The Institutional Economics of Identity

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Identification forms a key part of all but the least sophisticated economic and political transactions. More complex or significant transactions demand more formal identification of the parties involved. In this paper we develop an institutional economics of identity. We distinguish between a Demsetzian evolutionary view of identity institutions and a ‘legal-centric’ view of identity institutions. In the former view, identity is a contextual, fluid and subjective, and evolved for market, social and political exchange. In the latter, identity is uniform and permanent, and created (imposed) by governments. Governments have an interest in identity insofar as identity is used in the process of tax collection, entitlements, and conscription. Private organisations free ride off state-provided identification services. The paper concludes with a discussion about technological change and identity management. We characterise two possible futures: one in which new technologies enable states to create more comprehensive uniform identities, and one in which new technologies enable identities to be ‘federated’ and transferred to citizens.

Working paper available at SSRN.

The blockchain economy: what should the government do?

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

Satoshi Nakamoto said Bitcoin would be “very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint”. The pioneers of cryptocurrencies were cypherpunks or crypto-anarchists who wanted to use this new invention to escape the state’s monopoly on money.

We’re sympathetic to this — as we argued in our last Medium essay ‘Byzantine Political Economy’.

But the state is not so easy to escape.

Not only are there many blockchain use-cases for government, but it is possible that positive government action could help the blockchain revolution along.

Just as the blockchain radically decentralises economic activity, the born-global nature of the blockchain can radically decentralise economic power.

Crypto-friendly governments — that is, governments that can rapidly adjust their regulatory frameworks to suit the blockchain economy — have a unique window to attract global investment.

Crypto-friendly governments: the state of play

A number of smaller countries and autonomous regions are trying to position themselves as crypto-friendly.

Both Great Britain and Australia have issued high-level government science reports on the prospects of the technology.

Other smaller countries (such as Estonia) and city-states (such as Singapore) have folded blockchain into a digital and e-government investment strategy.

City-states such as Dubai and states or cantons such as Zug in Switzerland and Illinois in the United States are trying to move many aspects of government services to the blockchain, or to create special crypto-economic zones.

Singapore and Australia have directed their financial regulators to issue detailed guidance about the regulatory, legislative and tax treatment of crypto-assets.

Political leaders in Japan and Russia have made multiple announcements broadly supportive of crypto-investment.

Those are the good news stories. However, most countries maintain a sort of benign neglect — either because of the relative small presence of the cryptoeconomy or lack of government interest or capability in the space.

And a small number of jurisdictions are outwardly hostile. New York adopted a hard line in terms of regulatory compliance when it introduced the BitLicense. China has banned initial coin offerings and cryptocurrency exchanges.

Global differences are going to matter

So far, the development of cryptocurrencies has been geographically concentrated in regions like Silicon Valley. But that won’t last. The blockchain is a distributed technology. The relationship between the regions that develop the technology and the regions that adopt the technology is unlikely to be strong.

In other words, the geography of invention is not the same as the geography of innovation.

The United States is highly successful in inventing blockchain technology. Yet it has been finding it hard to adopt blockchains because of American regulatory complexity.

Regulatory agility will be a significant factor determining which nations are able to successfully adopt blockchain technology.

This favors city-states (Singapore), smaller countries (Estonia, Australia) and subnational jurisdictions (Zug, Illinois).

The blockchain tax problem

How should cryptoassets be taxed? Are tokens money (taxed as spending)? Or are they debt or equity (in which case it would be treated as income or gains from a capital asset or investment vehicle)? We’ve argued that they cryptoassets are in fact the hypothetical asset class that Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson once called ‘dequity’. This means they should be taxed as capital assets, not as money.

But blockchain technology is not just another productivity enhancing technology that can be taxed at the point of adoption. Blockchains are actively associated with tax avoidance or tax shifting owing to the pseudonymous nature of transactions and the difficulty of establishing the correct jurisdiction for taxation.

This is going to be hard to unravel. As Chris and Sinclair told an Australian parliamentary inquiry in October 2017, blockchain-enabled organisations

are going to be harder to tax than the monolithic firms of the 20th century. We’ve published sceptically about the parliament’s efforts to prevent profit shifting by multinational firms. However, the born-global nature of blockchains will supercharge these trends. We do not believe there will be any easy regulatory solution to this, and parliament will need to rethink not just how it taxes, but what it taxes.

What should government do?

Nakamoto did not develop Bitcoin in a vacuum.

To the extent that government funding of academic mathematicians and cryptographers produced the initial research papers that were subsequently developed into the blockchain, then the early development of this technology was publicly sponsored — but not publicly planned.

Should government do more on the research side?

Let’s first assume that governments are benevolent — call this the public interest model of government.

Many economists, following Kenneth Arrow’s 1962 paper ‘Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention’, argue that the uncertainties and positive social benefits from invention can lead to a market failure in research and development.

It’s not clear that the blockchain has this problem. This is in part because token sales incentivise early adoption. What some people are calling a ‘bubble’ we think is massive experimental investment.

Alternatively, governments could substitute blockchains for their own existing services like the provision of money or property registries.

Governments should pick specific use-cases — such as identity and asset registries, licenses and certification, open government data, reporting and management of government contracts and public assets — then estimate the marginal cost and benefits of investment and adoption of this technology.

These benefits could be huge. For instance, a Bank of England report estimates a 3 percent gain in GDP from issuing a government cryptocurrency.

Other potential government involvement could focus on public goods problems — such as the need for the network communications infrastructure upon which a cryptoeconomy operates (particularly in the developing world).

Governments could also create open access data regimes and registries that can be harnessed and used by cryptoeconomy businesses.

But most fundamentally, governments should invest in high quality legal institutions (regulators, courts, bureaucracies, democratic systems, etc) to provide the cryptoeconomy with the needed predictability, efficiency, transparency, accountability, and efficacy.

But then again…

Why might some countries fail to make the necessary reforms for the blockchain economy? Governments might not know about the benefits or might misunderstand them (bounded rationality or information constraints). Governments might not be able to afford the necessary public investment (financial constraints).

Or we might not trust government enough. There are huge efficiency gains to be made from moving government registries like identity, property titling, tax, voting, central bank coin to the ‘trustless’ blockchain. But to do so itself requires high levels of trust in the government making that change.

This is the paradox: it takes a lot of trust to get to trustlessness. Sweden and Australia will be able to move easily to distributed land title registries. Haiti (where the need for a distributed land title register is much greater) will find it harder.

Governments against blockchains

Radical decentralisation will not always be in the interest of centralised governments.

In the public choice model of government, both governments and citizens have distinct objectives that they seek to maximize.

Citizens trade votes for services. Governments seek to create benefits for themselves (subject to the constraint of getting elected). What citizens want and what governments conflict, resulting in political exchange.

Take blockchain-enabled identity. From the perspective of the government, each citizen ought to have one and only one identity. A single, centralised identity is useful for entitlements and taxation — or conscription.

These centralised identity registrations are co-opted for commercial uses of identity (e.g. to open a bank account, or to rent a car).

But from the citizen perspective this is inefficient, because as identity is owned and managed by the state, they have no control over it, and cannot choose how to permission and share this data. It also creates problems of trust and privacy (for example in health and criminal records).

A decentralized identity would be more efficient, facilitating variety of types of identity for specialized uses and enabling user control. Citizens might want this. Governments do not.

What will other governments do?

Ideally, the approach of governments to the blockchain economy would be both rationally optimal from the perspective of its own citizens, but also a best response to the expected moves of foreign governments — many of which will differ in size, level of economic development, and institutional quality.

For instance, there is no doubt that many tax bureaucracies would like to constrain or control the growth of the cryptoeconomy as it will make taxation harder.

But their success will depend on what other countries as well.Blockchains — and the wealth and relationships on the blockchain — are both everywhere and nowhere.

In this world, it is not obvious what most effective public policy settings will be. There will be heavy learning costs involved. Some governments might rationally decide to delay decision making in order to learn from first-movers who can then be expected to incur costly mistakes in the experimental process of policy settings.

