Libertarians are very excited about new technologies, such as cryptocurrencies, for their potential to shift power from the government and corporations to individuals. There is something about this that hasn’t sat right with me, though. I once had a conversation at a liberty event with an acquaintance of mine. Earlier that day we had seen a presentation about some new blockchain based commerce system. One advertised feature was the ability to vote on what sorts of activity would be banned on the platform. My attitude was, “Great, no endangering children, no nuclear weapons”. But my acquaintance was put off by the idea of any sort of control. In his mind, if we ban nukes today we will ban weed tomorrow and be right back where we started.
The Libertarian Proposition
The first thing I would ask is, what is the libertarian proposition? Do we want a world with people totally uninhibited in their behavior? Or do we just want regulation to happen along voluntary lines, respecting each person’s body and property? I would say that the former is a naive interpretation, often attributed to us by others, while the latter is the proper description. However, in reality libertarians are in tension. Though we recognize the proper place for voluntary regulation, there is fear that it could turn into an oppressive anarcho-capitalist hellscape, with contractual stipulations at every turn. Something that resembles feudalism more than capitalism. We need to be able to slip through the cracks at least a little bit. There is also fear that any mechanism that can regulate us voluntarily could expose us to involuntary regulation from the state, so long as the state exists. Thus the more power an individual has, the better.
What I want to stress here is the dangers of an extreme where people are able to escape all consequences. While this has always been possible to some extent, I fear that this new technology is heading in the direction of making escape all the more possible, while increasing the potency of what can be conducted in the shadows. At least, that is what is demanded of it, in response to the threat of an ever imposing state. I don’t know if I would say that we as humans are inherently evil, but I think that we are evil enough that I would not want to see what would happen if we lost all social feedback.
Evasive technology can help people hide from or even resist the government. The problem is that it is also great for hiding from and resisting everybody else. Is this the ideal technology we want around if we finally achieve a free society? I would propose that in a free society, ideally things would be less secretive, since the corrective forces that exist would not be a single massive force that we fear overpowering us. Indeed, part of our argument for freedom is social and market self-correction.
So what can we do? Perhaps we can design this freedom-protecting technology with these dangers in mind. Perhaps we can include mechanisms of self-correction in the technologies without exposing ourselves to correction by concentrated interests. Let’s look at some current technologies and evaluate them by this standard.
Personal Firearms: Guns can be used to defend ourselves against foes, big and small. They can also be used for evil. However, the amount of potential evil is limited, as they are generally loud and leave behind evidence. Furthermore, it is an inherently self-correcting technology, in that good people with guns can limit the potential of bad people with guns. Proliferation looks like a good idea.
Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear weapons could potentially be used for defense against large foes. They are also impossible to use in secret. However they are only useful as a self-correcting force against actors interested in self preservation. Proliferation is probably a very bad idea.
Cryptocurrencies: The selling point of Bitcoin is that it cannot be stopped by governments and corporations. This has come just in time to circumvent censorship, it would seem. Zcash will protect us even further. Unlike a Swiss bank account, there is nobody to pressure politically. Unlike gold or cash, there is nothing physical to hide and transport. I will admit I am excited by this. I want privacy for my ethical transactions.
But let’s be clear: as this technology improves, the closer to impossible it will be to catch people who use it for things like human trafficking or terrorism. A common response is to point out that cash has always been available for evil use. But this stuff is much more powerful than cash, otherwise nobody would be clamoring for it.
Cash: But okay, let’s talk about cash. Compared to credit arrangements, barter, or a local community currency, universal cash is liquid and impersonal. This is great for freedom (not to mention efficiency). It is also a little alienating, and removes a certain moral element in your transnational decisions. Cash flows in and out of your pocket. “It’s just business”. And crypto just seems to take all of this further.
Secure Communication: Analogously to currency, people have always been able to conspire in person. Allowing people to do so across great distances increases the conspirators’ power, for better or for worse.
Dark Markets – Silk Road had a moral compass. Certain goods and services (such as stolen goods and violent services) were banned. But there is always the possibility of other markets coming to fill that gap. OpenBazaar is an altogether decentralized marketplace, which I would think implies having no rules, though I am not sure how strong the anonymity is right now.
Brainstorming Future Technology
Among the above, it seems that firearms are the only technology with a built-in social self-correcting mechanism. What would a self-correcting mechanism look like for these new technologies? I should note that this is not a matter of “striking a balance” between power and vulnerability. Rather, we need to be designing technology that makes us vulnerable to the right sort of corrective forces, yet powerful enough to resist the wrong sort. Here, I will propose a few ideas that may or may not reach this ideal. These ideas are probably impractical. They are even heretical. But this is for the sake of brainstorming, and not to be taken as complete proposals.
One option I highlighted in the opening. If there’s some way of discerning what sort of activity is happening on the platform, and there’s some decentralized way of controlling it, perhaps we could put it up to a vote. Maybe the system should be designed for a 99.9% vote to stop some activity, or even to freeze a particular participant’s crypto account. This may strike you as recreating a democratic state, but the platform does not represent the society as a whole. It is merely a tool, and there is always the possibility for switching to a new tool if it becomes overly restrictive.
Somebody involved with OpenBazaar once told me that it would be possible to write a client that refused to serve certain advertisements. Perhaps that should be standard issue. I would go further and say that perhaps the protocol could be designed such that all participants facilitate in searches, and each participant can choose which search results to block. In this way, each person is individually responsible for their contribution and its moral consequences. No powerful organization, yet a strong social check.
LBRY is a blockchain-based media distribution platform that pays content creators and nodes with its cryptocurrency LBC. LBRY’s protocol is designed to prevent censorship, but the official client has content blacklists in place, including for copyright infringement. However, it is possible to run a different version of the client which ignores the blacklist. Perhaps there is a way to make the blacklisting work at the protocol level. Again, perhaps each participant could, based on which version of the software they run, choose which class of items to blacklist. And perhaps an item would be entirely blacklisted if fewer than 0.1% of participants want it there.
For encrypted communication, an interesting dynamic comes up when discussing secure messaging. Everybody knows that the NSA can get ya if they really want. Just how much they have to want to get you is a function of how secure the messenger and your operating system are. It also costs the NSA to show their hand on what they are capable of. You could argue that this allows the NSA to go after the worst offenders while leaving the rest of us alone. This of course is not very palatable to libertarians, as we do not tend to trust any concentrated interests to decide who is a “worst offender”, but it is a model we may want to keep in mind. Perhaps the protocol could be designed to unmask a certain communication with enough hashing power by enough independent participants.
All this new technology excites me but it scares me to death. These are the possible futures I can see:
- The libertarian project fails for unrelated reasons
- Technology begins to free us, but facilitates such overwhelming evil that the people will clamor for the state to destroy the technology
- Technology frees us, but we are kept awake at night with background knowledge of evil in the shadows that we will never reach
- We find technology that frees us while preventing evil from using it very much
As I participate in the libertarian project, I hope I can encourage others to consider these things more carefully and target this fourth vision.