Bitcoin discussions need to become more diplomatic
Sep 22, 2015
4 minute read

I love anarchy. Love it. I find the subject totally fascinating. I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about governance in a state of anarchy. In fact, I have sort of experienced it.

International relations theorists use the word “anarchy” to describe the state of affairs between sovereign nations. There is no global sovereign — no third party that can intervene to enforce agreements between countries or resolve their disputes.

Global anarchy does not mean that the world is chaotic, although of course order sometimes does break down. Most countries live in peace with most other countries. The system mostly works.

I have experienced governance in a state of anarchy firsthand through my participation on US delegations to the International Telecommunication Union, one of the UN’s specialized agencies. I advised the US government in two global treaty negotiations and at one policy conference at the ITU between 2012 and 2014.

If there is one word to describe what stable governance in a state of anarchy looks like, it is polite.

The over-the-top politeness with which high-level diplomats address each other in plenary meetings is really striking. Everyone is “distinguished.” The Secretary-General is thanked for his “visionary leadership.” Often disagreement is first expressed by “seeking clarification.” Participants speak non-confrontationally and do everything in “a spirit of consensus and compromise,” a phrase that is frequently repeated.

It’s easy to be cynical about this politeness. Often the management is not visionary, it’s totally clear what the other guy is saying, and the patience displayed is a facade behind which lies exasperation.

But I think this over-the-top politeness serves a purpose. Obviously, when you are dealing with people from different cultures, it is easy for a misunderstanding to cause offense, and so politeness is always a good idea in an international context. But on an even more fundamental level, excessive politeness is a kind of ritual that serves to remind everyone that they are operating in a very weak institutional context. Nobody can make anybody do anything. There are no externally enforceable rules. We must all take on the task of sweet-talking each other into agreement.

Which brings us to Bitcoin. Interestingly, Bitcoin developers are also in a state of anarchy with respect to one another. At least insofar as it affects Bitcoin development, there are no externally enforceable rules. And Bitcoin developers, like international diplomats, are also essentially in a position to make global policy.

Bitcoin developers are engineers. Engineers like efficiency. Over-the-top politeness seems inefficient.

For the vast majority of technical discussions, over-the-top politeness probably is inefficient. We don’t need anyone to be diplomatic when they are discussing issues that raise no ideological controversy.

But increasingly, we do see Bitcoin governance veering into controversial territory. It’s not just the block size debate. There will be more issues in the future that implicate different ideological visions for what Bitcoin should become.

For these issues, Bitcoin developers could learn something from the equilibrium that has developed in international diplomacy. A strong politeness norm for controversial development issues could serve the same role for Bitcoin as the norm has in our mostly functional international system of anarchy.

In terms of proposals, Bitcoin developers might consider the following. For normal, not-especially-controversial Bitcoin technical work, keep everything as is. But when an issue starts to become controversial, perhaps discussion could be moved from the bitcoin-dev mailing list to a new bitcoin-dev-challenging mailing list. The norms of this new mailing list could support higher standards of politeness and diplomacy. By splitting up the work in this way, Bitcoin engineers could maintain their preferred informal style of communication for non-ideological issues while securing the benefits of a more formal diplomatic style when they are in fact making global policy.

I talked with Adam Levine about some of these issues recently on an episode of Let’s Talk Bitcoin, which is embedded below: