Vinay Gupta: So, what I’m going to be talk­ing about today is whether we can get rid of the world’s third-oldest pro­fes­sion, which is bureau­crat. And specif­i­cal­ly the bureau­crats that han­dle resource allo­ca­tion for our soci­eties. Everybody thinks of bureau­crats as being kind of a neu­tral force. But I’m going to make the case that bureau­crats are in fact a very strong­ly neg­a­tive force, and that automat­ing the bureau­crat­ic func­tions inside of our soci­ety is nec­es­sary for fur­ther human progress. And this is a fair­ly auda­cious kind of a claim, so I’m gonna take it very slow­ly and we’ll see whether you agree with where I’m going, kind of one step at a time.

I’m also going to talk quite a lot about blockchains and Bitcoin and stuff like this. So I want to start by ask­ing does every­body here know rough­ly called Bitcoin is? Okay, so most of you’ve got a rough idea of Bitcoin. What about blockchain as some kind of tech­nol­o­gy which is sep­a­rate from Bitcoin? Yeah? Okay. So, smart con­tract? Few peo­ple for smart con­tracts. So I’ll take the tech­ni­cal part fair­ly gen­tly, and if we get into ter­rain that nobody under­stands, please raise your hands, let me know, and I’ll explain the con­cept. But I’m going to try and make sure that I go slow­ly enough that all of this comes along because the the­sis is rad­i­cal so the deliv­ery should be conservative.

So, blockchain ver­sus bureau­crat. Four top­ics that we’re going to cov­er. What is a blockchain? What is a bureau­crat? What is trans­paren­cy? And what are our options?

First top­ic. Basically we’ve gone through rough­ly forty years of real­ly full-on inno­va­tion in soft­ware. 1970s, we spent basi­cal­ly twen­ty years get­ting every­body’s head around data­bas­es. And what it pro­duces is the mod­ern orga­ni­za­tion­al form that we all know and hate, which is the giant silo. And the giant silo runs every­thing in your soci­ety. It’s your health­care data­bas­es, your edu­ca­tion data­bas­es, your gov­ern­ment data­bas­es. It’s every com­pa­ny you deal with. Its most sci­en­tif­ic research projects. It’s con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems. You know what this looks like.

1990s, we come along and we spend basi­cal­ly twen­ty years crank­ing through what hap­pens when we begin to intro­duce net­works into the mix. So, the Internet gets start­ed. The first access that I have to the Internet is on a machine that has a text-only screen that looks like this, in about 92 or 93, using a tech­nol­o­gy called Usenet, which to this day is still the best infor­ma­tion deliv­ery expe­ri­ence I’ve ever had. Because Usenet in those days was only filled with smart peo­ple. And it was a text-only medi­um so peo­ple real­ly worked on their lan­guage. It’s an amaz­ing medi­um but very nar­row and specific.

The prob­lems that we have in soci­ety are large­ly tech­nol­o­gy cre­at­ing eco­nom­ics cre­at­ing cul­ture. So the prob­lem of data­bas­es talk­ing to oth­er data­bas­es over the net­work has nev­er been ade­quate­ly solved. Every few years there’ll be anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of pro­posed solutions—EDI, XML, [WEDI?], SOAP, REST, Ajax, XML-RPC, autonomous agents. 

This goes round and round and round and round. It nev­er comes to a real con­clu­sion. Because data­bas­es were nev­er made to inter­op­er­ate. Each data­base has a mod­el of the world embed­ded with­in it and that’s the mod­el of the world of the orga­ni­za­tion that owns the data­base. And data­bas­es store what that orga­ni­za­tion con­sid­ers to be fact.

On the net­work, every­thing that you hear on the net­work is basi­cal­ly hearsay. It’s gos­sip. And so tak­ing exter­nal stuff (which is basi­cal­ly gos­sip and it’s in some­body else’s world mod­el) into the silo at the heart of your orga­ni­za­tion is basi­cal­ly much more like get­ting a brain trans­plant than it is like learn­ing some­thing. Because our tech­nol­o­gy is very crude. 

