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Let’s Get Radical: Glen Weyl, RadicalxChange, And Blockchain Technology




ETHNews caught up with the researcher and author to learn more about the RadicalxChange movement and blockchain technology’s role within it.

History Time!

"The auction will set you free."

This (bold) premise begins Glen Weyl and Eric Posner's book "Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society." To the uninitiated, the book explores the radical expansion of our markets by imagining the transformation of private property into a perpetual auction system for the public's benefit. Although the concept of radical markets is comprised of multiple tenets, two key points are quadratic voting, a process by which all citizens receive an equal number of votes that they choose to distribute, and data as labor, which calls for the distribution of revenue to the "laborers" who provide their data to companies.

Although Weyl did not intend to relate radical markets to blockchain technology, discussions have arisen within the cryptospace to investigate the intersection of these two realms. He was introduced to blockchain when Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin referenced the book in a tweet, an action that spurred an ongoing exchange between the two.

"I didn't know who [Vitalik] was or anything about him, and I sent him my book manuscript because he was interested in reading it," Weyl told ETHNews. "He sent me about 20 pages of comments on it. They were fascinating."

The conversations between Weyl and Buterin eventually led to their collaboration with researcher Zoë Hitzig on a paper titled "Liberal Radicalism: Formal Rules for a Society Neutral Among Communities." Simply put, the research effort proposes a funding mechanism by which projects that offer the most public good are promoted and receive an appropriate amount of resources. Although the design could be applied to various examples, such as campaign finance and news media, the paper specifically references blockchain communities as a locus for the "practical application of the [liberal radical] mechanism."

With all the talk surrounding radical markets and liberal radicalism, plus the development of a subcommunity of crypto enthusiasts interested in the research, it makes sense for an organized movement to materialize.

Thus emerges RadicalxChange.

Blockchain as a Social Movement

In response to the critical reception of his ideas, Weyl decided to develop a conference, with help from Jeffrey Lee-Yaw as executive director, to unite the many individuals thinking about radical markets' role in creating "a radically more just society." Dubbed RadicalxChange, the 500-person event is slated for March 2019, with four areas of focus: ideas and research, arts and communications, entrepreneurship and technology, and activism and government.

However, Weyl maintains that RadicalxChange is more than a conference – it's a movement. After the inaugural event this March, Weyl and his team hope to expand its scope.

"We're planning that beyond [the conference], it will grow into a more permanent organization that will do a variety of things," said Weyl. "There are many things in the air."

It's clear the movement is forming, but where does blockchain fit into that growth? According to Weyl, the technology is important for RadicalxChange because it offers "a great space for experimentation." Weyl, Buterin, and Hitzig's paper briefly addresses this potential, but there are various examples of the ways in which blockchain could be leveraged as a tool to enable a radical market framework.

For Art's Sake

One prominent example is the art market. In the art space as we know it today, collectors can sequester artwork of significant cultural value, thereby preventing the public from enjoying it. Many culturally important pieces are displayed in museums and galleries, to be sure, but certain works remain in private collections, sometimes forever.

Applying the concept of radical markets, we could potentially "reclaim the commons value for some of those works and make them available," as Weyl suggests. The "greater fluidity" that would accompany a continuous art auction could, theoretically, restructure the art space so that the artwork itself became a public good. The emphasis on the public quality of art also pairs well with liberal radicalism in that artistic contributions made to benefit the public could be supported through this alternative funding mechanism.

Simon de la Rouviere, an engineer at ConsenSys, has written at length about the intersection of blockchain technology, radical markets (more specifically, the Harberger tax), and the art realm. He agrees with Weyl that blockchain technology provides an opportunity to experiment within a radical market framework. De la Rouviere asserts:

"Blockchains are a ripe breeding ground for experimenting in closed-loop economies, because the on-chain, bearer assets can be enforced using only the ledger. This is particularly relevant in the new, growing arena of non-fungible collectibles, like CryptoKitties."

