Articles of Bitcoin Constitution – A Genesis Block of Governance

One of the ongoing issues with Bitcoin, besides the scalability issues, is the fact that it lacks a clear governance model.  The fact that we don’t have one is likely an artifact of Satoshi not really knowing how far Bitcoin would go.  Actually it’s not so much of a governance model problem than the fundamental issue that we don’t know who we are.  What is the Bitcoin project and what are its goals?  Indeed, it was designed to be an (almost) foolproof solution to the problem of consensus without governance.  But, like Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (which proves that no formal system of proof — such as mathematics, can prove its own validity using only its own set of inference rules) Bitcoin’s consensus solution itself has an Achilles Heel — the hard fork.  A hard fork basically means that competing versions of the same network are simultaneously running a different set of consensus rules.  In the real world, we call these competing rule systems, ‘jurisdictions’ or ‘countries’, and we call the methods by which we come to agreement, ‘politics’.

Bitcoin developers have debated this problem at length in the past, and the problem is not an unfamiliar concept to them, but they have failed to come up with any workable solutions to date.  The Bitcoin Foundation was founded originally with the mandate of governance, but it fell apart due to infighting, alleged corruption and scandals.  Several of the ex-board members are presently in jail, and others have reputations which have been mired in dubious dealings.

A brief history in politics

Some political systems had their share of faults

Some political systems have their share of unfortunate downsides

Up to this point, changes to the Bitcoin protocol have been loosely controlled by a small set of people, rightly called the ‘core devs’.  They extend from the dynasty of Satoshi, through appointed successors, through to Gavin, and now to Wladimir van der Laan.  Like a mirror of human society, which has seen a progression through the phases of political development from a dynastic empire, to monarchy, to the current oligarchy,  how a move to a true democracy can be accomplished, is truly a difficult problem.  It is hard because it skirts on difficult socio-political issues that human society has always struggled with: corruption, collusion, nepotism, uninformed or disinterested masses etc.  Many attempts in human history have been made in an attempt to solve these problems, such as the monastic system of organized religions, (Gregorian monks, Shaolin monks, the Sisterhood of Nuns) which requires one to devote one’s life to monastic pursuits and restricts interaction with society at large.  Our current system, that of a republic, was borrowed from ancient Greece, and focuses on the mutual distrust and competition of senators in order to achieve consensus.  Other more drastic solutions practiced in dynastic China, such as the forced castration of all political advisors to the court, ensured that one would have no other loyalties than that to the state.  I should hope we, in this age of information, need not have to resort to such barbaric methods of stemming the corruption of human virtue and integrity in our leaders.

So what can we do?

Must have been chaos back then.

I think we have managed to solve problems like this in the past.

We can try to follow in the footsteps of the American Founding Fathers.  Indeed, what we are experiencing presently, is something akin to what I would imagine the debates and infighting that must have occurred when the initial Continental Congress was being formed.  Putting yourself in the shoes of say, John Adams, with the full might of British Empire oppressing them, they had to come up with a way to galvanize the support of the colonists, to fight the crown rule, and to defend their freedom.  On July 2, 1776, the congress gave a unanimous vote for independence, and 2 days later, the Declaration of Independence, was signed.  The United States of America, was born.

We, citizens of the global nation of the internet, need something equivalent, to guard the founding principles of Bitcoin.  We need to define principles, articles of constitution, if you will, and we need the current leaders of Bitcoin, to vote unanimously to support them.

The current model – BIP

Everyone technical in Bitcoin is familiar with what a ‘BIP’ is.  It stands for Bitcoin Improvement Proposal.  Developers wishing to change the Bitcoin protocols create a BIP.  It is vetted by the core devs and if it is valid, then it is given a number, like BIP101 (which is Gavin’s auto-block-limit increase change).  Being valid doesn’t make it accepted however, it needs to be further discussed, debated and only if a unanimous agreement on the BIP can be reached by all core devs, will it be accepted into the code base which is released to the public.  This is the current system of governance.  It has flaws in that it makes it very easy for 1 member to veto changes.  This is one of the criticisms that have been raised by Gavin Andresen in the past; which is that it takes just 1 dev with ulterior motives to sink an improvement proposal.  Given that some of the devs are involved with other companies, it soon becomes clear that this system is inefficient in coming to consensus, assuming everyone may have personal agendas.

