances of regulatory intervention should make us cautious that even well-meaning regulation will achieve its stated objectives with no negative effects. Self-sovereign identity, and the use of blockchain technology is a promising solution to the challenges of data privacy.

Blockchain TradeTech

With Darcy Allen, Sinclair Davidson, Mikayla Novak and Jason Potts

Abstract: From the adoption of the shipping container to coordinated trade liberalisation, reductions in trade costs have expanded the potential of global trade and enabled modern globalisation. In this paper we define and explore TradeTech: the entrepreneurial application of technology to economise on the information costs facing global supply chains.  Consumers, producers and governments increasingly demand information about the quality, characteristics and provenance of traded goods. While this information is costly to coordinate between multiple parties, these costs can be economised through new modes of economic organisation. The possible governance forms of supply chains are ultimately constrained by existing technologies. In this paper we introduce and analyse the potential of blockchain technology as a new decentralised economic infrastructure to overcome the information costs of trade. Blockchains may potentially act as a trusted ledger of information pertaining to the characteristics of goods for consumers, firms and governments. Effective adoption of blockchain TradeTech, however, requires high-level international policy coordination—including the development of open standards for information governance—to enable entrepreneurs to discover, build and adopt this new economic infrastructure.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Identity as Input to Exchange

With Alastair Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Identity is an integral part of all but the most trivial economic, social and political transactions. Using transaction cost economics, we determine that identity costs are a distinct and measurable subset of transaction costs. In certain transactions, such as credit arrangements, identity costs are incurred at considerable expense for commercial and compliance based reasons. Vertical integration can be seen through the lens of identity cost economising, including in the financial sector, due to high costs of complying with KYC regulations as well as commercial risk management. Such organisational structure is also contingent on available identity technologies. The introduction of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies in identity applications may see new models of institutional structures develop.

Working paper available at SSRN.

What does the blockchain mean for government? Cryptocurrencies in the Australian payments system

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Executive Summary: This paper introduces the radical opportunities that the invention of distributed ledger technologies offer for government, using the Australian payments system as a case study. The paper presents a model for the reform of government in light of the blockchain based on the new comparative institutional economics literature. In response to invention of the blockchain, governments should:

  • Allow firms to experiment and introduce blockchain enabled services – that is, take “permissionless innovation” approach.
  • Adapt regulatory environments to accommodate the use of blockchain applications where those applications cross over existing regulatory requirements – for example, in the space of taxation, and financial and prudential reporting.
  • Directly adopt blockchain technologies for delivering government services and to enhance (or replace) existing government processes.

Available in PDF here.

Sober liberal

A review of Sir Joseph Carruthers: Founder of the New South Wales Liberal Party by Zachary Gorman, Connor Court, Qld, pp.425, $59.95

Australia has a rich heritage of nineteenth century classical liberalism. But that history has been almost completely lost in the flood of historical work focusing on either federation or the labour movement. Zachary Gorman’s new biography of Sir Joseph Carruthers, the nineteenth century free trade liberal and founder of the Liberal party of New South Wales, helps balance the ledger – recovering the tradition of free market liberalism that has been so significant in Australian history.

In many ways, Joseph Carruthers embodies that tradition, with its strengths and flaws. In the colonial era liberal political thought was one of the dominant strands of public life, and Carruthers’ career reflected its dominance. Born in 1857, he entered NSW politics in 1887. Carruthers was a father of federation, a minister under Henry Parkes and George Reid, and after the establishment of the Commonwealth became premier of New South Wales. He only left politics when he died in 1932.

Like his university friend George Reid, Carruthers was a great admirer of William Gladstone. He believed in balanced budgets, individual liberty, and that ‘we should encourage commerce in its freest sense’ (as he once informed a branch meeting of the Labour Electoral League).

Carruthers was a liberal, but not a radical one by the standards of the time. Gorman positions him as a moderate, or pragmatic liberal within the free trade movement. On one side was Bernard Wise, whose support for free trade was matched with a pro-government intervention and regulation program. On the other side was the radical free market liberalism of Bruce Smith, whose 1887 book Liberty and Liberalism was a full-frontal attack on the left-liberalism advocated by people like Wise. A working politician has to satisfy multiple constituencies. Carruthers was no exception, balancing both liberal and conservative supporters, as well as managing coalitions with the progressives.

Histories of political life can sometimes be a little deadening. Much drama in politics consists of a stream of legislation and amendment, which can be both complex and (in the hands of poor biographers) dull. Gorman does not fall into this trap: he is able to very clearly explain the significance of each well-chosen controversy in a way that makes the relevance to liberalism and Carruthers’ life obvious.