It is possible that larger countries will be much more cautious in adopting cryptoeconomic policies that are significantly divergent from other competing countries.

Alternatively, we could see bilateral or club-like coalitions of strategic investment and public policy harmonization — just as we do with tax and trade treaties.

Private governance and crypto-secession

When governments are particularly oppressive, blockchains can be used to move many aspects of an economy away from central control (identity, contract, money and payments, organization, data, etc). This allows what Trent MacDonald calls nonterritorial secession, or crypto-secession.

In the classic federal model of local public goods, governments competitively provide public goods with different offerings and price points. If an individual prefers a different bundle of public goods, they move to another jurisdiction. If a group of individuals collectively prefers a different bundle of pubic goods, they secede. But to secede, they have to physically move somewhere else, which is costly.

Non-territorial secession allows individuals to choose a different bundle of public goods without having to move. They just opt out of all or part of the government bundle. Crypto-secession is when the new bundle of local public goods is organized, coordinated and delivered through blockchain technology.

What does this mean in practice? An example of such emergent private governance of local public goods might occur at a local or regional level where a group of citizens create a pooling mechanism of social insurance, energy grid, or asset titling management through smart contracts, decentralised applications and distributed autonomous organisations.

This is more likely at the local, regional or city level than that of a nation state because of set-up costs and self-selection. We expect that the adoption of blockchain technology for governance will be a bottom-up phenomenon beginning with small groups.

Blockchains and property rights

Blockchain technology may also disrupt the relationship between government and property rights.

A fundamental question in the economics of law is this: Do property rights originate from the state and are then used by market participants? Or do property rights arise from markets and economic activity, and are thenefficiently enforced by the state?

While the former view (legal-centrism) is the most widely held among law and government scholars, public choice and market institutional economists tend to defend the latter (evolutionary) view.

Cryptocurrencies and crypto-assets provide a test of these competing views. It is not obvious what role the state plays in either creating or enforcing the property right claims over these assets.

One argument is that cryptocurrencies and crypto-assets have emerged entirely outside state jurisdiction and instead occupy a new software-enforced constitutional governance realm. In this strong form view, these are native crypto-property rights from which there is a risk of government predation.

An alternative argument is superficially similar, but allows that this parallel crypto-property rights regime has emerged in-the-shadow-of state law and enforcement. Crypto-property rights will remain in the domain of private law only until there are irreconcilable disputes, at which point there will be a role for government enforcement and sanctions.

This distinction about the origins of property rights matters because while governments provide public goods and support property rights(emphasised by the legal-centric school), they also impose costs by accumulating power (emphasised by the evolutionary school). A crypto-property rights regime will test which of these is more significant.

Creative destruction

Governments may also find themselves addressing the effects of creative destruction in a blockchain economy.

Past experience has shown that governments often end up supporting or compensating those negatively affected by new technology. They also end up making complementary investments such as education and workforce retraining.

The risk is that without such government action those who expect to be harmed by the adoption of a new technology may form political coalitions to block or raise the costs of developing the new technology.

Blockchain technologies face substantial hurdles from incumbents and vested interests that might lobby to slow or outright ban uses of the technology.

Governments may find themselves on both sides of creative destruction, seeking to promote the adoption of blockchains for social welfare maximizing reasons, while at the same time being captured by vested interests seeking protection.

Blockchain public policy

The blockchain is an extremely new technology. There is substantial uncertainty associated with its future uses, adoption levels — even its basic economic properties.

But it will be disruptive. And despite the libertarian, secessionist ethic of the blockchain community, government will be involved, for better or worse.The goal for the blockchain community and for crypto-friendly governments ought to be ensuring that this technology can be adopted in a way that benefits citizens, not rent-seekers.

Byzantine political economy

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post

For more than three decades economists and cryptographers have been working on the same problem.

Neither species has recognised their own work in the other.

But it turns out that the question of how to coordinate a society and how to ensure communication can be trusted is the same question differently phrased.

Our argument in this essay is simple: What cryptographers call byzantine fault tolerance and economists call robust political economy is the same thing.

This observation turns out to have some significant consequences for understanding the history of economic thought and the directions of institutional cryptoeconomics.

But to explain why, let’s quickly revisit one of the most important debates in the history of economics.

The socialist calculation debate

Economists from Adam Smith on have sought to explain the wealth of nations — why some nations are prosperous and others are not. By the twentieth century this debate had coalesced into a debate about which of two economic systems (communist central planning or capitalist decentralised markets) were more likely to bring prosperity.

Smith argued that market societies were characterised by spontaneous orders. Social order came from market incentives.

Karl Marx objected that the state (or some central coordinating authority) could produce superior outcomes to the market through conscious, deliberate planning.

Before the socialist calculation debate the liberal critique of socialism focused on the problem of incentives — how could a socialist community convince people to work hard if the product from their labour was redistributed? (See, for example, the discussion of socialism in Bruce Smith’s 1887 book Liberty and Liberalism.)

In 1920 the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises published Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. In this essay, Mises made a new, fundamental critique of socialist planning — the problem of information.

In a market economy, Mises argued, prices constitute signals about the highest value use of a good or service, providing a guide for what goods were in demand, and which were in a glut.

But a socialist system has no prices. As one of us has described Mises’ argument,

How would [a socialist planner] decide whether to send rubber to Tyre Factory 12 or Hose Factory 7? In a market economy, the factory that needed the rubber most would be willing to pay the highest price. But there is no natural price system in socialism — consumer prices are decided by the planner, and rubber allocated according to their diktat.

Mises’ critique of socialism was extended and elaborated by Lionel Robbins and Friedrich Hayek. Hayek turned this argument into one of the greatest essays in economics: ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, where he described prices as a decentralised knowledge network.

Centralised computer socialism

The Mises and Hayek argument today is well known, particularly after they seemed to be proven right by the fall of the Berlin Wall. By contrast, their opponents in the debate are less read today.

Mises and Hayek’s criticism was answered by the Polish economist Oskar Lange and extended by Hayek’s Russian-born student Abba Lerner.
Lange and Lerner accepted the importance of the price system in organising economic activity. But they argued that this system could be simulated mathematically.

Working firmly in the equilibrium economics school Vilfredo Pareto and Léon Walras, they imagined the price system as computational machine. In On the Economic Theory of Socialism, published first in 1936 and 1937, Lange concluded that a socialist economy could simulate the effect of the price system by trial and error.

Lange revisited his argument 30 years later. “Were I to rewrite my essay today my task would be much simpler”, wrote Lange:

My answer to Hayek and Robbins would be: so what’s the trouble? Let us put the simultaneous equations on an electronic computer and we shall obtain the solution in less than a second. The market process with its cumbersome tâtonnements appears old-fashioned. Indeed, it may be considered as a computing device of the pre-electronic age.

Not only could computers simulate the market but the computer could conduct long range planning and implement that plan — “a function which the market never was able to perform”.

How decentralised is Hayek’s market, really?

It is typical to cast these two visions of the economy as Lange’s centralised planned economy and Hayek’s decentralised market.

But Hayekian decentralisation still has a lot of centralisation in it.

Here the Marxists are right. Free markets have an awful lot of state involvement in them. Property is private but its enforcement relies heavily on public authorities — the legal system courts, sheriffs, police.

But what both the Hayekians and the Marxists missed is that property rights are not only about enforcement. They’re about the identification and verification of property rights. And (right now) the state does most of that.

As we argued in our previous essay, so much of what the modern state does is endorse, manage, and verify ledgers of social relations. The state manages the property titles register. It manages ledgers of social security entitlements. It manages the ledgers of who is a citizen and who can therefore participate in political bargaining.

This is a very big, important, and largely unappreciated function that the state fulfills. The state does is in charge of these crucial ledgers because it is a large ‘trusted’ entity. But of course how much we can trust the state is questionable.

The invention of the blockchain presents us with new institutional choices.

