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.

Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham in the Australian Colonies

History of Economics Review, Volume 68, 2017:  2-16 DOI: 10.1080/10370196.2018.1449084

Abstract: How did 19th century Australians think about liberalism, economics and political economy more generally? Nineteenth century Australia has been described variously as having a ‘neoclassical’, enlightenment, or Benthamite political culture. This paper provides an empirical approach to the question of early Australian ideas. Exploiting the records of 1891 book sales and auctions in Australia between 1800 and 1849, the paper examines the relative prevalence of key economic, political and liberal texts available to 19th century Australians. The works of classical enlightenment authors such as Adam Smith and John Locke were far more prevalent, and more likely in demand, than those of Jeremy Bentham. To the extent utilitarian ideas were prevalent, they were more in the form of William Paley’s conservatism than Bentham’s radicalism.

Accepted manuscript available at SSRN.

Beyond Money: Cryptocurrencies, Machine-Mediated Transactions and High Frequency Bartering

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts.

Abstract: As blockchain technology is adopted into modern economies, the underlying institutional protocols will evolve. In this paper we set out the reasoning behind how this will likely take us to an economy beyond both money and money prices. Money facilitates human-human exchange in the presence of cognitive limitations. However in the near future personal artificially intelligent machine agents will be able to conduct exchanges with a matrix of liquid digital assets (such as cryptocurrencies). We call this process high frequency bartering. The existence of markets without money present complex public policy challenges around privacy and taxation.

Working paper available on SSRN


With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: This paper develops the ledger-centric view of the economy. Ledgers provide an underlying infrastructure for exchange by allowing actors to prove, validate, and verify property ownership. In this sense ledgers map economic, political and social relationships. This paper provides some theoretical distinctions to frame the analysis of the economics of ledgers. First we offer a philosophical and institutional definition of ledgers. Second we provide three analytic categories of ledgers (general, actual, and perfect). Third we offer a ledger theory of the firm as a map of relationship between labour, capital, production processes, and information, and emphasise the economic significance of ledgerisation in the history of entrepreneurial firm creation. Fourth we draw some implications of our theory for the development of complex economies. This paper is based on the theory of institutional cryptoeconomics which was developed to understand the economic implications of distributed ledger technologies.

Working paper available on SSRN

Outsourcing vertical integration: introducing the V-form network

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

The Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson distinguishes between U-form companies and M-form companies.

Traditional U-form companies are unitary— their units are divided by business process (for instance, accounting, human resources, component manufacturing, assembly) and are not treated as separate cost centres.

M-form companies are multidivisional — their units are self-contained divisions that report profits and losses to an umbrella central body. They’re fully owned by a parent company, but they tend to have their own business services (accounting and human resources departments, for instance) and even market relationships.

But now we see a new corporate form — the V-form network — made possible because thanks to the application of distributed ledger technology to supply chain problems.

These V-form networks consist of a number of fully independent companies that effectively operate as one vertically integrated company through blockchain technology, coordinated and supplied by a third party.

This is a big change to the nature of the firm. We can already see V-form networks in the real world. They date as far back as January. It is surprising the economic community haven’t noticed them yet.

The IBM and Maersk TradeTech

Two weeks into 2018, IBM and the shipping giant Maersk announced a joint venture to develop a digital supply chain management system on their Hyperledger blockchain platform. Hyperledger is a private blockchain which requires permission to access.

In a previous Cryptoeconomics piece, we described how international trade is an information problem. As goods are shipped around the world, they are accompanied by information — really stacks of paperwork — that describe their provenance, destinations, regulatory and tax liabilities and so on.

In the IBM-Maersk system, each firm and bureaucracy in the supply chain — producers, shippers, port authorities, regulators, importers, retailers — will access and update a shared blockchain ledger containing all the information needed by each organisation.

And each organisation would have access to that information everywhere, ensuring complete visibility on where goods are in the world and which economic and regulatory hurdles they next need to overcome.

