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Blockchain and the Promise of Decentralized Governance (1/2)

Updated: Apr 24, 2019

“To push the antigovernment button is not to teleport us to Eden. When the interests of government are gone, other interests take their place. Do we know what those interests are? And are we so certain they are anything better?” – Lawrence Lessig

The debate in the social sciences regarding the level to which governments ought to take action remains persistently in everyday life. Real applications of the positions that form and are formed by this debate exist in manifold variety. Especially during the 20th century, populations all over the world have experimented more or less successfully with different governmental systems. In large parts of the world, this occurred as a result of a shift from archaic authoritarian forms of the organisation of cohabitation to those appreciating a certain level of individual freedoms based on each communitiy’s shared value system.

Political theory or political philosophy – of which the various blueprints of governance are a subset of – is the enormous field of study of topics such as liberty, justice, responsibility, law, rights, etc., and their changing meaning in and for societies and individuals. Different approaches exist to clarify these and further identified topics in relation to human interaction with each other and with other living and non-living natural systems. The two main approaches are normative theory and epistemology.

Normative statements make judgements regarding the value of actions, how interactions ought to be, what is right, wrong, good, and bad behaviour. These statements make claims about the properties of belief systems and theories based on a prior defined evaluative standard, for instance a perceived consensus about accepted behaviour amongst a homogenous ethnic group. Since perception differs from person to person, and since there is mechanisms such as “social dominance” are not necessarily linked to the correctness of a normative statement, normative theory is prone to error.

This approach differs from the descriptive, explanatory or “positive” approach from epistemology. Here, theories around definitions of knowledge are created and discussed with the aim to link this critical understanding to such concepts as justification, belief, and truth. This means, this approach is based on the same academic methodology as the natural sciences. Here, knowledge is created from the most fundamental truths and expanded only if done in a logically consistent way, namely through “deduction”.

The quality of a newly-crafted political theory is therefore dependent on the methodology applied.

Some supporters of the blockchain technology and its applications take the view that services usually provided by nation-states can be more efficiently be provided using blockchain code. Block chains could be a “[…] universal, permanent, continuous, consensus-driven, publicly auditable, redundant, record-keeping repository. The blockchain could become both the mechanism for governing in the present, and the repository of all of a society’s documents, records, and history for use in the future - a society’s universal record-keeping system” (Swan, 2015).

The methodology and terminology used by proponents of decentralised blockchain-governance is however strongly influenced by texts in anarcho-capitalist theory and organisational theory and less by the more fundamental concepts developed in philosophy (and later philosophy of law, economics, political philosophy, etc.).

Therefore, elaborations on the general applicability of blockchain technology are – at least so far - restricted to similar concepts and subject to similar critique. Classical critique includes the argument that in order to achieve effective decentralised agency, all participating individuals must be perfectly cooperative during precisely-fixed hours. Applied to the here presented example, perfect cooperation might even be deemed less problematic, since most participants act in a self-maximising way and trust seems to play a smaller role. However, perfect interconnectedness amongst all “user-citizens” would be a necessary requirement which goes against blockchain enthusiasts’ main idea of morality, that is individual self-determination.

As radical decentralisation of governance through blockchain code is a libertarian endeavour who attach great importance to individual rights – especially all things political -, dogmatic followers of this ideology would commit self-deception. This is because they would deny citizens with a more traditional and more authoritarian understanding of the role of the state the right not to make use of this new governance process, which would be highly hypocritical.

Nevertheless, blockchain technology could be an efficiency-enhancing addition to existing governance and should not be strictly rejected. A sustainable application might enable positive future developments in standardised bureaucratic processes, for instance through smart contracts.

Author: Patrick Lehner

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