A new typology of political economy

In our new typology of political economy, political ideas are arranged in a grid of centralised and decentralised economies, and decentralised and decentralised ledgers.

In Lange’s computer socialism, the economy is centralised and the ledger is centralised — the state is a planning machine, both managing the ledger and executing a global plan.

In pre-Marxist communalism, such as the scheme devised by the Welsh utopian socialist Robert Owen, economic planning is centralised but the relevant jurisdiction — that is, the ledger-providing authority — consists of subnational groups of voluntary, socialistic communities.

Hayekian distributed capitalism has a decentralised economy — planning is done by individuals rather than the state — yet the state still organises, records, verifies and updates the ledgers of identities, rights, obligations, and entitlements.

By contrast, in a cryptoeconomy both the economy and the ledgers are decentralised. Blockchains take the state out of both planning and verification.

Information and incentives

Markets work because they align incentives into productive work and they harness distributed information productively.

In the second half of the twentieth century the public choice school extended the incentives critique to encompass the incentives of the planners themselves. How could a socialist commonwealth ensure that planners worked in society’s interest, rather than their own personal interest?

Today, what scholars now call a ‘robust political economy’ (see Mark Pennington’s book and this paper by Peter T. Leeson and J. Robert Subrick) is an economic system structured to deal with the twin problems of information and incentives. How can we coordinate action — make exchanges, build relationships and communities — in a world of incomplete information and potential rentseeking?

Turns out, cryptographers and computer scientists have been working on these two problems as well.

The Byzantine Generals’ Problem

Distributed computing systems have to deal with what is known as the Byzantine Generals’ Problem.

This problem was first expressed in 1982. Imagine a Byzantine army surrounding an enemy city.

Illustration from the 12th century Madrid Skylitzes, a history of Byzantium between 811 and 1057

The army consists of divisions, each headed up by a general, and they need to establish a consensus about when exactly to launch their attack on the city.

Centralised command is out of the question. No individual general has line of sight to all the generals — or the authority to impose consensus on the whole army at once. They can only communicate by messenger.

So there’s an information problem. The generals need a system — an algorithm — that allows all generals to agree on a consensus.

The problem is made even harder because it’s not certain that all generals are loyal. Some have been paid off by the enemy, and are actively trying to disrupt the plan. The traitorous generals don’t want the loyal generals to come to a consensus.

Thus Byzantine Generals’ Problem describes the challenge of a) achieving consensus in distributed, decentralised systems b) when information flows imperfectly, and c) in the presence of adversaries.

Blockchains achieve Byzantine fault tolerance in part by treating it as an incentive problem. The Bitcoin proof-of-work mechanism incentivises good behaviour, makes it extremely expensive to attack the network, and reduces the payoffs for a successful attack.

The so-called ’51 per cent’ attack on Bitcoin — the possibility that a majority of hashing power could coordinate and then undermine the network — is what would happen if more than half the generals were traitors. (Of course, that itself would be hard to coordinate.)

Two fields together

A decision to attack a city simultaneously is just a narrow slice of the general economic problem: how to coordinate activity in when information is incomplete, communication is imperfect, and people can be lazy, opportunistic, and self-interested.

What computer scientists have been trying to solve algorithmically, economists have been trying to solve constitutionally.

Where cryptographers have found their solutions in public key cryptography and proof of work mechanisms, economists have found solutions in markets, regulation, and institutions.

Blockchains bring these two fields together. They turn constitutional questions into algorithmic questions, and algorithmic questions into constitutional ones.

Byzantine political economy

One way to see this is as a curious historical instance of two largely unrelated fields (computer science and economics) somewhat simultaneously working on a structurally similar problem (decentralised coordination) and arriving at the same type of solutions (consensus protocols and market institutions).

But a more interesting perspective is that blockchain technology actually joins these worlds together in reality. Blockchains can provide the secure fault tolerant decentralised layer for property rights information and its verification and updating whenever that information changes, which can support a decentralised economic layer of markets.

The socialists were wrong in their hopeful quest that (centralised) computers would replace markets. Actually, it is decentralised computers (blockchains) than can replace governments.

Markets always need governance, and the limits of a market society were always the ability of the state to provide those services of record keeping, validation and verification of transactions in property rights. In return, the state levied taxation to fund these services.

Blockchains are a new technology of fault tolerant governance that can furnish the governance to underpin a market economy and society.

We call this Byzantine Political Economy.

The Blockchain Economy: A beginner’s guide to institutional cryptoeconomics

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

The blockchain is a digital, decentralised, distributed ledger.

Most explanations for the importance of the blockchain start with Bitcoin and the history of money. But money is just the first use case of the blockchain. And it is unlikely to be the most important.

It might seem strange that a ledger — a dull and practical document associated mainly with accounting — would be described as a revolutionary technology. But the blockchain matters because ledgers matter.

Ledgers all the way down

Ledgers are everywhere. Ledgers do more than just record accounting transactions. A ledger consists simply of data structured by rules. Any time we need a consensus about facts, we use a ledger. Ledgers record the facts underpinning the modern economy.

Ledgers confirm ownership. Property title registers map who owns what and whether their land is subject to any caveats or encumbrances. Hernando de Soto has documented how the poor suffer when they own property that has not been confirmed in a ledger. The firm is a ledger, as a network of ownership, employment and production relationships with a single purpose. A club is a ledger, structuring who benefits and who does not.

Ledgers confirm identity. Businesses have identities recorded on government ledgers to track their existence and their status under tax law. The register of Births Deaths and Marriages records the existence of individuals at key moments, and uses that information to confirm identities when those individuals are interacting with the world.

Ledgers confirm status. Citizenship is a ledger, recording who has the rights and is subject to obligations due to national membership. The electoral roll is a ledger, allowing (and, in Australia, obliging) those who are on that roll a vote. Employment is a ledger, giving those employed a contractual claim on payment in return for work.

Ledgers confirm authority. Ledgers identify who can validly sit in parliament, who can access what bank account, who can work with children, who can enter restricted areas.

At their most fundamental level, ledgers map economic and social relationships.

Agreement about the facts and when they change — that is, a consensus about what is in the ledger, and a trust that the ledger is accurate — is one of the fundamental bases of market capitalism.

Ownership, possession, and ledgers

Let’s make a distinction here that is crucial but easy to miss: between ownership and possession.

Take passports. Each country asserts the right to control who crosses its borders, and each country maintains a ledger of which of its citizens have the right to travel. A passport is a physical item — call it a token — that refers back to this ledger.

In the pre-digital world, possession indicated ownership of that right. The Australian passport ledger consisted of index cards held in by the government of each state. Border agents presented with a passport could surmise that the traveller who held it was listed on a distant ledger as allowed to travel. Of course this left border control highly exposed to fraud.

Possession implies ownership, but possession is not ownership. Now modern passports allow the authorities to confirm ownership directly. Their digital features allow airlines and immigration authorities to query the national passport database and determine that a passenger is free to travel.

Passports are a relatively straightforward example of this distinction. But as Bitcoin has shown: money is a ledger, too.

Possession of a banknote token indicates ownership. In the nineteenth century the possessor — ‘bearer’ — of a banknote had a right to draw on the issuing bank the value of the note. These banknotes were direct liabilities for the issuing bank, and were recorded on the banks’ ledger. A regime of possession indicating ownership meant that banknotes were susceptible to be both stolen and forged.

In our era fiat currencies a five dollar bill cannot be returned to the central bank for gold. But the relationship remains — the value of the bill is dependent on a social consensus about the stability of the currency and government that issued it. Banknotes are not wealth, as Zimbabweans and Yugoslavians and Weimar Republic Germans have unfortunately learned. A bill is a call on a relationship in a (now synthetic) ledger and if that relationship collapses, so does the value of the bill.

The evolution of the ledger

For all its importance, ledger technology has been mostly unchanged … until now.