So the result of this is that even in a net­worked soci­ety, all of your per­son­al infor­ma­tion is in silos. And all of the silos belong to peo­ple that won’t talk to each oth­er. So it’s extreme­ly hard for you to make a change in your life and have that change prop­a­gate through your envi­ron­ment. When you move house you have to reen­ter your address in sev­en and a half thou­sand dif­fer­ent sys­tems. And each one of those orga­ni­za­tions prob­a­bly has 300 copies of your address. And the result is this kind of end­less night­mare of human beings inputting the same data over and over and over again into tire­less machines, and thus entire­ly a tech­no­log­i­cal arti­fact. It does­n’t real­ly kill any­body? So it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly impor­tant, but it’s a sign of deep, under­ly­ing per­va­sive dysfunction.

So, last ten years or so there’s been anoth­er wave of kind of redis­cov­ery of cryp­tog­ra­phy, large­ly around this thing called Bitcoin. And the blockchain tech­nol­o­gy that under­lies Bitcoin is sim­ply a data­base that works like a net­work, or a net­work that looks like a data­base. And Bitcoin takes that con­cept and builds a sin­gle appli­ca­tion on top of it which is a cur­ren­cy. And it proves that the tech­nol­o­gy works. It proves that it can store infor­ma­tion secure­ly. Everybody is very hap­py with it…apart from the peo­ple that think that only cen­tral banks should be able to issue cur­ren­cy. And you get this enor­mous kin­da Cambrian explo­sion of exper­tise in soft­ware, because enough peo­ple make enough mon­ey doing Bitcoin stuff that they can then go off and work on their own projects.

And one project that came about that way is the thing called Ethereum, which imple­ments a thing called a smart con­tract. And a smart con­tract is where we take a piece of soft­ware and we store it in a blockchain data­base. So the blockchain ensures that every­body sees the same ver­sion of the soft­ware. And because com­put­ers are pre­dictable, if every sin­gle one of us runs the same piece of soft­ware in the same envi­ron­ment, we’ll all get the same results. And the result of that is that if you’ve got soft­ware inside of a blockchain, and you’ve got a kind of pre­dictable, secure way of run­ning the soft­ware, what comes out of this is con­sen­sus about what the soft­ware does.

So we can take a piece of code. We can all run the piece of code. We can all agree on the con­clu­sion. And as a result we can per­form com­pu­ta­tion that’s done at a soci­etal lev­el rather than with an indi­vid­ual run­ning the com­pu­ta­tion and then telling you what the results are and ask­ing you to trust them.

So this is a very, very, very ear­ly imple­men­ta­tion of a kind of kind of gen­uine­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic soft­ware. Because every­body shares in the com­pu­ta­tion, every­body shares the result, and you can have con­fi­dence across the whole of a soci­ety that this is what the soft­ware does and this is what the soft­er says. 

And that real­ly has­n’t hap­pened before. The old mod­el is that the soft­ware runs in the silo and the peo­ple that run the silo tell you what the soft­ware says. If the com­put­er says no, that’s the end of the sto­ry. In open source soft­ware, this is mod­i­fied a lit­tle bit. If the com­put­er says no, at least you could exam­ine the source code and find out why it said no. But you still have all the issues around secu­ri­ty and trust about the hard­ware it runs on and the rest of this kind of stuff.

So the notion that you could have soft­ware that runs for the ben­e­fit of a soci­ety that the entire soci­ety can par­tic­i­pate in and audit, this is new stuff. And I think that that has got­ten obscured a lit­tle bit under­neath the ear­ly press around blockchains and Bitcoin. There is a lot of con­fu­sion about what does it all mean and how does it all fit togeth­er. But these under­ly­ing lessons have become clear­er as the stuff grows more mature. 

Now, is every­body rough­ly with me so far? Okay, good. I just want­ed to check because this blockchain stuff is real­ly new and real­ly com­pli­cat­ed sometimes.

Second top­ic, what is a bureau­crat?. Would any­body in the audi­ence like to define what a bureau­crat is for me? Yeah, see you’re going to wind up with my def­i­n­i­tion, which is a bureau­crat is sim­ply an impe­r­i­al col­lec­tor of tax. Most of the cul­tures that have bureau­crats are cul­tures where the gov­ern­ment is fund­ed by tax­a­tion. And the job of the bureau­cra­cy is to iden­ti­fy who should pay how much of the tax; who has paid their tax; who has not paid their tax; and who you need to send the boys round to to get the tax off. This is why I say bureau­crat is the world’s third-oldest profession. 

In the­o­ry, once you’ve got bureau­crats that are work­ing for democ­ra­cies, the bureau­cra­cy is work­ing for the peo­ple as a whole. In prac­tice, if you have an insti­tu­tion which has been impe­r­i­al tax col­lec­tion for 4,000 years and then you put a cou­ple hun­dred years of bureau­cra­cy on top of it, not very much changes. Which is why every time you deal with bureau­crats in cen­tral gov­ern­ment or in big com­pa­nies you feel like you’re deal­ing with an impe­r­i­al enti­ty rather than with some­thing that rep­re­sents your interests. 

And there is no good bureau­cra­cy, because the orga­ni­za­tion­al form of Hell is the pyra­mid and every bureau­cra­cy is a pyra­mid. All that it lacks on top is an emper­or, and even that seems to keep com­ing back. Look at the increas­ing­ly impe­r­i­al machi­na­tions of the American pres­i­den­cy, right. This kind of struc­ture in the soci­ety nev­er worked for the peo­ple, and it was nev­er designed to work for the peo­ple. This is an old pow­er struc­ture that we tried to repur­pose for democ­ra­cy and that in fact has nev­er being suc­cess­ful­ly repur­posed for gen­uine­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic goals. Reasonable? Maybe.

So once we accept that bureau­cra­cy is the orga­ni­za­tion­al form of Hell and that it defines impe­ri­al­ism, you could begin to under­stand that there is an incen­tive for tear­ing down the bureau­crat­ic struc­tures around us. But we’d like to do that with­out also tak­ing down the soci­ety. Because a post-bureaucratic democ­ra­cy might be a democ­ra­cy that actu­al­ly feels like a democ­ra­cy, rather than a democ­ra­cy that feels like impe­ri­al­ism where you get to choose your emper­ors. This is the hope, anyway.

The agency prob­lem is the kind of tech­ni­cal eco­nom­ics descrip­tion of this. The bureau­crat always works for the bureau­cra­cy. The bro­ker always works for the bro­ker­age or for their own inter­est. Finding some­body that rep­re­sents your inter­ests at any kind of scale larg­er than the indi­vid­ual is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. So if you’re inter­est­ed in this ques­tion of who do the bureau­crats work for, agency prob­lem is where you look for the dis­cus­sions of that.

Okay, now trans­paren­cy. There’s a lot of dis­cus­sion about things like open data, trans­par­ent demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es, trans­paren­cy in gov­ern­ment, free­dom of infor­ma­tion. You know, all these kind of efforts inside a gov­ern­ment to be more trans­par­ent. But I think that trans­paren­cy, when you boil it right down, is actu­al­ly a ques­tion of juris­dic­tion. You can have a cer­tain amount of secre­cy inside of gov­ern­ment to pro­tect things like a pro­cure­ment process. But what you want is for the legal process­es that over­see the gov­ern­ment to be ful­ly trans­par­ent. And if you have a trans­par­ent legal sys­tem, usu­al­ly it gives you the abil­i­ty to get the trans­paren­cy in the oth­er areas where you need it, by force if nec­es­sary. You can sub­poe­na information.

So what is trans­paren­cy? Law you can read. Open courts, where you can actu­al­ly have peo­ple go in and lis­ten to the court mak­ing its deci­sions. The abil­i­ty to always name who makes a deci­sion. So if you’ve ever worked in a con­text where you have health insur­ance, the health insur­ance peo­ple will nev­er take per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for mak­ing a deci­sion. The deci­sion is always the sys­tem’s deci­sion, and you can­not extract the name of the indi­vid­ual that made the choice. And in the­o­ry this is about pro­tect­ing these peo­ple from reprisals or it’s about cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty. But in prac­tice it allows you to shuf­fle some­body who makes ter­ri­ble deci­sions at one job into anoth­er job with­out any­body ever hav­ing to get fired. The bureau­cra­cy serves the bureau­crats rather than the peo­ple that it pur­ports to serve.

The oth­er impor­tant part of this is a pub­lic dis­cus­sion about what is true. So, in many cas­es you wind up in a posi­tion where there is no pub­licly agreed-on def­i­n­i­tion of true, in the areas where there’s a con­tro­ver­sy. And the great moth­er of all these prob­lems is glob­al warm­ing. But you can also see it around vac­cines. America has a recur­rence of ter­ri­ble dis­eases that we’ve got­ten rid of gen­er­a­tions ago like, I don’t know, whoop­ing cough, because peo­ple have sim­ply start­ed to refuse to vac­ci­nate their chil­dren based on a bunch of botched sci­ence and a whole bunch of kind of New Age pro­pa­gan­da. And the result of that is a ter­ri­ble destruc­tion of pub­lic safe­ty, caused by what’s essen­tial­ly a new super­sti­tion. It’s like they’ve rein­vent­ed witch­craft and they called it vaccination.

So you need some abil­i­ty in a trans­par­ent soci­ety to have a gen­er­al assent about what is true, based on a pub­lic exam­i­na­tion of the facts, that does­n’t become polit­i­cal­ly cor­rupt­ed. And polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion of sci­ence is how this is being attacked right now.

Finally, all of this does no good if you nev­er learn any­thing. So, when things go wrong you have to have mech­a­nisms inside of the soci­ety that don’t repeat the same error end­less­ly. And usu­al­ly that means you need some kind of mech­a­nism to draw con­clu­sions like they do for inquiries after an air crash, and then apply those con­clu­sions to the soci­ety that you’re oper­at­ing in. So you don’t repeat, you always have some kind of account­abil­i­ty so that when things go wrong you can point the way.

My sug­ges­tion is that blockchain tech­nol­o­gy, par­tic­u­lar­ly smart contract—so soft­ware in blockchains—has all of the attrib­ut­es nec­es­sary to pro­vide trans­par­ent gov­er­nance. You can have a piece of soft­ware. It’s stored in pub­lic. Your decision-making process­es is inside of the soft­ware are com­plete­ly trans­par­ent. The peo­ple that put the soft­ware into the sys­tem are named indi­vid­u­als and the audit process­es are also all done on a blockchain. The pub­lic analy­sis of fact is in the form of a thing called an ora­cle, which is where you take infor­ma­tion that is not intrin­si­cal­ly inside of a com­put­er like tem­per­a­ture of the ocean, and you agree on the fact before it’s placed into the soft­ware. And then final­ly the out­puts are all vis­i­ble, so it’s pos­si­ble to go over the entire set of out­puts of the sys­tem and look for what actu­al­ly happened.

So if we have soft­ware that can imple­ment trans­par­ent gov­er­nance, the ques­tion then is what can we do with it? And I have a kind of rad­i­cal sug­ges­tion, which is real­ly just some­thing to play with. But I think it gives some scope of the new pos­si­bil­i­ties. And if you could do this spe­cif­ic instance there must be 800 oth­er things you can do which are small­er, eas­i­er to imple­ment, or less controversial.

So, my sug­ges­tion is this: We could imple­ment basic income on a blockchain. You could take a small soci­ety, or even a big soci­ety, and you could decide that every cit­i­zen will have so many tokens which are issued to them every day or every month or every year by virtue of their cit­i­zen­ship. And you could say that these are euros, but this cre­ates a prob­lem of financ­ing these things. So you could sug­gest that you’re going to use some kind of elec­tron­ic currency.

So you have a basic income unit which is issued into the soci­ety, in known scarce quan­ti­ties. And what that unit is worth is allowed to float on the mar­ket and becomes worth what­ev­er peo­ple decide it’s worth. And you can increase or decrease the amount issued, depend­ing on social pol­i­cy decisions.

Blockchains are ide­al for this. You want to iden­ti­fy every cit­i­zen that’s enti­tled to pay­ments: you log them into the blockchain sys­tems. You want the pay­ment to be trans­par­ent: the soft­ware issues the pay­ment and every­one can see what the pay­ment was. There’s no ambi­gu­i­ty in this. Because every­body is known to be receiv­ing exact­ly the same size of pay­ment, there’s no social stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with the pay­ment. So hav­ing it be ful­ly trans­par­ent might have less of a neg­a­tive impact than you would get if it was say a means-tested ben­e­fit. And I think that is a—you know, it’s a jump, but I real­ly want­ed to show some­thing which is a lit­tle sci-fi, just to see what we think.

The out­come of this is that you get trans­par­ent spend­ing. So, because all the spend­ing is done on a blockchain, you can see what the stuff is spent on. And at this point you have a deci­sion to make. You can require that cit­i­zens are iden­ti­fied on the blockchain by their name, or you can pro­tect their name and have them iden­ti­fied on the blockchain by a pseu­do­nym, or an alias, or a ran­dom­ized iden­ti­ty number. 

So, in one of these paths you get com­plete trans­paren­cy about indi­vid­ual spend­ing, and in the oth­er path you only get trans­paren­cy about the gen­er­al aggre­gate of spend­ing. And then there are ques­tions about can peo­ple be deanonymized suc­cess­ful­ly. The answer to that is it depends. It’s a com­plex tech­ni­cal ques­tion. But gen­er­al­ly this is one of these social choice deci­sions where you’ve got to decide whether you want full trans­paren­cy or not.

With a trans­par­ent spend­ing data­base, you could then do real­ly detailed analy­sis of how the mon­ey from basic income is being used. And I think every­body involved in the basic income debate, whether they’re for it or against it, could agree that basic income is a real­ly good thing to get com­plete knowl­edge about.

So you take this new tech­nol­o­gy which is kind of untest­ed at a large scale. (Blockchains.) You take a set of require­ments for a sys­tem to be trans­par­ent and imple­ment a blockchain tech­nol­o­gy that is faith­ful to those. Which is pret­ty much all of them but you want to be clear. You need a much more detailed spec­i­fi­ca­tion than the one that I’ve out­lined. And then you take a new social pol­i­cy instru­ment like basic income and you imple­ment it on top of the blockchain to give you a lab­o­ra­to­ry in which you can see exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing inside of a social inno­va­tion, to decide whether or not you want to scale it, whether you want to con­tin­ue it, just to under­stand what it is.

And I think that there’s an enor­mous amount of room for tak­ing prob­lem­at­ic areas of soci­ety and deploy­ing these kind of lens solu­tions to them. We’re going take this prob­lem. We’re going to imple­ment a solu­tion that we can mon­i­tor every sin­gle aspect of. We’re going to run it on an exper­i­men­tal basis. And we’re going to agree all the way through what the rules of the game were, to make sure that peo­ple aren’t cheat­ing in some way to make the idea look like a bet­ter idea than it is.

The soft­ware can be audit­ed by all par­ties before you put it into the sys­tem. And in this instance the code lit­er­al­ly is the law. There’s no dis­tinc­tion between who imple­ments the soft­ware and who makes the law. The law and the code are one. So you need to have a legal process by which the author­i­ty of the state or the author­i­ty of a cor­po­ra­tion or a sort of char­i­ty, even, is trans­ferred direct­ly into a piece of soft­ware. And those mech­a­nisms already exist. You can get there through bind­ing arbi­tra­tion. You can get there through what’s called Ricardian con­tract, designed by a friend of mine called Ian Grigg. There are lots of approach­es to that prob­lem but you just need to pick one and imple­ment it.

Does this gen­er­al­ly sound…even slight­ly pos­si­ble? Yeah, right? So I sort of sat down as I was writ­ing the slides for this think­ing, can it real­ly be that easy? Is it even remote­ly rea­son­able that you could just come along and take a bunch of new social pol­i­cy; write a bunch of soft­ware; put the soft­ware into the new social pol­i­cy; and then do the analy­sis in real time as the trans­ac­tions were done?

And I kept look­ing at it like that can’t be right. There must be some catch. It must be anti-democratic, or bla­tant­ly ille­gal, or it must give you cor­rupt­ed data or some­thing. And I kept look­ing at it and I could­n’t fig­ure out why it was­n’t a rea­son­able thing to sug­gest. So here we are talk­ing about it. And if any­body can tell me why it’s not rea­son­able, let me know. Come up and tell me after­wards or talk about it on Twitter.