Hard forks need to be resolved by humans.  So humans need to agree on a set of principles to follow.  Open principles. Clear principles.  These core principles should be held by all who wish to propose changes to Bitcoin as BIPs, as well as all who evaluate these change proposals to ensure that they adhere to these principles.  I touched upon these in my previous article, but here I shall elaborate on them more fully.

Words and ideas. It's what binds us together, as a people.

Words and ideas. It’s what binds us together, as a people.

Articles of Constitution of Bitcoin (draft)

BGIP 0.1 – The use of BGIP as the governance model

A Meta-BIP.  A BGIP, or Bitcoin Governance Improvement Protocol.  Which would govern and guide core devs (present and future) on how BIPs are accepted or rejected.  Of course, having a way to modify a governance model implies we need a governance model to begin with, a sort of ‘genesis block’ of governance if you will.  Bitcoin needs a Constitution.  A BGIP itself is subject to change, via amendments, but these amendments must receive 95% approval of the miners (not the devs), and cannot amend the Core Prime Principles. (that is amendments can be added, so long as they do not subtract from the efficacy of the pre-existing Core Prime Principles.  Any such violation of the Core Prime Principles, amounts to a rejection of this process entirely, and shall not be deemed ‘legitimate’ by those who honour these Articles of Constitution of Bitcoin.  So long as every core dev, can justify their approval or rejection of any future BIP based on these rules, then we should regard them as acting on behalf of the legitimate blockchain of Bitcoin.

Core Prime Principles

In order of importance:

First Principle (axiom)

Consensus, above all must be prioritized. Consensus by means of adhering to a core set of principles, which we are defining henceforth.

(anything which is deemed to break from these principles, shall be rejected)

Second Principle:

Decentralization must be preserved, any change should not detract from decentralization, or indirectly result in more centralization of the network.

(anything which can be shown to cull the diversity of miners etc, shall be rejected)

Third Principle:

Open Access.  Bitcoin network should be open for anyone to use, free from censorship or prejudice, regardless of political affiliation, geographical location, religion, race, or creed.  Bitcoin core code shall always be open sourced for all to examine

(anything that stands to restrict access, mark coins, block users shall be rejected)

Forth Principle:

Store of Value, the value of the token (bitcoin) should be preserved, that is, disregarding free market effects, the value of the bitcoin token on the network should not be endangered with existential risk.

(any attempt to change the money supply, money base, or fixed inflation schedule, shall be rejected)

Fifth Principle:

Efficiency as a Payment System, should be improved so as to increase the reliability, availability, utility, and security for all users.

(anything which will adversely affect the efficiency of the network, shall be rejected)

The Pyramid of priorities

Pyramid of prime first principles

Pyramid of Prime First Principles

The above is just a draft.  It is my proposal.  I am not a lawyer, so I make no presumptions about the above proposal being air tight, or all-inclusive.  If you have helpful suggestions to add to it as an official amendment, I give permission for any core dev (or anyone better at legalese) to amend it if you wish.  All I ask is that if you do, you name it appropriately, so that people can identify different versions.  For example, the first alternative can be called BGIP 0.2,  If it is adopted and ratified by the core devs, then any future amendments should only be allowed as additions to the Constitution, and proposals to add them shall be called BGIP 1, BGIP 2… and so forth.   I would encourage miners who support this to put the message into their block headers; “BGIP 0.1” which would mean showing support for this constitution and governance process.

When enough miners have shown their support for the core devs to take notice, I would like a unanimous vote by the core devs to adopt and adhere to this process, and use it henceforth to govern judgments on BIPs.  How they chose to technically do so, I leave it open for discussion, (and perhaps an official amendment), but I envision that BIPs shall be ‘innocent until proven guilty’, which is to say, if a BIP can be shown to not violate any of the principles, then it should be adopted.

I’d like to think that if we can all agree on this constitution, then any competing fork in the future can be clearly identified as ‘not-bitcoin’, and should be encouraged to create their own blockchain, avoiding dangerous Hard Forks.  This is not meant to stifle competition. It is not meant to restrict innovation. It is meant as a unanimous statement of identity, of who we are and the values that we hold. It is the hope that once that is clear, then at least a certain group can always claim to be upholding these values.

This is the ‘genesis block’, for Bitcoin governance.  With it, I hope we all can build a future together cooperatively, and collaboratively.

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Governance begins with consensus

19 thoughts on “Articles of Bitcoin Constitution – A Genesis Block of Governance

  1. Interesting proposal.

    An alternative would be to use a model like the pirate parties in Europe are using: Liquid (or delegative) democracy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delegative_democracy). It serves as a effective way how to move fluently between direct and representative democracy, so should combine the best of both.