Ledgers appear at the dawn of written communication. Ledgers and writing developed simultaneously in the Ancient Near East to record production, trade, and debt. Clay tablets baked with cuneiform script detailed units of rations, taxes, workers and so forth. The first international ‘community’ was arranged through a structured network of alliances that functioned a lot like a distributed ledger.

The first major change to ledgers appeared in the fourteenth century with the invention of double entry bookkeeping. By recording both debits and credits, double entry bookkeeping conserved data across multiple (distributed) ledgers, and allowed for the reconciliation of information between ledgers.

The nineteenth century saw the next advance in ledger technology with the rise of large corporate firms and large bureaucracies. These centralised ledgers enabled dramatic increases in organisational size and scope, but relied entirely on trust in the centralised institutions.

In the late twentieth century ledgers moved from analog to digital ledgers. For example, in the 1970s the Australian passport ledger was digitised and centralised. A database allows for more complex distribution, calculation, analysis and tracking. A database is computable and searchable.

But a database still relies on trust; a digitised ledger is only as reliable as the organisation that maintains it (and the individuals they employ). It is this problem that the blockchain solves. The blockchain is a distributed ledgers that does not rely on a trusted central authority to maintain and validate the ledger.

Blockchain and the economic institutions of capitalism

The economic structure of modern capitalism has evolved in order service these ledgers.

Oliver Williamson, the 2009 Nobel laureate in economics, argued that people produce and exchange in markets, firms, or governments depending on the relative transactions costs of each institution. Williamson’s transactions cost approach provides a key to understanding what institutions manage ledgers and why.

Governments maintain ledgers of authority, privilege, responsibility and access. Governments are the trusted entity that keeps databases of citizenship and the right to travel, taxation obligations, social security entitlements, and property ownership. Where a ledger requires coercion in order to be enforced, the government is required.

Firms also maintain ledgers: proprietary ledgers of employment and responsibility, of the ownership and deployment of physical and human capital, of suppliers and customers, of intellectual property and corporate privilege. A firm is often described as a ‘nexus of contracts’. But the value of the firm comes from the way that nexus is ordered and structured — the firm is in fact a ledger of contracts and capital.

Firms and governments can use blockchains to make their work more efficient and reliable. Multinational firms and networks of firms need to reconcile transactions on a global basis and blockchains can allow them to do so near-instantaneously. Governments can use the immutability of the blockchain to guarantee that property titles and identity records are accurate and untampered. Well-designed permissioning rules on blockchain applications can give citizens and consumers more control over their data.

But blockchains also compete against firms and governments. The blockchain is an institutional technology. It is a new way to maintain a ledger — that is, coordinate economic activity — distinct from firms and governments.

Blockchains can be used by firms, but they can also replace firms. A ledger of contracts and capital can now be decentralised and distributed in a way they could not before. Ledgers of identity, permission, privilege and entitlement can be maintained and enforced without the need for government backing.

Institutional cryptoeconomics

This is what institutional cryptoeconomics studies: the institutional consequences of cryptographically secure and trustless ledgers.

Classical and neoclassical economists understand the purpose of economics as studying the production and distribution of scarce resources, and the factors which underpinned that production and distribution.

Institutional economics understands the economy as made of rules. Rules (like laws, languages, property rights, regulations, social norms, and ideologies) allow dispersed and opportunistic people to coordinate their activity together. Rules facilitate exchange — economic exchange but also social and political exchange as well.

What has come to be called cryptoeconomics focuses on the economic principles and theory underpinning the blockchain and alternative blockchain implementations. It looks at game theory and incentive design as they relate to blockchain mechanism design.

By contrast, institutional cryptoeconomics looks at the institutional economics of the blockchain and cryptoeconomy. Like its close cousin institutional economics, the economy is a system to coordinate exchange. But rather than looking at rules, institutional cryptoeconomics focuses on ledgers: data structured by rules.

Institutional cryptoeconomics is interested in the rules that govern ledgers, the social, political, and economic institutions that have developed to service those ledgers, and how the invention of the blockchain changes the patterns of ledgers throughout society.

The economic consequences of the blockchain

Institutional cryptoeconomics gives us the tools to understand what is happening in the blockchain revolution — and what we can’t predict.

Blockchains are an experimental technology. Where the blockchain can be used is an entrepreneurial question. Some ledgers will move onto the blockchain. Some entrepreneurs will try to move ledgers onto the blockchain and fail. Not everything is a blockchain use case. We probably haven’t yet seen the blockchain killer app yet. Nor can we predict what the combination of ledgers, cryptography, peer to peer networking will throw up in the future.

This process is going to be extremely disruptive. The global economy faces (what we expect will be) a lengthy period of uncertainty about how the facts that underpin it will be restructured, dismantled, and reorganised.

The best uses of the blockchain have to be ‘discovered’. Then they have to be implemented in a real world political and economic system that has deep, established institutions that already service ledgers. That second part will not be cost free.

Ledgers are so pervasive — and the possible applications of the blockchain so all-encompassing — that some of the most fundamental principles governing our society are up for grabs.
Institutional creative destruction

We’ve been through revolutions like this before.

It is common to compare the invention of Bitcoin and the blockchain with the internet. The blockchain is Internet 2.0 — or Internet 4.0. The internet is a powerful tool that has revolutionised the way we interact and do business. But if anything the comparison undersells the blockchain. The internet has allowed us to communicate and exchange better — more quickly, more efficiently.

But the blockchain allows us to exchange differently. A better metaphor for the blockchain is the invention of mechanical time.

Before mechanical time, human activity was temporally regulated by nature: the crow of the rooster in the morning, the slow descent into darkness at night. As the economic historian Douglas W. Allen argues, the problem was variability: “there was simply too much variance in the measurement of time … to have a useful meaning in many daily activities”.

“The effect of the reduction in the variance of time measurement was felt everywhere”, Allen writes. Mechanical time opened up entirely new categories of economic organisation that had until then been not just impossible, but unimaginable. Mechanical time allowed trade and exchange to be synchronised across great distances. It allowed for production and transport to be coordinated. It allowed for the day to be structured, for work to be compensated according to the amount of time worked — and for workers to know that they were being compensated fairly. Both employers and employees could look at a standard, independent instrument to verify that a contract had been performed.

Complete and incomplete smart contracts

Oliver Williamson and Ronald Coase (who was also an economics Nobel prize winner, in 1991) put contracts at the heart of economic and business organisation. Contracts are at the centre of institutional cryptoeconomics. It is here that blockchains have the most revolutionary implications.

Smart contracts on the blockchain allows for contractual agreements to be automatically, autonomously, and securely executed. Smart contracts can eliminate an entire class of work that currently maintains, enforces and confirms that contracts are executed — accountants, auditors, lawyers, and indeed much of the legal system.

But the smart contracts are limited by what can be specified in the algorithm. Economists have focused on the distinction between complete and incomplete contracts.

A complete contract specifies what is to occur under every possible contingency. An incomplete contract allows the terms of the contract to be renegotiated in the case of unexpected events. Incomplete contracts provide one explanation for why some exchanges take place in firms, and why others take place in markets, and provides a further guide to questions surrounding vertical integration and the size of the firm.

Complete contracts are impossible to execute, while incomplete contracts are expensive. The blockchain, though smart contracts, lowers the information costs and transactions costs associated with many incomplete contracts and so expands the scale and scope of economic activity that can be undertaken. It allows markets to operate where before only large firms could operate, and it allows business and markets to operate where before only government could operate.

The precise details of how and when this will occur is a challenge and a problem for entrepreneurs to resolve. Currently, oracles provide a link between the algorithmic world of the blockchain and the real world, trusted entities that convert information into data that can be processed by a smart contract.

The real gains to be made in the blockchain revolution, we suggest, are in developing better and more powerful oracles — converting incomplete contracts to contracts that are sufficiently complete to be written algorithmically and executed on the blockchain.

The merchant revolution of the middle ages was made possible by the development of merchant courts — effectively trusted oracles — that allowed traders to enforce agreements privately. For blockchain, that revolution seems yet to come.

Whither government?

The blockchain economy puts pressure on government processes in a whole host of ways, from taxation, to regulation, to service delivery.

Investigating these changes is an ongoing project of ours. But consider, for instance, how we regulate banks.

Prudential controls have evolved to ensure the safety and soundness of financial institutions that interact with the public. Typically these controls (for example, liquidity and capital requirements) have been justified by the fact that depositors and shareholders are unable to observe the bank’s ledger. The depositors and shareholders are unable to discipline the firm and its management.

Bank runs occur when depositors discover (or simply imagine) that their bank might not be able to cover their deposits, and they rush to withdraw their money.

One possible application of the blockchain would allow depositors and shareholders to continuously monitor the bank’s reserves and lendings, substantially eliminating the information asymmetries between them and the bank management.

In this world, market discipline would be possible. Public trust in the immutability of the blockchain would ensure no false bank runs occurred. The role of the regulator might be limited to certifying the blockchain was correctly and securely structured.

A more far reaching application would be a cryptobank — an autonomous blockchain application that borrows short and lends long, perhaps matching borrowers with lenders directly. A cryptobank structured algorithmically by smart contracts would have the same transparency properties as the bank with a public blockchain ledger but with other features that might completely neglect the need for regulators. For example, a cryptobank could be self-liquidating. At the moment the cryptobank began trading while insolvent, the underlying assets would be automatically disbursed to shareholders and depositors.

It is unclear what regulatory role government should have in this world.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have argued that much government regulation appears to be designed to resolve asymmetric information problems — problems that, in a world of information ubiquity, often do not exist any more. Blockchain applications significantly increase this information ubiquity, and make that information more transparent, permanent, and accessible.

Blockchains have their uses in what is being called ‘regtech’ — the application of technology to the traditional regulatory functions of auditing, compliance, and market surveillance. And we ought not to dismiss the possibility that there will be new economic problems that demand new consumer protections or market controls in the blockchain world.

Nevertheless, the restructuring and recreation of basic economic forms like banks will put pressure not just on how regulation is enforced, but what the regulation should do.

Whither Big Business?

The implications for big business are likely to be just as profound. Business size is often driven by the need to cover the costs of business hierarchy — in turn due to incomplete contracts and technological necessity of large scale financial investment. That business model has meant that shareholder capitalism is the dominant form of business organisation. The ability to write more complete contracts on the blockchain means that entrepreneurs and innovators will be able to maintain ownership and control of their human capital and profit at the same time. The nexus between operating a successful business and access to financial capital has been weakening over time, but now might even be broken. The age of human capitalism is dawning.

Entrepreneurs will be able to write a valuable app and release it into the “wild” ready to be employed by anyone and everyone who needs that functionality. The entrepreneur in turn simply observe micro-payments accumulating in their wallet. A designer could release their design into the “wild” and final consumers could download that design to their 3D printer and have the product almost immediately. This business model could see more (localised) manufacturing occur in Australia than at present.

The ability of consumers to interact directly with producers or designers will limit the role that middlemen play in the economy. Logistics firms, however, will continue to prosper, but the advent of driverless transportation will see disruption to industry too.

Bear in mind, any disruption of business will also disrupt the company tax base. It may become difficult for government to tax business at all — so we might see greater pressure on sales (consumption) taxes and even poll taxes.

Conclusion

The blockchain and associated technological changes will massively disrupt current economic conditions. The industrial revolution ushered in a world where business models were predicated on hierarchy and financial capitalism. The blockchain revolution will see an economy dominated by human capitalism and greater individual autonomy.

How that unfolds is unclear at present. Entrepreneurs and innovators will resolve uncertainty, as always, through a process of trial and error. No doubt great fortunes will be made and lost before we know exactly how this disruption will unfold.

Our contribution is that we have a clear understanding of a model that can be deployed to provide clarity to the disruption as and when it occurs.

Bitcoin investors should be taxed like any other investor

By Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Despite its name, cryptocurrency isn’t just money. It could also be debt or equity and so it should be regulated and taxed in the same way as other finance.

The tokens investors get when they buy a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, can be used to buy into blockchain startups (businesses that use the same online ledger as cryptocurrencies). When blockchain startups issue shares in their businesses using cryptocurrency, it’s called an initial coin offering. For investors, this is like any other equity investment.

Cryptocurrency can also be used to finance specific assets, like debt. So what we have is a single financial instrument that has the advantages of both debt and equity.

So startups issuing their own tokens for investment purposes should have to comply with the same rules and regulations that startups issuing more traditional instruments must comply with. Cryptocurrency investors should be taxed on the same basis as traditional investors.

Why cryptocurrency is a mix of money, debt and equity

Money is very often defined by its functions: a medium of exchange, a unit of account (used to represent the real value or cost of any economic item), and a store of value (that can be saved, retrieved and exchanged at a later time). The early consensus about Bitcoin among economists is that it’s not money.

At best cryptocurrencies are a medium of exchange. But many economists doubted that Bitcoin, given its volatility, could ever serve as a unit of account, let alone as a store of value.

So if cryptocurrency isn’t money, is has to be something else. It could be an asset of some sort.

Usually if investors acquire or sell an asset, it would be liable to tax, such as the GST. This means people using Bitcoin would be taxed twice when using it.

It would be taxed when the person buys the Bitcoin and taxed again when they used it to buy something. Luckily the federal government realised this was a bad idea and moved to repeal the double taxation of Bitcoin.

Clearly the federal government’s view is that cryptocurrency is not legal tender – so don’t try pay your income tax in Bitcoin anytime soon. And there are important differences between money, specifically legal tender, and cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies tend to strictly rules bound. How they’re created, when they can be earned, how they’re distributed and how many there ever can be, is all determined by rules. In fact, users like strict rules.

By contrast government controlled money is not rules bound. Government employs substantial discretion in exercising control over money. So while the US dollar has the words “In God we trust” printed on it, this system actually requires substantial trust in government.

This trust has been repaid by a substantial reduction of value over the past century. It seems that government-backed money may also be a poor unit of account and store of value.

Debt and equity are financial instruments used to raise money to finance economic activity. It is something of a puzzle to financial economists why firms use debt in some instances to raise finance while using equity in other situations.

An important 1988 paper by the 2009 economics Laureate Oliver Williamson provides a possible answer to that question. Williamson argues that debt, being a strict rules bound financial instrument, is best used to finance general assets, while equity is best used for so-called specific assets. Specific assets are those assets that cannot be cheaply or easily redeployed from their current use to alternate uses without a substantial loss of value.

As it turns out Williamson had speculated about the existence of such an instrument (that he labelled “dequity”) and then rejected that instrument as being unworkable. The reason dequity was unworkable was due to opportunism – investors simply could not trust dequity issuers.

The ledger that cryptocurrencies use – the blockchain – is a actually “trustless” technology because it’s decentralised. It allow users to see each other’s ledgers and transactions, negating the need for a trusted third party to manage risk. Instead it relies on cryptographic verification.

With the absence of the ability for investors to game the system, cryptocurrencies are the dequity Williamson first imagined and it could become an efficient financing mechanism.

How dequity should be regulated

The idea of regulating or taxing cryptocurrency finance may not be to the liking of many crypto-enthusiasts who are likely to argue that traditional rules and regulations are very onerous. They are correct, of course. Yet the solution to over-regulation is not a carve-out for special interests but rather regulatory reform that reduces the burden for all business.

The good news for crypto-enthusiasts is that some governments appear willing to engage in genuine regulatory reform and tax competition to attract investment in this space. For example, the Singaporean government is relaxing existing regulation to accommodate cryptocurrency. Its proposed framework would require applicable companies to obtain a license from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and divides payment activities into several categories.

But regulators should really regulate cryptocurrencies in much the same way as they do existing financial instruments. It shouldn’t be given special treatment.

