One of the heated debates that has raged over the years in Bitcoin space is whether the idea of a developer team lead by a benevolent dictator is the appropriate model to employ for a network worth more than 15 billion dollars in market capitalization. Many have cited examples of how Satoshi, and then Gavin himself were benevolent dictators, and also how some well known projects have been successfully managed under the watchful eye of a wise and benevolent (though sometimes abrasive) dictator such as the Linux project. It is also true that most civilizations evolve from dictatorships, starting with the tribal chiefs, to feudal warrior kings, to aristocratic monarchs, to emperors. The transition to a democracy is not always a smooth one, and is mired by both slippages into oligarchies, totalitarian fascism to misguided experiments into socialism. It is important then, to keep in mind that while most organized groups start as dictatorships, they eventually evolve into a system that is more inclusive of the common people’s will.
Oh, Glorious Leader, shepherd for the weak, show us the way!
Firstly, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Dictatorships are vastly more efficient than a republic or democracy. This is due to the fact there is little bounds on the leaders power, and his followers will carry out his instructions in the most expedient fashion. Contrast this to a democracy where leaders are continually second guessed by their opposition, and their political opponents who are all vying for their own chance to run the show. In a dictatorship, the only way a change of regime is possible is through open and widespread revolution. This is why despotic Chinese emperors of old made it illegal to congregate in groups of 3 or more, restrict what can be discussed in public and on occasion just committed mass murders of all the academics and scholars for fear that they may spread seeds of dissent and dissatisfaction among the peasants with their pesky logic, philosophy, and ideals of morality.
So dictatorships are more efficient, and democracies have a penchant for getting political.
So how does this apply to Bitcoin? Well, simply put… North Korea
The comparison of the current Blockstream/core dev attitude towards governance to that of the despotic regime of the Kim Dynasty¹ in North Korea is not a new one. They both advocate that you ‘trust your Great Leader’ implicitly, for only he and his regime knows what is best for you. Additionally, there is no transparency in how power succeeds from ruler to ruler.
But before we pass summary judgement on the efficiency of North Korea, we should remember that we only see that hermit kingdom through the eyes of western media, which has no vested interest in portraying them as anything but a failed nation, for fear of sowing seeds of sympathy towards a government which is openly antagonistic towards the current western powers. Through a philosophy of ‘juche‘ the North has continuously and obstinately stood up against the western governments in disobedience unwilling to bend or waver in their quest to be free from the oppressive imperialistic (US and her allies) powers which vie to exert their policies and influence around globe. By this point you could pretty much replace ‘North Korea’ and ‘Kim dynasty’ above with ‘Blockstream’ and ‘core devs’ and you would not find the above paragraph too awkward in re-reading.
Is North Korea so bad?
Meet Sung Yi Baek, she lives in Pyongyang and her father is a bus driver, and her mother is a dance instructor. Everyday, after swearing allegiance to a picture of their Beloved Leader, she goes to school, all expenses are paid by the government. On the weekends she goes to the People’s National gymnasium to practice her gymnastics. It is her dream to one day represent her people in the Olympic games. The government pays for her education, which (even though certain historical topics are omitted) is a good sound one that includes all modern science, technology and mathematics. Her parents were brought out of poverty after the devastation of the Korean war, a war in which the Americans agitators started and fought on her home soil, in which both her grandparents were killed in the countryside when American soldiers razed their village in a scorched earth policy to deny the enemy ground. If you ask her, and most of the civilians in the cities they would say that the regime of Kim Jong-un and his father and grandfather are the saviors of their country. They have protected them from the scary evils of the outside world, from the sins of crony capitalism and of democracy.
So we agree that dictatorships can work pretty well in certain cases, if one is okay with giving up some freedoms. And that isn’t much of an ask if one never knew those freedoms to begin with (recall Korea was a monarchy, then an occupied territory of Japan prior to its current state(s) ). And perhaps they even make life better for a great number of middle class people, at the potential expense of those at the marginal lower classes, political dissidents, or trouble makers.
Similarly, benevolent dictatorships in open source software seems to work so well due to the fact that dictators act as natural Schelling points, or somewhat arbitrary points in solution/discussion space that everyone can conveniently agree upon. This is why the more forceful and strongly opinionated of dictators seem to exhibit the highest efficiencies. So why not have all our projects run this way?
Bitcoin Unlimited Governance
Let’s end on that cliff hanger of a question as we take a short hiatus to cover Bitcoin Unlimited, one of the several alternative Bitcoin clients being developed by a competing team of developers with a different philosophy. When most people in the space are asked what Bitcoin Unlimited is about, their first reaction would be the elimination of a static block size limit set in the protocol to one that is collectively signaled and agreed upon by the network, via hash power weighted vote, and potentially vetoed by the non-mining nodes (coined ’emergent consensus by BU’). But this is just one of the 2 main tenets of the BU platform. The other, equally important idea is the notion that bitcoin development teams should be a shared competitive ecosystem of groups, each with potentially different governance and long term strategic road maps for the network, in order to ensure both genetic diversity in code, but also in policy and opinion. This diversification is something that I myself advocated for a year ago as well, and I believe is the only way we can ensure maximal resilience against a meta-failure of the system. (That is, not a failure of the client code itself, but of the devs/experts that write the code). The governance process that BU employs is that of binding member vote. No change is made without it passing a quorum vote of the membership, and no lead developer or leadership role can be permanently installed as a ‘dictator for life’. This means that changes may come slower, and less efficiently as a dictatorship, but it also has some benefits in terms of resiliency. They have an official Articles of Federation, which is codified rules on how things should be done and guides the operation of the organization, which is a non-profit foundation.
