Every time I come across Vitalik Buterin, I’m impressed by his intellectual curiosity and underlying earnestness.
The former is rare; there aren’t many folks who can hold their own with Tyler Cowen. The latter, fortunately, is something he shares with other high-achieving folks, many of whom work in Washington, D.C., and other areas considered “intellectual power centers,” like Silicon Valley.
Eric Seal is a professional real estate developer and amateur Bitcoin advocate.
Despite what you hear in the media, most of them don’t care primarily about building their financial and reputational wealth; the majority strive to do the right thing and work to create products and services that better the lives of others, often for underserved communities. That’s a good thing.
(Now comes the “however” you knew was coming.)
However, what happens time and again is that unquestionably well-intentioned and decent folks like Buterin become uncomfortable when the interests and judgments of others collide with their own. They doubt the free market when it begins to take something they created in a direction they didn’t foresee and don’t particularly like.
And here’s what’s most important for folks like Buterin. Individual interests, the decisions they underlie and the actions they cause are what make free markets work, and free markets – as ugly, unpredictable and unfair as they can often be – are what drive human progress. Billions of people making their own decisions as to how they spend their time, energy and resources are the best way to allocate the world’s time, energy and resources. Bitcoin and Ethereum are tremendous new technologies that offer unparalleled opportunities to improve this allocation.
Bitcoin accomplishes this through its unstoppable and uncaring process of block verification. A simple process of 1s and 0s grinding forward every 10 minutes without human interaction or influence. Bitcoin takes all comers equally and doesn’t stop to assess the merit of individual blocks or the direction those blocks are taking things. Quite literally, it aggregates the private decisions of all who participate and doesn’t ask, “Well, gee, do I really like where this block is headed?”
As is clear in his recent Time interview, Buterin favors impersonal decentralization in concept, but not so much in practice. Intellectually, he understands the power of a decentralized network like Bitcoin, but in his heart he wants it to do the right things that matter to him. That’s why he helped create Ethereum, as he believed that “using [Bitcoin] purely for currency was a waste” (a belief that many bitcoiners probably share). Ethereum is great technology, an awesome platform for individual human creativity to flourish.
But it may not stay that way forever. According to Buterin, “we can’t wait years,” and we can’t allow crypto, generally, and, by inference, Ethereum, to be “implemented wrong.” We can’t allow the focus to be on “things that are immediately profitable,” so we must “exercise our voice.” After all, “[there] definitely are lots of people that are just buying yachts and Lambos.” (Sorry to anyone who works for yacht and Lambo manufacturers; I’m sure you can find jobs providing other goods and services on the approved list.)
More generally, in Buterin’s own words, “[t]he goal of crypto is not to play games with million-dollar pictures of monkeys; it’s to do things that accomplish meaningful effects in the real world.” (Sorry, again, if you’re an artist who has figured out a way to support yourself by creating pictures of monkeys or other unapproved content that folks want to buy.)
Buterin and his Ethereum brethren have brought immense opportunity and created great prosperity for the world and will likely continue to do so for many years. We’re lucky to have them around. Seriously.
But they must stop thinking they know what’s best for everyone. They must stop judging what everyone else is doing with the platform they created. Humans don’t advance in a straight line up and to the right, and it probably doesn’t appear like a line at all if you live through the twists and turns of innovation. Those “intellectual power centers” referred to above are full of smart, well-intentioned folks who think they know how everyone else’s time, energy and resources should be allocated to maximize human flourishing. They don’t. They can’t. No one can.
Buterin and his Ethereum supporters have already shown themselves willing to put their collective thumb on the scale to effect an outcome they viewed as right. Moving forward, I hope that won’t be repeated. I hope they’ll let Ethereum develop unfettered and go wherever its user base takes it. Based on everything we’re hearing from Buterin, however, I wouldn’t bet on it:
“Good crazy is when there’s tech work and research and development and public goods coming out of the other end. So there’s this battle. And we have to be intentional, and make sure more of the right things happen.”