Despite all the complexity of cryptocurrency it really is simple: it’s a financial instrument that combines all the advantages of money with debt and equity. It’s none of those well known concepts in isolation, but a viable and workable hybrid of all three.

Institutional Cryptoeconomics: A New Model for a New Century

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

While cryptoeconomics is already a vibrant research field, the study of the blockchain must not be left solely to computer scientists and game theorists.

The rollout of blockchain technology raises complex questions in economics, public policy, law, sociology and political economy. What we call “institutional cryptoeconomics” starts from a simple premise – the blockchain is not just a new general purpose technology, it is a new institutional technology.

This may sound like a pedantic distinction, but the difference between these two conceptions is profound. General purpose technologies allow us to do what we already do better, faster and cheaper. Economists understand general purpose technologies (like steam power or the semi-conductor) as great engines of economic growth.

There is no doubt that the blockchain is a general purpose technology, but it is much more.

Rather, the blockchain is a new mechanism to coordinate economic activity and to facilitate cooperation between individuals. It opens up new opportunities for exchange, for collaboration and for building communities that were previously closed off due to high information costs and transactions costs.

As a new institutional technology, we expect that blockchains will disrupt and transform both economic activity and social organization. Institutional cryptoeconomics is a new analytic framework to study that evolutionary process.

In the very first instance, we believe that the transaction costs approach of Oliver Williamson – who won the Nobel in economics in 2009 – is the ideal theoretical framework to understand the blockchain. Williamson was primarily interested in understanding the ‘make’ or ‘buy’ decisions that firms have to resolve.

Is it better the buy inputs on the open market or produce them in-house?

That choice defined the limits of the firm, which in turn determined the incentive structures that decision makers faced.

A key determinant of the limits of the firm is “opportunism” or “self-interest seeking with guile” as Williamson described human behavior.

The combination of opportunism and asset specificity (which refers to how easily an investment can be resold or repurposed for another use) meant that complex economic behavior had to take place in large corporations. This in turn implied the need for substantial financial capital investment.

Thus, we saw the dominance of shareholder capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The blockchain breaks this relationship between size, opportunism and asset specificity.

By substantially eliminating opportunism (that is, being a ‘trustless’ technology), the blockchain allows specific assets to be deployed in small businesses supported not by large amounts of financial capital but by large amounts of human capital. It allows market incentives to deeper penetrate into firm structures resolving problems of team production.

For many industries, the blockchain will radically redefine the boundaries of the firm, allowing individuals to trade their talents and skills in an environment devoid of big business.

The eclipse of the large public firm has been predicted before, of course, but this time we believe those predictions will eventuate for many, if not most, industries.

The decline of shareholder capitalism will have ricochet effects across the economy and society itself. It will put new pressures on employment, inequality, political power and the regulatory state. And it opens up vast new opportunities. The Williamson framework can also help us understand how the blockchain changes – and enhances – the provision of insurance, the provision of public goods, and the provision and protection of identity.

It is often said that we are at the start of a “blockchain revolution.” Institutional cryptoeconomics offers an exciting way to understand what features of the ancien régime we’re about to lose, and what might take its place.

Government must leave encryption alone, or it will endanger blockchain

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

If we could give Malcolm Turnbull one piece of economic advice right now – one piece of advice about how to protect the economy against a challenging and uncertain future – it would be this: don’t mess with encryption.

Earlier this month the government announced that it was going to “impose an obligation” on device manufacturers and service providers to provide law enforcement authorities access to encrypted information on the presentation of a warrant.

At the moment it’s unclear what exactly this means. Attorney-General George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull have repeatedly denied they want a legislated “backdoor” into encrypted devices, but the loose way they’ve used that language suggests some sort of backdoor requirement is still a real possibility.

Hopefully we’ll discover more when the legislation is introduced in the August sitting weeks. Turnbull did say at the press conference “I’m not suggesting this is not without some difficulty”. The government may not have made any final decisions yet.

But before any legislation is introduced, the government needs to understand what the stakes are in as they strive against encryption.

Anything the government does to undermine the reliability of encryption could have deleterious consequences for what we believe will be the engine of economic growth in decades to come: the blockchain protocol.

The blockchain is the distributed and decentralised ledger that powers the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Blockchain constitutes a suite of five technologies: cryptography, a database that can be added to but not altered, peer-to-peer networking, an application of game theory, and an algorithm for ensuring a consensus about what information is held on the ledger.

Taken separately, these are long established technologies and techniques – even mundane ones. But taken together, they constitute an entirely new tool for creating political, economic, and social relationships.

The possibilities far exceed digital currencies. Already banks and other financial institutions are trying to integrate blockchains into their business structures: blockchains drastically reduce the costs of tracking, recording, and verifying transactions. Almost any business or government organisation that is done with a database now can be done more efficiently, more reliably, and cheaper with a blockchain – property registers, intellectual property, security and logistics, healthcare records, you name it.

But these much publicised blockchain applications are just a small taste of the technology’s possibility. “Smart” self-executing contracts and massively distributed organisational structures enabled by the blockchain will allow the creation of new forms of business structures and new ways to work together in every sector and every industry.

In fact, we think that the blockchain is so significant that it should be treated as its own category of human organisation. There are firms, there are markets, there are governments, and now there are blockchains.

But the blockchain revolution is not inevitable.

If there is one key technology in the blockchain, it is cryptography. There are lots of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs playing around with lots of different adaptations of the blockchain protocol, but this one is a constant: the blockchain’s nested levels of encryption are built to ensure that once something is placed on the blockchain it is permanent, immutable, and only accessible to those who own it.

Blockchains only work because their users have absolute confidence that the system is secure.

Any legal restrictions, constraints or hurdles placed on encryption will be a barrier to the introduction of this remarkable new economic technology. In fact, any suggestion of future regulatory challenges to encryption will pull the handbrake on blockchain in Australia. In the wake of the banking, mining and carbon taxes, Australia already has a serious regime uncertainty problem.

Melbourne in particular is starting to see the growth of a small but prospective financial technology industry of which blockchain is a central part. The Australian Financial Review reported earlier this week about the opening of a new fintech hub Stone & Chalk in the establishment heart of Collins St. What’s happening in Melbourne is exactly the sort of innovation-led economic growth that the Coalition government was talking about in the 2016 election.

But the government won’t be able to cash in on those innovation dividends if they threaten encryption: the simple and essential technology at the heart of the blockchain.

The Economics of ZPG

With Jason Potts

In the dystopian 2013 film Elysium, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the earth is badly overpopulated. The society that results is deeply unequal. The haves flee to a luxurious space station orbiting the earth. The have-nots remain on an increasingly polluted and decaying planet, subject to the robotic oppression of the haves in space above them.

The dangers of runaway population growth, and the dangerous society that such growth would create, have been an enduring Hollywood obsession for half a century. Elysium nostalgically recalls a spate of films in the 1970s that predicted overpopulation—and increasingly totalitarian measures of controlling population—from the famous, Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, to the forgettable, ZPG and The Last Child.

Yet in the early twenty-first century it is increasingly clear that if humanity faces a population crisis, it is a crisis not of overpopulation, but underpopulation. Neill Blomkamp derived a sort of crude Marxist vision of capitalism from the overpopulation crisis, depicting workers toiling under oppression to feed the demands of the comfortable and distant rich.

While the economic analysis shown in Hollywood films might be questionable, the idea that dramatic changes in population will have significant economic consequences is not. Today, fertility rates are below replacement level in developed countries like Australia. They are heading in the same direction in the developing world. Nearly fifty years after the American biologist Paul Ehrlich published his book The Population Bomb, sparking off the modern overpopulation panic, it seems more urgent to consider the costs of population stagnation than population explosion.

A society’s demography is shaped by three factors: fertility, ageing and migration. Australian fertility rates were as high as 3.5 in 1961, giving us the baby boom generation. But they sharply declined from those heights, so that by 1980, the fertility rate was 1.9. It has remained there ever since, and the Commonwealth Treasury assumes the fertility rate will remain at 1.9 for some time to come. But this is below replacement rate: that is, the couples of Australia are not reproducing enough to replace themselves.

