Bitcoin promotes freedom. It enables anyone, anywhere to send, receive or store their wealth. It also prevents governments or corporations from meddling in these transactions. But what type of freedom does Bitcoin provide? Is it a freedom to use or store digital cash or the freedom from an overreaching state?
Isaiah Berlin introduced the dichotomy of negative and positive freedom in his famous essay "Two Conceptions of Liberty.” The negative conception of freedom refers to the absence of something, or the freedom from interference, barriers or constraints. This is also called “liberal freedom,” as in the liberal right to speech or religion without government intervention. The positive conception of freedom, on the other hand, is described as the ability to do something with the aim of realizing a goal or more fully reach one’s potential.
However, Phillip Pettit and Quentin Skinner independently excavated a third, alternative conception of freedom. This “new” version was nestled in the writings of ancient Republican Rome. They introduced it as the freedom from domination or dependence. It's this type of freedom that Bitcoin makes space for.
Republican freedom is both a negative concept because it is based on the absence of something, in this case, domination, and a positive one because it relies on active citizenship. For this reason, it offers a more comprehensive approach to freedom than Berlin's binary, especially with respect to government and politics.
The American Revolution against British domination is a suitable example: The U.S. Declaration of Independence specifies the term “independence” as “independence from the British Crown" (read: domination).
Can we be free under a benign master?
Freedom in the republican sense is a social status, like the distinction between a master and a slave. Under such a system, interference does not have to be exercised – the master does not have to crack his whip – for it to be present: The mere existence of external, obtrusive forces makes one unfree.
Liberal freedom, on the other hand is the condition of being free as long as a master does not interfere arbitrarily. Don’t tread on me.
Pettit, of the republican tradition, elaborates on the above condition and claims that a democratically deliberated and consented (possibly also contested) interference does not always reduce freedom, but instead enhances it because the democratic process facilitates choice. It's about self-mastery.
Was Ulysses dominated by his sailors?
Take Ulysses' encounter with the sirens. In order to escape the intoxicating song of the sirens, Ulysses ordered his sailors to bound him to their ship's mast. Technically, his men interfered with the Homeric hero's ability to act as he wished, but did not dominate him because Ulysses himself authorized the interference.
Similarly, taxes imposed on citizens might not be an arbitrary interference if they "track the welfare and worldview of those affected,” as Pettit said. For republican freedom, only arbitrary interference can make one unfree.
Bitcoin blockchain freedom
If we turn now to the subject of the Bitcoin protocol, mainstream arguments regarding its political dimensions often center around its “absence of interference from a central authority.” That pivotal aspect of the blockchain is negative freedom writ large.
Blockchain, however, not only has the advantage of being free from outside interference but also implements various mechanisms agreed upon by its governance protocols to secure that freedom.
From the above perspective, then, Bitcoin is based not on the idea of liberal freedom, but on republican the ideal. The Bitcoin blockchain provides security and ownership of data by administering the mechanisms of a trustless, transparent and decentralized system. Any "interference" to Bitcoin's protocol has to be deliberated on, and consented to, by the core developers and node operators before it is approved and implemented.
The Taproot upgrade, exemplifies this nonarbitrary intervention at its best. After years of deliberation, the “Speedy Trial” process started early this year. The process was designed to last three months, with signaling, i.e. voting, occurring every two weeks. To approve the proposal, at least 90% of the blocks mined within two weeks had to signal approval to the Taproot upgrade. On June 14, more than 99% of the blocks had an approval signal for the Taproot proposal.
In comparison, amending the U.S. Constitution requires only a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the legislatures in the 50 states. If the degree of consensus across a wide body of people is a measure of success, then the Taproot upgrade did very well as it attained the required minimum of 90% approval.
Since the Bitcoin blockchain protocol promises both negative freedom (“Don’t Tread on Me”) and positive freedom (“We the People”), as with republican freedom, it attracts not only libertarians but also progressives. This final point, by the way – drawing in people from a varied ideological spectrum – helps to understand why supporters of blockchain technology, in general, cannot be easily confined inside any specific ideological box.
Learn more about Consensus 2023, CoinDesk’s longest-running and most influential event that brings together all sides of crypto, blockchain and Web3. Head to consensus.coindesk.com to register and buy your pass now.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.