Because as far as I can tell, it means that you could try basic income at a whole of soci­ety lev­el with very lit­tle risk and very lit­tle cost. And you could mon­i­tor exact­ly what was hap­pen­ing. And giv­en that half of Europe has an enor­mous prob­lem with access to liq­uid­i­ty, it seems like you could have an injec­tion of liq­uid­i­ty into the soci­eties with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly caus­ing main­stream eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion. And if it does­n’t work it’s fair­ly easy to turn off. It was quite surprising.

Now. What this kind of sug­gests is a method of gov­ern­ment inno­vat­ing. Because right now we’re in a posi­tion where gov­ern­ments have ceased to inno­vate. In fact, they’re all liv­ing inside of this bizarre fan­ta­sy world which is left over essen­tial­ly from the end of World War II. The state has­n’t real­ly got­ten to grips with moder­ni­ty in any fun­da­men­tal way. Anytime you have a deci­sion being made, the basic struc­ture and process that makes that deci­sion is the same struc­ture and process they would’ve used after World War II. Things are a bit dif­fer­ent pre World War II—there’s much more diver­si­ty in how gov­ern­ments oper­ate. After World War II there’s a strong con­sen­sus. It comes out this is pret­ty much how a state should be run, and we kin­da fall into this pattern.

The prob­lem is that that pat­tern is very very poor­ly suit­ed to exact­ly the kind of com­plex moder­ni­ty that David Orban was talk­ing about, all of this kind of strat­e­gy up expo­nen­tial curves busi­ness. You know, rapid rate of change plus 400 year-old demo­c­ra­t­ic design, plus bureau­cra­cies that date back to World War II, gives you this prob­lem where the rate of change of the world mas­sive­ly exceeds the rate of change for democ­ra­cy to be able to adapt to the world.

And the result is an increas­ing trans­fer of pow­er from demo­c­ra­t­ic to non-democratic insti­tu­tions. The only rea­son that the cor­po­ra­tions wind up with such enor­mous pow­er is because the gov­ern­ment is unable to solve prob­lems with­out them, and basi­cal­ly lets them run around doing what­ev­er they like the rest of the time. 

So, because the cor­po­rate forms can evolve rapid­ly, because you’ve actu­al com­pe­ti­tion between forms, there’s this con­tin­u­al push and this con­tin­u­al accel­er­a­tion. And what it pro­duces is a much bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to deliv­er change than you get if you’re inside of a bureau­cra­cy where your boss changes every four years, using a pro­ce­dure that’s 400 years old, and the insti­tu­tion does quar­ter­ly report­ing but real­ly only mea­sured on a four-year cycle for elec­tions. You see this kind of mis­match of speeds, right. It’s a prob­lem of tempo.

So if we could devel­op mech­a­nisms for weav­ing the exist­ing super­struc­ture of democ­ra­cy in place, but per­form­ing exper­i­ments inside of trans­par­ent sub­sys­tems, it’s pos­si­ble that you could use blockchains and sim­i­lar tech­nolo­gies to build exper­i­ments at small scale with the man­dat­ed author­i­ty of the state but with­out going through cor­po­ra­tions as the implementers. 

So, open source soft­ware com­mis­sioned by a gov­ern­ment, built by a uni­ver­si­ty, deployed across a pop­u­la­tion with a social man­date behind it, gives you a kind of test pool for new con­cepts that can be tried in an envi­ron­ment where nobody can accuse any­body of hid­ing cards up their sleeve. 

And that sort of notion that we’re lack­ing, that abil­i­ty to test new ideas in soci­ety, is behind a lot of the crazy think­ing that comes out of Silicon Valley. So the seast­eading move­ment by Patri Friedman (or rather Patri Friedman ran ini­tial­ly) was this idea that you could build kind of lit­tle arti­fi­cial islands out in the oceans. You could stick a flag in them and declare they were sov­er­eign. And then you could exper­i­ment with new forms of gov­ern­ment. This one will have an elec­tion every fif­teen min­utes and your phone will do arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent vot­ing for you. This one over here will have six-person MP groups rather than indi­vid­ual MPs, and they’ll rotate off the job. This one over here will ran­dom­ly select who the MPs are, and they’ll have a tenure which is decid­ed ran­dom­ly. This one over here, you’ll just have sor­ti­tion every four years, you’ll ran­dom­ly select… You know, all of these kind of dif­fer­ent approach­es could be tried in these kind of micro­cosms, and we could poten­tial­ly find some­thing that works bet­ter than four or five-year elec­toral democracy.