The second factor is ageing. The Commonwealth government’s Intergenerational Report suggests that life expectancy at birth will increase from its 2015 state of 91.5 years for men and 93.6 years for women, to 95.1 and 96.6 years respectively by 2055. When Joe Hockey said that it was possible that a child born today might live to 150 it was widely seen as a political gaffe but, with the rapid changes in molecular biology, living to 150 is not at all absurd. The sequencing of the human genome, completed in 2003, has been described as the biological equivalent of the development of the table of elements in the nineteenth century, a breakthrough which led to a revolution in chemistry. Placing genetics at the centre of medical practice is almost certain to dramatically change our expectations about longevity and health. Whether Hockey is right or not, the consequence of these trends skews the age distribution so that the Australian population is older.
The countervailing demographic pressure against increased longevity and fertility decline is migration. Simply put, what we no longer produce ourselves we can import. However, our migration intake selects against the highest-fertility population. Policy favours skilled migrants over unskilled migrants, and highly educated migrants over migrants with less education. These are the same populations that are going to be both older and less fertile. The obvious exception to that approach is our refugee intake, but refugee numbers are a tiny subset of the immigration total. Migration expands the population, because while Australia’s fertility is under the replacement rate, the global fertility rate is 2.4. Global fertility was around 5 in 1960. But where Australian fertility has plateaued, global fertility is still on its trajectory of long-term decline. And migrant populations quickly adopt the fertility rates of their new homes.

However, while the mathematics of population decline are fairly straightforward, history shows that untangling the economic consequences of population stagnation or decline is not. Between 1347 and 1351 the Black Death killed between a quarter and a half of Europe’s population, even more in some major centres. Three quarters of the population in Florence may have died in 1348. The plague sparked a century-long population decline across the continent. Where England had a population of 2.8 million people in the 1370s, it had only around 2.3 million in the 1520s.

The plague and the subsequent demographic decline cut short a relative economic boom in the high Middle Ages, which had seen the buds of capitalist exchange, expanding markets, technological development and population expansion. The first economic consequence of the Black Death that historians have long pointed to was its role in rewriting the structure of the labour market. The sudden scarcity of labour pushed the price of wages up dramatically, to the extent that the English parliament attempted to place a maximum ceiling on wages.

This smaller number of workers changed the economic and political leverage of the survivors. Contemporary elites complained about the newly demanding workers, who would refuse to work—or would work poorly—if they were not rewarded the market wage. “So the world goes from bad to worse,” wrote John Gower, a poet and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, “when they who guard the sheep or the herdsmen in their places, demand to be rewarded more for their labour than the master-bailiff used to be.” Labour scarcity broke the traditional peasant–lord relationship, as workers went on the road looking for the best wages and short-term contracts. “Servants are now masters and masters are servants,” complained Gower. Economic power tends to become political power. A sense of the political consequences of this population shift is offered by the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when rural workers reacted to the introduction of a series of poll taxes by forming an army and ransacking government buildings in London. This was a proletarian parallel to the rebellion of the elites that had given England Magna Carta a century and a half earlier, but one which ended unhappily for the rebels.

The long-term consequences of the Black Death were more subtle. Demographic change allowed for rapid institutional innovation as the bonds that maintained the old order were weakened. It has been too common for popular historians to strip the medieval world of agency of its own and imply that only an outside shock—in the form of the bacillus Yersinia pestis—could alter fixed political and economic dynamics. The humans of the medieval world adapted to their new demographic environment in complex ways. The fact that the plague was less severe in some parts of Europe has allowed economic historians to show that even where the population continued to rise, as it did in Holland, wage rates increased in this period. The supply-and-demand relationship between population decline and labour costs does not necessarily mean that in all regions affected by the plague wages increased at a higher rate than in those which avoided the plague. And while Holland fared well in the long run from its relative avoidance of the Black Death, other places which also avoided the plague—such as Prague or Bohemia—did not experience the same sort of economic prosperity as the Low Countries.

This non-linear relationship between demographic change and economic change is not surprising. How societies responded to the consequences of the Black Death depended on their institutional environment: the legal and regulatory framework, the capacity of classes enfranchised and disenfranchised by change to prevent or exploit those changes through the political system, the capital structure of the economy, resource endowments, the depth of market exchange for goods and labour and so on. The Black Death wrought institutional changes that gave us the modern world—institutional changes that were unpredictable to those who lived through the crisis and which historians are still trying to trace. Higher wages moved economic activity towards capital-intensive agriculture and proto-industrialisation, sparking changes in urbanisation and the organisation of guilds and communities. Rather than the short-term effects on the supply and demand for labour, it will be in institutions that we see the long-run significance of modern population change.

This captures one of the essential errors in much of the popular debate about the consequences of population change. A strictly mathematical approach to population analysis—fertility plus migration equals population—transposed onto the current political order does not capture the institutional evolution that would result from the trends. In the January 1977 edition of Quadrant, the Liberal gadfly W.C. Wentworth derived the consequences of population change from such an accounting of fertility rates, concluding, “There may be serious doubts as to how many can really live well on the limited surface of the globe.” Decades on, in the wake of the digital and agricultural revolution, it is clear that such negativity was unjustified.

The direct economic consequences of a declining population could be a slow increase in the price of labour, as occurred suddenly in the years after the Black Death. As the scarcity will be concentrated in the younger population, these price increases will be particularly for work which has traditionally been performed by the young, including service jobs and unskilled manual labour. Technology allows for some substitution, and higher labour costs encourage development in further innovation. Existing tendencies towards automation of labour—encouraged by the demands of consumption and the prohibitive strictures of industrial relations laws—will be accelerated. Every Australian suburb now has a vision of the future in the McDonald’s automated ordering system, and it is easy to imagine further automation of service industries that were once believed to be immune.

More diffuse economic consequences of population stagnation will be delivered through the political system. All else being equal, an older population means that the interests of older citizens will be better reflected in public policy. We are already seeing some of the direct political economy consequences of an ageing population. Much current public policy tends to favour older rather than younger people. One of the most harmful is the restrictions on land use that benefit established home-owners over possible new entrants to the housing market. Both controls on urban development and limits on land release raise the price of housing by creating artificial scarcity. This works out very well for home-owners but terribly for those who want to enter the housing market for the first time. These sorts of policy-induced housing shortages ultimately divert capital away from more productive investments—Australians end up using more of their wealth for what could otherwise be much cheaper—with long-term consequences for living standards.

Other political economy consequences could be less harmful—even beneficial. High rates of population growth distort the political system towards the interest of its younger members. For instance, while the overwhelming benefit of education accrues to the person who is being educated, governments have long paid the bulk of education expenses out of taxpayer funds. This over-subsidisation of education may be reduced as the population skews older. Wasteful or unnecessary family payments are less likely to be tolerated by an older population that does not feel it receives direct benefits from these funds. On the flip side, that older population will be much more protective of generous pension schemes and health subsidies. A rebalancing between older and younger generations is likely to lead to more social spending rather than less. Pensions are a far larger drain on the Commonwealth budget than family payments, and the cause of market-oriented reform in healthcare provision is much less advanced than in education. While the shape of social spending will change, population stagnation is more likely to increase that spending rather than decrease it.

We have already hinted at some of the causes for optimism. One approach might be to use policy to reverse negative trends. In the overpopulation dystopias of the 1970s, Big Brother governments took it upon themselves to limit breeding or eliminate the elderly. Governments have long been aware of the declining fertility rate and, particularly under the Howard government, sought to align policy incentives to encourage people to have more children through baby bonuses and tax benefits. However, the downsides of using the political and legal system to influence the demographic profile of the population are substantial. Obviously those dystopias imposed huge costs of the rights of the citizenry, and the one-child policy in China has had enormous human costs. The modest family payments designed to boost fertility in Australia are subject to the same inefficiencies, churn, opportunities for rent-seeking and politically motivated subsidisation as any other part of the welfare system.