Gorman is also sensitive to instances of where Carruthers’ thought deviated from classical liberal ideas. These are worth detailing, because classical liberals have not always lived up to their underlying belief in the inherent equality and political dignity of all people. One philosophically minor but historical significant example was temperance. His father had struggled with alcohol and was ultimately involved in the temperance movement. Likewise many of the Liberal party voters were motivated by temperance. Gorman writes that Carruthers believed ‘liberalism could bend on this issue’. Carruthers ended up supporting the so-called ‘local option’ which handed the regulation of liquor licences to electorates and municipalities – not always a win for liberty.

More serious to modern readers was Carruthers’ opposition to female suffrage, for which he believed the case had not yet been made. His was perhaps a half-hearted opposition, and he later supported the suffragette movement in Britain when he visited there in 1908. But his stance compares poorly with some contemporaries like Bruce Smith, who actively called for universal suffrage in Australia.

Carruthers’ attitude to immigration presents a similar story. While being supportive of high immigration levels, he also backed the white Australia policy on the grounds that a multiracial society could harbour ethnic tensions. This view changed when he began to visit Hawaii, as he did regularly late in life. He saw there a society in which Americans, native Hawaiians, Japanese and Filipinos coexisted prosperously, helped in no small part by American free trade relationships.

Carruthers’ views were more admirable when it came to the relationship between colonists and the Indigenous population. As a child growing up in Macleay he had spent much time playing with Aboriginal children, and he maintained a sympathy with Indigenous people his whole life. He wrote later of the ‘ruthless indifference [of] the whites, who have invaded their homelands, bringing with them new diseases and vile habits, and sometimes unspeakable cruelties that have unnecessarily wiped out millions of so-called inferior and backward peoples’. Carruthers’ language often betrayed a paternalistic or patronising mindset but he was more wide-eyed than most about who bore the costs of colonialism.

For the most part, Carruthers was a needed defender of liberal values. During the First World War he refused to get too caught up with the anti-liberal sentiment of wartime Australia, and opposed the NSW government’s sedition bill (which had been mainly targeted at the labour movement).

This is not the first full length biography of Carruthers. Beverly Earnshaw published One Flag, One Hope, One Destiny: Sir Joseph Carruthers and Australian Federation in 2000, which as its title suggests finds interest in Carruthers because of his federation role. (Carruthers’ own memoirs also received commercial publication in 2005.) But for Gorman, Carruthers’ greatest legacy is the New South Wales Liberal party, which he views as one of the crowning organisational achievements of nineteenth century liberalism. While it has repeatedly changed its name, the NSW Liberal Party is still, organisationally, the same entity today as the one Carruthers established as the Liberal and Reform Association in 1902.

For modern classical liberals the post-Federation decade has a somewhat melancholy tone. The rise of the Labor party led to an alliance, and then fusion, between the free traders and protectionists under the banner of anti-socialism. Gorman’s book both adeptly navigates this history, and, with his picture of nineteenth century liberalism, underlines just what we lost.

Are Australians ready to embrace libertarianism?

How much influence does libertarianism have on Australian politics? The first thing to know is that the Australian political system has very few libertarians in it.

The only federal member of parliament to self-describe as a libertarian is Senator David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party. Other candidates – like my former colleagues at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), Senator James Paterson and Tim Wilson – describe themselves as classical liberals.

Ideological classifications can get very tedious very quickly, but generally libertarianism is a variety of classical liberalism. Both philosophies believe that public policy should be designed to maximise free markets and civil liberties. That is, governments should get out of both the wallet and the bedroom. Libertarianism is generally seen as inhabiting the more radical end of the classical liberal spectrum.

A 2007 study published by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) estimated that 3–6% of the Australian electorate were classical liberals. So it is unsurprising they have little electoral influence on Australian politics.

The reason libertarians and classical liberals exercise some degree of influence is that they make up a disproportionate share of Australia’s policy wonks, think tank staff (especially at the IPA and CIS), and political commentators.

An extremely big tent

Australia’s right-of-centre political community is not so large as to have exclusively libertarian or conservative think tanks, as exist in the United States. Everyone works together. This co-mingling hasn’t generally been an issue because Australian political debate has tended to pivot around economic issues (taxation, regulation, privatisation) or basic shared liberty issues (like freedom of speech) rather than the thorny moral debates that might divide the two camps.

