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Featured Archives: Real Crypto-Anarchy

By Oleg Andreev
December 28, 2015


Crypto-anarchy is not some crazy utopian ideology, but a very viable thing that unfolds in front of our eyes this very moment. The Internet and Bitcoin will soon allow people solve social problems in a novel way: instead of ancient formula “the strongest wins and beats the shit out of the loser” we all can achieve a peaceful society where both rich and poor, strong and weak can protect their property and freedom on more equal grounds without relying on violent institutions like governments.

But first, lets start with some history.

Cypherpunk movement started as a mailing list in 1992. In 1993 Eric Hughes publishes a “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto” [1]. In 1994 Timothy C. May publishes “Cypherpunks FAQ” [2].

Here’s an excerpt from the FAQ:

2.3. “What’s the ‘Big Picture’?”

Strong crypto is here. It is widely available. It implies many changes in the way the world works. Private channels between parties who have never met and who never will meet are possible. Totally anonymous, unsinkable, untraceable communications and exchanges are possible.

Transactions can only be voluntary, since the parties are untraceable and unknown and can withdraw at any time. This has profound implications for the conventional approach of using the threat of force, directed against parties by governments or by others. In particular, threats of force will fail.

What emerges from this is unclear, but I think it will be a form of anarcho-capitalist market system I call “crypto anarchy.” (Voluntary communications only, with no third parties butting in.)

In 1994 Nick Szabo coins the term “smart contract” [3] and describes all use case categories that are talking about today: from digital cash to synthetic financial assets and smart property.

In 1998 Wei Dai & Nick Szabo came up with the ideas for “b-money” [4] and “bit gold” [5] during their conversation on the libtech-l mailing list. Wei Dai captured the essence of the movement in an immortal quote:

I am fascinated by Tim May’s crypto-anarchy. Unlike the communities traditionally associated with the word “anarchy”, in a crypto-anarchy the government is not temporarily destroyed but permanently forbidden and permanently unnecessary. It’s a community where the threat of violence is impotent because violence is impossible, and violence is impossible because its participants cannot be linked to their true names or physical locations.

In 1999 Nick Szabo coins term “intrapolynomial cryptography” [6] for the entirety of proof-of-work algorithms and describes what we call now a “private blockchain”, a chain of property ownership enforced by a consensus of “property club” members [7]. The latter article is especially valuable today as it explicitly states that the job of voting in the consensus mechanism is used only for secure execution of the agreed-upon rules and database replication, but not for changing the rules themselves.

In 2004 Hal Finney implements a RPOW server [8] (“Reusable proof of work”) inspired by the bit gold proposal. The RPOW scheme uses a secure processing module that simultaneously acts as a mint and as a custodian for the ledger of proof-of-work tokens.

In late 2008 Satoshi Nakamoto publishes an overview of Bitcoin [9] and on January 3rd, 2009 releases the code and begins the blockchain.

Bitcoin is the exact implementation of the system envisioned by Tim C. May, Wei Dai and Nick Szabo. The only requirement is for transacting parties to remain anonymous. If there’s no trace to physical persons, there is no place for the violent intervention and thus the contracts can only be enforced according to the voluntarily agreed-upon rules between the parties. Bitcoin allows encoding these rules right in the transactions so they are automatically enforced by the whole network.

In practice, we cannot imagine living in full anonymity. Human beings live in a physical world and enjoy a lot of physical things. Anonymity is not something you can easily manage like a single encryption key. It must be maintained via careful dissemination of one’s actions among actions of others. And since the network activity is easily recordable, one mistake is enough to reveal oneself. In other words, the cost of anonymity is rather high compared to the benefits. Does this mean crypto-anarchy is an utopia?

I would argue, it’s far from it. Cypherpunks being rigorous scientists made a much stronger assumption than needed in practice. For transacting parties it is enough to have costs of cheating (e.g. resorting to violent coercion) meaningfully higher than the cost of following the contract (that is, keeping the promise). If that condition holds for the majority of interactions in society, there will be a great incentive for people to protect themselves against remaining rare cases of cheating thus keeping the system sustainable. Anonymity is simply one of the ways to raise the cost of the attack.

Bitcoin raises the cost of many kinds of attacks, going far beyond protecting against central banks meddling with money supply.

First, all sorts of computational services will flourish. Machines never need to disclose their physical locations and can freely automate both payment verification and payments themselves. Denial-of-service and spam can be largely eliminated by simply requiring a smallish payment for every request.

Second, personal services can be protected by peer-to-peer insurance deposits [8] that literally raises the cost of cheating by making both parties agree to a greater sacrifice (“bilateral insurance deposit”).

In a similar manner, crowdfunding can be fully insured by allowing raised funds to be reverted if the majority of shareholders decides to do so.

Finally, systemic predation by the state becomes economically impossible. Most modern states fund themselves by debasing money supply (also known as “bond issuance”, “budget deficit”, “inflation”, “quantitative easing”, “stimulus package”). Bitcoin-based economy simply does not allow this as it is very cheap to store bitcoins and verify transactions yourself and completely avoid all kinds of fraud associated with modern banking. As central banking disappears from the state’s arsenal, federal government activities including wars become unfunded and quickly come to an end.

Local governments may continue their operations funded by local taxes, but that would become increasingly voluntary. Extracting bitcoins costs much more than protecting them. There is no highly centralized and monitored banking network, so it’s much harder to track taxable transactions. Every additional tax evader defunds the local police department and makes it safer for the next person to underreport earnings if he wishes to do so. Considering that the law enforcement is paid only a small portion of the total budget to be extracted (50% goes to bureaucrats and the rest to other public services), consistently extracting bits of information from millions of individuals is unsustainable in the long run. If anyone is good at stealing bitcoins, they are much better off doing it alone and taking all profits for themselves.

Governments, of course, can also tax in kind (like your underreported Ferrari or a house), but this would be even costlier than seizing any kind of money and those costs must be paid by the state in bitcoins that it does not have to start with.

If this speculation does not sound to you like a complete lunacy yet, here is the fun part. Most governments are completely broke already and can only pay with the IOUs they print. When people start a massive run for bitcoins to protect their wealth, everyone will be able to earn bitcoins for their work, except those who work for the government. Policemen, public school teachers and alike will be the first ones to notice prices rising faster than their salaries. They will be the first ones to switch jobs or become largely corrupt on all levels, like it was in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Bureaucrats will smell the approaching panic and, instead of trying to retain control over the employees, will privatize as much public goods as possible. Again, exactly like during the fall of the Soviet Union. People will see how all promised public services are either abandoned or stolen, and this time everyone will have a method to protect their own property and do business voluntarily and in an even safer and cheaper way than before. Crypto-anarchy will quickly become a boring reality without the need for anyone to remain fully anonymous.










UPDATE on March 22, 2016: correct attribution and timeline for Nick Szabo’s proposals.

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