    With all model for improving governance I fear that it might hurts flexibility and innovation. The inherent nature of such laws is that they are conservative to make changes difficult, and so create demand for something more agile.
    And unfortunately our reality with politics has taught us that good constitutions are after several generations not good enough anymore to guarantee good politics.

    Another completely different view is that what I discussed in my blog post here:
    https://bitsquare.io/blog/the-problem-with-crypto-governance-is-power

    Reduce power then politics become easier to handle. Support many small currencies rather than a dominant one. Use atomic cross chain exchange and multi currency wallets to exchange currencies like moving from one webpage to another in the browser.
    The Internet of money.

    Of course that is not a quick solution but preferring diversity over power concentration is a model our Nature has exercised since millions of years.

    • Interesting link, thanks. I’m not so sure about liquid democracy, it would seem to me that the point of private votes would be difficult as part of the process of approving a BIP means debating its merits. An open debate would certainly make it well known who would be for or against it in a vote. Also it seems overly complex a management system for something like a software development team. The issue we are grappling with is that the core devs are not simply any software development team, bitcoin has become money, so its going to evolve to be some hybrid between a software dev team and a monetary policy committee. While dictatorships work best for software project teams, monetary policy (and any public good) require some sort of ‘social contract’ be made, in the form of a constitution, or at least a manifesto. I think a simple agreement on one, would solve most of the issues with conflicting views on future BIPs.

      Good article, I do like the idea of many small currencies. But for that to happen I see Bitcoin needs a constitution. That way it will always be clear when you disagreed with that constitution, that you need to create a new specific coin, which can back it’s value with Bitcoin.

      • Yes I agree. To use something like the liquid democracy model it would need more time and thinking how that fits into Bitcoin. Though I think it has a lot of potential to be used in other fields as plain politics to serve as efficient and motivating tool.

        Short term the easiest improvement would be probably to draft a constitution as you did.

  2. Bitcoin was built with a sort of trustless democracy anyways, any addition is futile. If you want a new BIP, then fork the code, include it, and mine on your new code base, if you can convince the majority to vote for your changes with their mining power (vote) then your change is implemented… But lets make it more complex, because complexity is always better.. lol

    • Where did Satoshi indicate that he saw a hard fork as normal voting mechanism? I was under the impression he warned of its use even before he disappeared.
      And is it really that complicated? Defining the priorities of Bitcoin? Frankly, I think it makes it a lot simpler. If a BIP seems to prioritize txs/s while threatening censorship (principle #3 assuming the ordering of the principles are agreed on) then its obvious you should fork onto a new coin instead, one that prioritizes fast payment confirms over the other design principles. Or if someone presents a BIP which weakens the store of value, say by creating an inflation schedule on the coinbase, (which would violate principle #4) then we wouldn’t even need to debate it, they would be rejected.

      It’s just formalizing the values and principles of Bitcoin that everyone in core already knows, but we need to write it down, as core devs will come and go, and we need bitcoin to have a ‘corpus’ of its own

    • Forking software and start your new network is perfectly valid. Many Altcoins did that. Forking the network and eXTorting ALL users to one version by using the already problematic mining power concentration (read lobby a cartel) is a completely other story.

  3. First of all, there are going to be plenty of people who believe that giving the miners the only votes (by passing things by 95 percent consensus of only miners) isn’t a good idea. What about holders of the currency, high-volume users of the currency, etc, etc? What abot interest groups I haven’t even thought of? You’re just glossing over the question of whose interests get considered, and that is THE CENTRAL QUESTION IN ALL POLITICS, ALWAYS.

    That issue of “who gets a vote” is the one you have to solve. And if you don’t give the vote to enough people, they may very well just walk away.

    Your principles are basically meaningless, because you provide no way to enforce them. You designate nobody who can actually decide that a decision by 95 percent of the miners is against the principles, and countermand that decision. So all you’re doing by having the principles is muddying the waters. Instead of a nice clear “what 95 percent of the miners says goes”, you have “what 95 percent of the miners says goes, unless it’s against the principles”.

    Since you haven’t said who gets to say what is and isn’t against the principles, anbybody who’s supposed to implement a decision, but believes it’s wrong under the principles, will feel free to ignore it. That may mean that devs make or to refuse to make code changes “because of the principles”, that users are more likely to feel ripped off and walk away from the currency “because the principles were violated”, or whatever.