We see more reasons for optimism in the development of healthcare technologies that might both lower the cost of providing healthcare services to an ageing population, and also allow an ageing population to work more productively. The net effect is that an ageing population becomes less of an economic burden on the rest of society, requiring fewer resource transfers.

There are multiple sources of such technologies. At the biomedical level, enormous improvements in new biotechnologies such as personalised genomics may significantly improve the effectiveness of targeted medicines. The breakthrough gene-editing technology CRISPR may dramatically reduce the incidence of chronic genetic diseases and improve our ability to repair diseases of senescence. Very large falls in the cost of wearable personal monitoring technology and the internet-of-things may greatly improve access to healthcare and increase the incidence of low-cost early interventions. Personal robotics may facilitate greater ability for the ageing to continue to live independently, both as providing services that range from robot vacuum cleaners and quadcopter drones for delivery, which already affordably exist, to robotic assistants (imagine the Artificial Intelligence platform Siri on Apple’s iPhone coupled with industrial robots), to driverless cars (which already exist), to personal exoskeletons, which are in use in the US military. This list can go on and on, and while there are certainly high development costs, the economics of mass adoption and market competition will drive these costs down.

Such benefits do not depend on a special class of technologies for the ageing and elderly, but are adaptations of general-purpose technologies (for instance gene-editing techniques, big-data, industrial robotics, and so forth) that are subsequently applied to particular and growing market segments. We can rely on the market mechanism and profit-seeking entrepreneurs to figure out how to adapt new general-purpose technologies to create value by improving the lives of an ageing population. Many such benefits can be expected to maintain health, well-being and independent functionality to enable continuing participation in society and contribution to the economy.

Of course, a longer working life is not just a joy for the federal Treasurer; it is also a very good thing for each individual person because it means a higher level of income and freedom, which in turn means greater independence and ability to consume. Working longer is a good thing not because work is a good thing—although there are surely benefits from increased social and community engagement that come from gainful employment. Working longer is good because more production means more consumption. These higher levels of income and consumption may be spent on travel and experiences, higher quality of living, on family, or on greater levels of healthcare or even enhancement.

These causes for optimism are dependent on current trends in innovation holding true. It is equally obvious to observe that an ageing society will experience second-order effects that can reasonably be expected to dampen the rate of innovation and technological change. These are effects that go directly to the underlying incentives to develop the new general-purpose technologies mentioned above, rather than the specific adaptations of these innovations to the needs of the elderly.

The first is that an ageing population has a different overall risk-reward profile than a younger population, particularly among males. The young of all species (and not just humans) have a higher risk-taking propensity because they are engaged in mate competition. We’re wired this way. This increased risk-taking propensity can be destructive when it is channelled into fighting, raiding and warfare. But a great benefit of a free-market society, as economists from Adam Smith to Joseph Schumpeter to Deirdre McCloskey have pointed out, is that there are substantial pay-offs to society when this competitive instinct is harnessed towards entrepreneurial action to create and develop new ideas—whether great artworks, new technologies or new products.

Entrepreneurship and innovation are risky. But when they succeed they furnish substantial benefits for many, and possibly a great many. The US economist William Nordhaus estimated that entrepreneurs only capture (as Schumpeterian profits) about 2 per cent of the social value of their innovations. That means that 98 per cent spills over to society as consumer surplus. But other economists such as Edmond Phelps have pointed out that the net private return to innovation is actually pretty close to zero. This should not be surprising. Most entrepreneurial endeavours to develop new technologies, companies and innovations fail. The few that succeed in effect balance the many that fail, such that there is a Pareto distribution of returns. But because most of the value of an innovation spills over as consumer surplus, the social returns to innovation are everywhere substantially higher than the private returns. (Another way of saying this is that innovation has public good qualities, or can be subject to market failure.) One of the great benefits a society with a young population experiences is its high natural propensity toward risk-taking entrepreneurship, and the associated social benefits that brings. Equivalently, one of the great although often hidden costs of an ageing population is the loss of entrepreneurial dynamism. Along with this comes an increased tendency to seek political solutions rather than market solutions to social problems, which further drives an economy towards rent-seeking.

A second and related point that further constrains innovation in an ageing society is that the basic economics of investment returns to innovation are different. Specifically, in respect of the costs of adopting new technologies the discount rate for a younger population is lower than an ageing population. This is for the simple demographic expedient that an older population has less time to amortise the costs of developing and adopting a new technology and also less time to receive and accumulate the benefits. In short, because the costs to innovation are upfront while the benefits accrue through time, innovation is simply more expensive when you have less expected life in front of you. Now the elderly might actually care not just about themselves, but also about the future welfare of their children and grandchildren and so on, creating what economists call an infinite overlapping generation model. But without such an assumption, or some attempt to engineer it through the tax system, an ageing population will rationally invest less in innovation.

A third observation follows from these two and connects the types of economic institutions that a democratic society will choose when the population is relatively younger and growing or older and stable or shrinking. One of us has written recently about why the mass leisure society that John Maynard Keynes famously envisaged in his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” has never come to pass, by emphasising that the sorts of economic institutions of a wealthy prosperous society are those that encourage entrepreneurship and innovation and not just consumption. But this same argument also runs the other way. As we have noted above, the sorts of economic institutions that a zero population growth society chooses are likely to be geared towards political redistribution of economic resources. These institutions require higher taxes, which penalise entrepreneurial action and therefore blunt the rewards to innovation.

An ageing society tending towards zero population growth also risks tending towards zero economic growth because of the harmful consequences on the supply of entrepreneurship and innovation, because of its effect on risk preferences and on investment, and also on the way such a demographic transition will likely distort economic institutions away from a liberal market ideal. In the long run, it is hard to say whether these headwinds on general-purpose entrepreneurship, innovation and new technology are likely to dominate the more optimistic tailwind scenarios on the specific application to the problems and opportunities of an ageing population.

An obvious class of solution is to recognise that an ageing zero-growth population will create increased pressure on political solutions to economic problems, and therefore to seek to constitutionally head that off by constraining and limiting the powers of politicians to offer political solutions. Privatising more of the healthcare system would be a start. Our institutions need to be capable of adapting to the consequences of ageing and population stagnation—consequences which are now unpredictable. Allowing for greater market control of social services will provide such adaptability. The fragility of medieval society to the Black Death and its demographic aftermath was not only technological and medical: medieval markets were shallow, meaning that resources could only slowly reallocate to new uses, if at all.

Another class of solution follows from the diagnosis of the intergenerational nature of the innovation problem. Innovation requires both an entrepreneurial risk appetite and liquid resources. A young population has much of the former, and an older population has more of the latter. If pension funds were able to function more effectively as venture capital funds, that would be a step in the right direction. For instance, financial regulations designed to protect investors by constraining pension fund investments to say ASX30 listed companies stand in the way of such reform.

But the most important factor is the importance of maintaining an open economy with free and easy movement of people, resources, capital and ideas. If risk preference and investment in creating new ideas and innovations will decline in a zero population growth economy, then it becomes critical to be able to import new ideas from elsewhere. This will also be true of gaining access not just to technologies but also to services offered in other countries. Perhaps certain types of regenerative therapies or surgeries will be developed in Singapore or the Philippines. It may not matter much if they are not invented, produced or delivered in Australia, provided Australians have access to them, through having produced things of value that we can exchange for them. This is where the importance of continued participation in the labour force matters.

A zero population growth economy will impose substantial challenges on Australia in the future. It is not the ecological utopia that some imagine, but nor is it likely to be a Marxist dystopia. It will make us all poorer. And it will do so in significant part because of its effect on entrepreneurship and innovation. But these consequences can be mitigated by sensible and far-sighted commitment not to allow the harms to happen. Maintaining an open economy, constraining government growth with commitment to free-market institutions, will go a long way towards allowing us to live well as population growth slows.