Now that you have a backstory behind Bitcoin Unlimited, and what Bitcoin governance means (the process by which those in the dev team can make changes to code, and the processes which govern who assumes which roles in the organization) we can now go back to our story of the 2 Korea’s.
Land of the free right? Well if you ask any S. Korean, most have very subtle and mixed feelings about their Northern neighbors. Most will say they are much more fortunate to live under their democratic government system, which has allowed free market capitalism to run its course and to dictate how wealth is distributed among the population. The names of Samsung LG, Lotte, and Hyundai are all but common words in most of the world now thanks to this system. But the rosy picture of S. Korean the economic powerhouse is just a surface veneer. For anyone who bothers to look deeper they will soon find that S. Korea is rife with corruption, nepotism, and crony capitalism. You can’t google Korea these days without seeing yet another scandal surrounding President Park, (who herself is the daughter of the last official dictator in S. Korea) and the corruption and collusion between her inner circle politico and large conglomerates with the Blue House²
So the choice between which Korea is a better system can be hotly debated (by those with an open mind) and not entirely clear cut. In the North, your basics needs are met, and you are rewarded by your loyalty to the regime. In the South, your basics needs are met and you are lavishly rewarded by protecting your nepotistic connections to the administration. Ostensibly you are more ‘free’ in the South to voice your opinions, while in the North freedom of speech is restricted and you are silenced if you have anything critical to say about the existing powers. The North doesn’t mind closing its doors to all outsiders and running its own country the way it wants, asking all detractors to leave. The South welcomes all disenfranchised defectors from the North, and encourages open debate on all topics, while at the same time accepting US political and military control in what some would call a puppet state. The North has famines which kills millions of peasants due to mismanagement, while the South has maritime disasters caused by corporate mismanagement and greed which kills hundreds of school children.
Not too dissimilar
The two Korea’s are actually more alike than you would think. Except for one important thing. The South has established independent institutions which put checks and balances on the powers of the administration. They have rules and processes which can be duly followed if corruption is discovered anywhere in the system, such that it can be corrected. The North does not. There is no way that Kim Jong-un can be found at fault. If he screws up, it was the fault of his lieutenants, (swift imprisonment) or a failure of the peoples own resolve and dedication. This and this alone is why the North is dangerous. It may be a great system in the short run (especially in cases like Sung Yi Baek³) but in the long run it will inevitably collapse, because no one man, dynasty or regime can go on forever without corruption or incompetence catching up with it. (Believe me, the Chinese had 5000 years of trying). So in the long term, the system which has the governance process in which it can eliminate corrupted leaders will be the one that survives.
Now, read the previous paragraph again and reflect upon the significance of what the two large protagonist groups in the block size debate are saying. Bitcoin Unlimited has a clear and defined governance model, how code changes are passed, how membership is obtained (through a meritocratic democratic process) and how rulers can be ousted. Core devs on the other had have no rules, save the one rule which is “no contentious change will ever make it into codebase” ( which is not a strategy to resolve contentions at all ).
Bitcoin Unlimited is advocating that there should be healthy competition between Bitcoin implementation teams to stave off corruption and collusion, while Core devs and Blockstream tell everyone that if they don’t listen only to them, then the network may collapse and fall apart, fire and brimstone stuff.
The similarities between the two systems of real world Korea is uncanny, if you really consider it. (and if you ignore the moral arguments).
So it depends on whether or not you want to take the long or short term view on the health of the Bitcoin network.
I’d like to take the long term view
Next time you speak to a core dev, ask them what their plan is when those with the commit keys to the code repo, or the leadership of Blockstream pass away? What is the process of succession? Do they really see Bitcoin lasting 100+ years? If you don’t feel satisfied with the response, then feel free to evoke the Kim Jong-un analogy. I mean, he’s done pretty ‘ok’ so far, all things considered, right?
¹ But that is ludicrous you say. Bitcoin Core Devs are self-proclaimed meritocracy! Well sure it does say that on the box. But how fair is a meritocracy when the only ones who can judge merit are part of the inner circle? If you insist on one unified team, which is then trusted to judge the merit of its own constituents, this has another name, oligarchy, which is just a dictatorship with a dictator that shares a bit of power with some of his close associates. The governed have no say in the workings of government.
² Their version of the White House, vernacular for their Administration.
³ Sung Yi Baek doesn’t really exist. But some like her probably do. But you would never know anyhow, as North Korea strictly controls its media and communication channels with propaganda. What does that remind me of… I wonder.