In many ways, the perpetual auction model proposed by Weyl and Posner already exists for cryptocollectibles, as asset holders continue to buy and sell their collectible items through non-fungible token marketplaces like Open Sea and Rare Bits. Although other digital auction systems exist (such as eBay), the radical market design is different because the blockchain backbone enables participants to always know the prices of assets without needing a registry to see those numbers. Plus, in this system, everything would be up for grabs, not just a select few items.

De la Rouviere also provided the example of a pixel map, which allows individuals from around the world to contribute pixels to a shared digital canvas. In this hypothetical model, people would set prices for their pixels and pay taxes on them. Anybody could buy a pixel from somebody else, and the pixel owners would receive income through the tax levied on all pixel owners. If someone did not pay the tax, then anybody could "trigger a forced sale" of the nonpayer's pixel.

At the ETHSanFrancisco hackathon from October 5-7 (which de la Rouviere judged), two teams built this type of pixel map. The projects demonstrate not only the potential for a Harberger tax economic model but also the ability to use the concept of radical markets as artwork itself.

Another blockchain-based, collaborative art project exists on the EOS network, called Pixel Master. The game offers a way for participants to earn rewards from a pixel auction. Of course, the game does not follow a radical market-based taxation or economic model, but like with cryptocollectibles, the perpetual auction system is present at least in a rudimentary form.

A Future Full of Activism

Art is a tangible use case for radical markets, but the potential of Weyl and Posner's ideas percolates in multiple directions. Besides art, one direction Weyl wants to explore further is activism.

The RadicalxChange movement has received considerable engagement and funding from both researchers and entrepreneurs. This is understandable because (1) much of the work to explore radical markets occurs at the research and academic levels and (2) radical ideas and entrepreneurship share an ethos of upending flawed products and systems. "I get so many [requests] from entrepreneurs and businesspeople every day, and I have to really ration those," Weyl added.

Despite the popularity of the ideas and entrepreneurship tracks, Weyl believes the movement needs more activists. Technological experimentation is certainly important, but he also thinks there should be "a world of overlapping experimentation and community formation." Activists, with their ability to mobilize, could take ideas like radical markets and liberal radicalism to the national stage. To Weyl, there is a larger picture of social change that is ultimately part of the movement. He continued:

"The things I really want to engage with are those other sides [activist communities]. The more we can draw those people in, the healthier and the more successful the movement is going to be. Blockchain is an interesting technology, but I actually think the social movement and the social values around Ethereum are much more interesting and powerful than the technology itself."

Activism also aligns with Weyl's piecemeal conception of radical markets. He admits these ideas will not lead to policy changes or significant paradigm shifts overnight, but part of the battle, so to speak, includes the work of activists to garner attention and make people aware of the flaws in existing systems.

He references data as labor as a prime example in that the main roadblock is helping people to see the value in their personal information. According to Weyl, when individuals are aware of that value, it can lead to a class consciousness and, eventually, to change.

In a way, this approach – that is, operating within established models and institutions to seek progress – represents a form of tactical bricolage, the use of available resources to dismantle problematic systems from within. Weyl likens this characteristic of the RadicalxChange movement to the American Constitution and the ways its founding principles have been appropriated for different causes. "There are a lot of white men who had their own purposes, but once those ideas were out, they started to undermine the system that they put in place," he continued.

This activist mindset, even if some crypto enthusiasts would shy away from the term "activism," complements the cryptospace, especially the Ethereum community. In fact, Weyl will be speaking at this year's Devcon, the annual Ethereum developer conference, about "the need for collective action through a diverse range of communities."

Ideological differences aside, the blockchain industry is full of philosophers and tinkerers attempting to build a better society. If a better, fairer world is the endgame, then RadicalxChange might just be the movement the blockchain community needs.

Dani Putney

Dani is a full-time writer for ETHNews. They received their bachelor's degree in English writing from the University of Nevada, Reno, where they also studied journalism and queer theory. In their free time, they write poetry, play the piano, and fangirl over fictional characters. They live with their partner, three dogs, and two cats in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.

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