MIT Panel: Democracy Is Antithetical to What Bitcoin Represents

Day one of last month’s MIT Bitcoin Expo featured a panel discussion on various improvements to Bitcoin that are either currently in the works or already deployed on the network. Participants on the panel were Blockstream mathematician Andrew Poelstra , Blockstream Core Tech Engineer Mark Friedenbach , Lightning Network co-creator Joseph Poon and Bitcoin Core contributor Jonas Schnelli .

During the QA portion of the panel, an audience member asked the participants to share their opinions on the previous presentation, in which the World Bitcoin Network ‘s James D’Angelo posited the idea of replacing Bitcoin’s proof-of-work with elected individuals who would be trusted with mining blocks . The panel seemed generally bearish on D’Angelo’s proposal. Generally, the panel disagreed with the idea of turning Bitcoin into a democratically controlled currency.

Bitcoin Is Not a Democracy

Friedenbach was the first to respond to the audience member’s question, and he made a point of directly taking on the idea of Bitcoin as a democratically controlled currency. He noted:

“Bitcoin is not a democracy. It was never designed to be a democracy. Democracy is antithetical to what Bitcoin represents, which is consensus even in the face of mob-rule voting the other way.”

The idea that changes to Bitcoin should be governed democratically has been popularized by some supporters of Bitcoin Classic . Most notably, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong has referred to hard forks as elections.

Bitcoin Runs on Consensus

Friedenbach went on to explain that any change to the consensus algorithm in Bitcoin that does not have universal support from nodes will result in a fork. He added, “That is as user-protecting as it is scary when things break.”

In Friedenbach’s view, the difficulties associated with making changes to Bitcoin’s consensus rules are what make the system valuable in the first place. He stated:

“It’s the source of everything that makes Bitcoin great in terms of irrevocability of payments and the fact that you can’t have your funds seized. This is all because it is really difficult and very hard to change the Bitcoin protocol.”

While systems that do not require consensus can evolve faster, it’s also more likely for the wrong changes to be made when near-universal agreement on those alterations is not required. With a system based on consensus, Bitcoin holders can be assured that a bitcoin today will still be a bitcoin tomorrow. Although this makes it harder for Bitcoin to upgrade at the base level, innovation can still take place at layers above the Bitcoin blockchain .

Advocates of Bitcoin’s use as digital gold tend to agree with the near-universal consensus requirement of Bitcoin development, while individuals focused on the P2P payments aspect of the system, such as Bitcoin Classic developer Gavin Andresen , would like to see the protocol evolve more quickly — without the need for approval by nearly everyone on the network.

Political Money Already Exists

Friedenbach also agreed with remarks made by Bitcoin Core contributor Cory Fields in terms of the healthy contentiousness found in the community. In regard to the block size debate , he stated, “If this was political money, 18 months ago this would have been over.”

Poelstra agreed with Friedenbach’s comments on Bitcoin as apolitical money. He stated:

“It’s not a solution to replace Bitcoin with a political currency. There are lots of political currencies out there today. If you think that’s a solution, you’re welcome to switch to a political currency. Changing Bitcoin to be another one — however you could do that — I don’t think that’s a solution. That’s just shutting down Bitcoin.”

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