But, the prob­lem with this is the assump­tion that you need to be able to take ter­ri­to­ry, have sov­er­eign­ty, get land and all the rest of this, makes it incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to get these kind of exper­i­ments in gov­er­nance going. And, who watch­es the watch­men? What do you do when one of these things turns into a total dis­as­ter? Are these peo­ple going to then go back to their orig­i­nal nation-states and beg for help? You know, you can imag­ine these projects if they go down, the human­i­tar­i­an fall­out could be quite sub­stan­tial because you’d have a crash of gov­er­nance in a tiny lit­tle island soci­ety. And I don’t like the smell of that at all. I mean, I’m quite… I’d love to see the exper­i­ment tried, but I think it’s quite risky. And we cer­tain­ly can’t solve prob­lems quick­ly if we have to estab­lish a new nation-state every time we want to try an experiment. 

So what I quite like is this idea that we could do lots of exper­i­men­tal stuff inside of the body of democ­ra­cy by using trans­paren­cy tech­nol­o­gy to de-risk exper­i­ments in gov­ern­ment. And the notion that these blockchain tech­nolo­gies are a fun­da­men­tal trans­paren­cy break­through, and that you can push for­ward with that set of schemes to try these exper­i­ments in all kinds of dif­fer­ent places and for all kinds of dif­fer­ent things, with the abil­i­ty to doc­u­ment exact­ly what hap­pened for future gen­er­a­tions, seems like a real­ly sound and sen­si­ble way to do exper­i­ments in governance.

And you don’t real­ly hear exper­i­men­tal gov­er­nance” all that often. But it’s clear that we need it, because the exist­ing sys­tems don’t work—we all know that. I mean, does any­body live in a coun­try where they feel like their gov­ern­ment real­ly works? I went to Singapore. Their gov­ern­ment real­ly works. I mean it’s incred­i­bly effi­cient. But they basi­cal­ly run the entire island like a sin­gle cor­po­ra­tion. And pri­vate enter­prise com­plains that they can’t get enough tal­ent into pri­vate com­pa­nies because all the smart peo­ple work for the gov­ern­ment and they just hire them right out of uni­ver­si­ty and give them a job for life. And it seems very unlike­ly that we’re going to suc­ceed in chang­ing our soci­eties in that way, and we prob­a­bly would­n’t like it even if we did.

So we have to get bet­ter at learn­ing inside of democ­ra­cy. And my sug­ges­tion is that blockchain tech­nol­o­gy is an inher­ent­ly use­ful part of learn­ing inside of democ­ra­cies. It came from the lib­er­tar­i­ans. It was dressed up in some very weird clothes when it arrived. But if you get a good sol­id chance to look at it and talk to it and get some sense of what’s going on under the hood, I think it’s pret­ty clear that it’s sim­ply about trans­paren­cy. And trans­paren­cy is a method­ol­o­gy that can be pulled out of any polit­i­cal set­ting and reap­plied every­where else. Because the truth is only one, right. When you get right down to the fun­da­men­tals, a trans­par­ent sys­tem is the same for every­body that uses it, and there’s no rea­son that that should be iden­ti­fied with lib­er­tar­i­an or any oth­er kind of pol­i­tics. It’s some­thing that peo­ple of any polit­i­cal per­sua­sion can apply. 

So that’s the basic the­sis. I think that blockchains are good for democ­ra­cy. And I think that if we use them wise­ly inside of gov­ern­ment, it will give us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do social exper­i­men­ta­tion in governance—in fact, just exper­i­men­tal governance—in a way that is large­ly de-risked and polit­i­cal­ly neu­tral because of the trans­paren­cy aspect. I will also go on to some kind of subtopics after this, but that is the main talk. Thank you.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.