Occasionally there have been polarising issues. Same-sex marriage is one. Conservatives were generally opposed, while libertarians tended to be in favour. But there was also broad agreement that any change to marriage laws should also protect religious freedom.

Immigration – particularly asylum seeker policy – is another. Libertarians are inclined towards freer immigration, whereas conservatives want more control over the borders. Here the tiny number of libertarians have been completely ineffective against the policy stalemate.

For the most part, there is much agreement between conservatives and libertarians about the current state of Australian politics. Both think the Turnbull government is a disappointment, for much the same reasons. It failed on the campaign to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which has become an iconic restriction on free speech. It has also repeatedly raised taxes, and been unable to drive any serious economic reform.

This may sound excessively Pollyanna-ish, as if everything is just swell between Australian conservatives and libertarians. Much has been said (almost all by commentators on the left) about a political split between libertarians and classical liberals on the one side and conservatives on the other. But I don’t really see it.

In the US, the fusion movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a deliberate project to build an alliance between these two distinct systems of political thought. The presidency of George W. Bush pushed that alliance to breaking point, and it seems the Trump administration has broken it.

By contrast, Australian politics has never been large enough to maintain such divergent streams. Every Liberal prime minister has for the most part maintained a sort of centre-right middle ground that kept everyone equally disappointed and dissatisfied. People are leaving the Liberal Party under the Turnbull government, not because it is too conservative or libertarian, but because it is too, well, nothing.

Liberal achievements and libertarian growth

The last quarter of the 20th century saw Australian public policy take major strides in a classical liberal direction. The economic reform movement that substantially liberalised the economy was matched with social reforms such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the repeal of obscenity laws.

I’ve argued in the past that Australian economic thought has had a distinct – even occasionally dominant – classical liberal tradition. There is no question that this tradition has driven policy debate and reform at a few key historical moments.

Though classical liberal efforts were often focused on economics rather than social policy, it’s worth pointing out that the IPA was one of the key voices against state overreaches such as the Hawke government’s ill-fated Australia Card, and more recently, mandatory internet data retention.

In recent years, there has been some notable growth of libertarianism as a self-aware and distinct group. A large part of that has been the Friedman Conference – named after Milton Friedman, David Friedman and Patri Friedman, who represent nearly the entire spectrum of classical liberal/libertarian thought in one family – which attracts hundreds of libertarians and fellow travellers to Sydney every year.

The Friedman Conference is in its sixth year, thanks to the organisational efforts of Tim Andrews (of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance) and John Humphreys (of the Australian Libertarian Society). The political success of the Liberal Democrats with David Leyonhjelm in the Senate is another factor in libertarianism’s modest gains.

My hope is that this sort of organisational effort fosters the idea in Australia of libertarianism as a distinct political philosophy, not just a quirky sub-category of the Australian right.

There is a need for this. The challenges we face now are not the same as they were in the over-mythologised 1980s. The combination of growth of the regulatory state, radical technological change, and the crisis of democratic trust require new ideas and new policy solutions. Libertarianism offers a framework to understand how these economic and social questions interact.

Blockchains Evolving: Institutional and Evolutionary Economics Perspectives

With Brendan Markey-Towler, Mikayla Novak, and Jason Potts

Abstract: In this paper we develop a perspective on systems for interaction organised by Blockchains which makes use of evolutionary-institutional and psychological economics to reveal the process of their origination, diffusion and interaction. We discuss Blockchain and its uses as a distributed ledger technology for the establishment of institutional systems governing socioeconomic interaction. We apply the micro-meso-macro perspective to the origination and diffusion of these systems as meso-rules, and formalise the microfoundations of this process of emergence using psychological and institutional economics. We establish that successful Blockchains will be those which continue to adapt their institutional structure to meet evolving capability requirements and provide complementarities. Our perspective offers valuable insights for designers of Blockchain systems and establishes some of the forms of resistance which might constrain their efforts to diffuse Blockchain technology.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Some Economic Consequences of the GDPR

With Darcy Allen, Alastair Berg, and Jason Potts

Abstract: The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a wide ranging personal data protection regime of far greater magnitude than any similar regulation previously in the EU, or elsewhere. In this paper, we explore the ways in which regulation changes the value of data and examine the potential impact of the GDPR on data markets. We suggest that the GDPR may result in unintended consequences analogous to previous government interventions into capital markets and financial services. Novel financial products of unknown complexity and systemic risk – and secondary data derivative markets – may emerge as a result, which suggests that market driven technological solutions, such as those using blockchain or distributed ledger technology, should be further examined.

Working paper available at SSRN.