Before blockchains, there were only two basic ways to coordinate a supply chain: vertical integration, or regulation.

Vertical integration has problems. Large conglomerate firms struggle with the challenges of specialisation, and size tends to make firms less efficient.

Regulation has even worse problems. At the very minimum, regulation only works plausibly well within a single nation. The cost of multilateral harmonization — which includes things like treaties and global courts — is very high.

Blockchains can work to coordinate supply chains without the need for either (traditional) vertical integration or regulation. The vertical integration is outsourced to a distributed ledger. The blockchain provides the managerial service that coordinates each ‘unit’ (that is, firm) in the supply chain.

Regulators in any country can deal any firm in the supply chain as if it was a small unit of a larger, global company.

Each firm in the supply chain get the benefits of vertical integration through a network rather than a hierarchy.

The crucial role of IBM and Maersk

In this, the IBM and Maersk joint venture plays a novel economic role.

We’ve written in the past about the paradox of trust in the blockchain world: it takes a lot of trust to establish a trustless ledger.

Imagine a supply chain with seven firms in it: primary producer, manufacturer, exporter, shipper, importer, wholesaler, retailer. Each firm has an established and trusted business relationship with the firms above and below them on the supply chain. But do they have a similar relationship with those one- or two-steps removed? Would the wholesaler in one country necessarily trust the primary producer in another?

A supply chain of two or three firms would be able to easily come to an agreement over shared digital systems. They wouldn’t even need a blockchain — market discipline would be enough to ensure stable coordination.

But firms which do not have direct market relationships with each other face a trust problem when they try to coordinate.

IBM-Maersk provide the trust. They are a large trusted firm that can broker a solution — get all parties around a table — and build the network.

This is a different sales and service model to the IBM of the 1960s. But not that different. With Hyperledger for supply chains, IBM is selling a single solution to multiple clients — just as they did with mainframes or do today with their Watson artificial intelligence machine.

It is only possible because IBM (and Maersk) has already built up deep client relations over past century or so. It is both trusted and has internal information and knowledge about client needs.

(A regulator has none of this information. Neither would a potential corporate raider attempting to vertically integrate through a merger and acquisition strategy.)

We expect to see competition between firms (IBM and and other full-stack technology/strategy/management consultants) to seek ongoing (that is, locked in) contracts for these sorts of services.

The innovative thing here is that they aren’t offering their services to individual firms. They are consulting to a group, or chain, or network of firms — a network that they may have themselves helped create. Economic coordination in the simplest sense of the term.

That’s why IBM is involved. But why is Maersk? The shipping company in this case is the firm with the most to gain from the adoption of the new technology and architecture — that is, which would benefit most from reducing the costs of the existing market architecture.

Vertical integration can be outsourced elsewhere

In the V-form network, the blockchain’s token establishes the consortium, and incentivizes cooperative behaviour.

The token also serves to move rents around the network. In this way, the blockchain provides a market mechanism to solve the sort of bargaining problems described by another Nobel laureate, Ronald Coase, that may occur as the network operates.

Outsourced vertical integration could be applied to many industries that are now integrated. Energy firms that currently integrate the exploration, production, generation, and retail of electricity might be better decomposed, with blockchains and tokens taking the place of head offices. The token economy, rather than energy regulators, could make decisions about the distribution of rents around the network.

We expect that a blockchain economy will have more, smaller firms linked together by protocols. One question — which we expect will preoccupy regulators for decades to come — is how just many protocols? It’s worth pointing out that these networks are inherently global, and any regulatory questions global as well.

Governments might be able to exploit the V-form network themselves. Instead of selling a vertically integrated state-owned asset to shareholders (and then controlling rents with price regulation) they could then privatise components directly on a blockchain network. Ports and airports might be privatised successfully in this way.

In that sense governments would provide the initial coordination now being provided by IBM and Maersk — a trusted third party to broker and establish a decentralised economic network.