    That’s worse because the principles are way, way, too vague and general. Most meaningful proposals could easily be argued to violate one or another of your principles… and equally argued to advance that principle. Both sides will often be arguing IN GOOD FAITH, and even if they’re not there’s no way to make a final decision.

    For example, your second principle and the block size debate. The anti-increase crowd claims that larger blocks will lead to centralization, because with cheaper transactions and therefore more transactions on the chain, fewer people will be able to afford to run nodes. On the other hand, the pro-increase crowd argues that SMALLER blocks increase centralization, because although the core block chain itself might be more decentralized, more actual Bitcoin transactions would be driven off the chain to services which, they argue, would tend to be even more centralized than the chain would ever get.

    For the rest…

    Number one is meaningless and circular. It says “Follow consenus”, and then it defines consenus as following the constitution. A list of rules does not need to contain a rule that says “follow this list of rules”; authority comes from outside.

    Number three has two parts. The “free from censorship or prejudice” one is vague mom and apple pie stuff. People will argue constantly about what that means.

    The open source part doesn’t seem too bad… but is anybody actually bound to USE “bitcoin core code”? What if the network grows away from that? What if you end up with a population of closed source nodes that people suspect, but can’t confirm, run the protocol differently from core in some important, but hard to verify way?

    The fourth and fifth principle are often in conflict with each other. People who want to use Bitcoin primarily as a long term store of value have different interests from people who want to use it primarily for transactions, and only care about store of value as long as it’s good enough to enable transactions. There are already fights between those interests. So now you’ve licensed each side to question, second-guess, and refuse to follow any decision if it leans more toward the other side of one of those conflicts.

    Spend more time on procedure and balancing interests. If you still want to spend time on immutable principles, make them a lot clearer, think hard about how they might conflict, provide some way to give them real teeth, and remember that the more you complicate the adjudicative process, the more chances there are both for bugs in the process, and for people to feel wronged by the outcomes.

    • Mission statements are not meaningless. Giving Bitcoin a corpus is not meaningless. We need to agree exactly on these general overarching principles in a certain order of priority, in order to determine whether or not opposing views can be integrated, or better expressed in an altchain.

      As for the details, 95% (of dev vote) is the current approval threshold for BIP approval. And all the nitty gritty details can be worked out, this is a draft, after all.

      As for miners having a vote, it’s just a suggestion, more likely all major mining pool and payment processor should also have a vote. Or none, and only the devs, which is also fine. But at least in any such vote, if we have at least ONE ratified corpus or constitution, then future votes will have guidance, instead of it being a popularity contest, or one that touts one solution is ‘better’ than the other. It’s always a tradeoff, and we need an agreed guidance on which tradeoffs are acceptable, vs ones that are not.

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  5. Another, possibly more viable, form of cryptocoin governance could be through a shareholder-style blockchain voting system that allows coinholders to vote on development issues with their vote weight based on how big of a stake they have in the outcome, thereby shifting power from core-devs and mining pools to the coinholders themselves.

    We’re launching such a voting system September 14, 2015, which would work for all blochchain-based cryptocoins.

    The original proposal can be found here:
    http://theotherbitcoin.com/decentralizing-development-vanity-voting-2/

    Launch info can be found here:
    http://cryptovoter.com

    • That may be possible, but it seems complicated. I’m not certain whether it will work or not but I’m open to the possibility. However even with such a system we need a constitution in order to clearly define the values that Bitcoin stands for. Those who do not believe so likely believe that Bitcoin can be everything for everybody, and the majority should dictate which priorities are driven first. I personally believe that the world is better served with many complimentary cryptocurrencies each with its own use cases and priorities, with Bitcoin as its common value chain. A reserve currency, if you will.

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  8. Maybe you should look at the principles of the traditions of the 12 step program. It’s governance has held together a group of the most troubled and troublesome folks on earth.

    Bitcoin is truly revolutionary in it’s simplicity and spiritual worth. . Add to that mix Bitcoin startups estimated at $1 billion in angel investment funds this year alone it’s easy to understand the current behaviour in the community.

    However, it will be interesting to see how things play out with players like Onecoin with over 500,000 people with coins in mining in less than a year, a centralized approach for mining-at present, and current the uncertainty in financial institutions and governments at present.

    I have always noted the similarities of developers and the aforementioned 12 steppers over the course of 16 years in sobriety and with the exclusive use of Linux since that same time. There are fascinating times ahead. Great article, thanks for your insight.

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