Last Friday, Ethereum core developer Vlad Zamfir decided he'd had enough: It was time to issue a clarion call and take Nick Szabo's "beast" to task. "[W]e must take it upon ourselves," Zamfir wrote in his January 25 blog post, "to use crypto law to conjure up a new crypto legal system, one that is able to keep Szabo's beast in check."
What's this proverbial Minotaur that Zamfir hopes to slay, er … cage? Zamfir calls it "Szabo's law" and goes on to explain its perceived foibles and advocate for the establishment of an alternative "crypto law." Zamfir's post raises interesting questions that are worth teasing out, but these issues are obscured by the ample doses of snark and personal attack with which they're delivered.
Nonetheless, two interlocutors – Vitalik Buterin and Gabriel Shapiro – attempted to rescue these issues from the quagmire of sarcasm into which they'd been flung. Both Buterin and Shapiro offered charitable critiques of Zamfir's ideas and advanced the dialogue beyond its ill-begotten beginnings. This piece attempts to summarize the dialogue between these three dialogists – Zamfir, Buterin, and Shapiro – and offer reflections on how they intersect with current blockchain debates about structure, governance, and the concept of apoliticism.
What Is "Szabo's Law"?
Zamfir refers to the principle in question as "Szabo's law," but as lawyer Gabriel Shapiro points out, it's better described as Szabo's "ethos," "approach," or "philosophy." Zamfir's short summary of Szabo's approach is: "Do not implement changes to the blockchain protocol unless the changes are required for the purpose of technical maintenance." Shapiro argues that it's more accurate to characterize Szabo's ethos as a "social trust minimization approach" – but, for the sake of argument, let's follow Zamfir's definition briefly.
Zamfir opines that Szabo's law is one of three major "crypto laws" that unofficially govern the crypto space. The other two are: 1) don't break the protocol, and 2) keep crypto law legal. Szabo's law, he argues, breaks the second law because its application will result in making cryptocurrency illegal in many jurisdictions. He believes that the legal system will encounter disputes that cannot be resolved without making changes to the protocol – and rather than breach this impasse, legislators will outlaw cryptocurrency.
Zamfir goes on to say that, despite Szabo's principle that politics should be minimized, Szabo is deeply political: "He imagines a world in which crypto political and legal processes are necessarily going to go against either his personal preferred political outcomes, or against the public good, and therefore must be minimized."
It's here that Vitalik Buterin interjects that Zamfir misrepresents Szabo's approach. Lowercase-c conservative social philosophy, Buterin points out, says that although change can be good, there are many more ways for change to be bad. Rather than criticizing the conservatism of Szabo's law, Buterin believes Zamfir would do better to argue against the axiom that doing nothing is always safest.
Buterin also takes issue with Zamfir's accusation that Szabo's law is antisocial and is an inevitable barrier to the social scalability of public blockchains. Zamfir writes:
"Szabo's law is not anti-political. It is a law that is aimed at shutting down political debate in order to guarantee Nick's [Szabo's] preferred political ends. I regard this kind of anti-social behavior to be bad-faith participation in blockchain governance."
Zamfir presumes that Szabo knows this approach isn't socially scalable and the downfall of autonomous software is inevitable:
"Nick [Szabo] knows that autonomous software isn't always going to be legal or politically popular, and he is determined to use crypto law to shut down any legal and political coordination that would undermine his mission."
Buterin rebuts Zamfir's claim: Szabo is trying to create a Schelling fence, which is not de facto anti-social. Put crudely, a Schelling fence is an arbitrary point that acts as a dividing line to fence off an area on a "slippery slope." The purpose of the fence is to guard against straying too far into a specific territory/act, but also to maximize the gains of pursuing that action up to that arbitrary point. Buterin writes:
"There is an inherent tradeoff between optionality on the side of those taking actions and certainty on the side of those receiving the consequences of the actions; Schelling fences are an attempt to support the latter. So to me Schelling fences are not about blocking participation, they're about protecting non-participants (and minorities)."
Zamfir believes Szabo's law contains an insecure and aggressive legal posture: refusing to deal with disputes that aren't related to tech maintenance reflects the belief that politics and law are unworkable and it's not worth even trying.
In place of Szabo's law, Zamfir recommends the development of what he calls "crypto law," which "is responsible for managing disputes in blockchain governance, and making sure that they are resolved via legal processes that don't break the protocol."
A Lawyer Weighs in on Crypto Law
It's here that a lawyer, Gabriel Shapiro, weighs in on Zamfir's impassioned plea for the establishment of crypto law. The short of Shapiro's post is that we already have a decent legal system and it's counterproductive to create a parallel crypto legal system – which is essentially what Zamfir is proposing. Shapiro dubs Zamfir's crypto law proposal "Zamfir's law" for rhetorical effect.
Shapiro believes that Zamfir and other "denizens of blockchain" would do better to 1) engage the traditional law-making/influencing process and 2) to have private ordering by entering into contracts to agree among themselves to a certain set of governance rules.
Although Shapiro thinks Zamfir confuses the matter by calling Szabo's philosophy a "law," he agrees that that the principle Zamfir attributes to Szabo "is a very real cultural force in the blockchain world and is sufficiently discrete that it can be reified, held up, reviewed and criticized, lauded or built upon."
At the same time, Shapiro doesn't view Szabo's law and Zamfir's law as mutually exclusive because there are lots of blockchains. Shapiro presents a hypothetical scenario in which Szabo's approach makes sense but Zamfir's law would limit the possibility of it working. He advocates preserving space for both laws. The communities that want to explore Szabo's law can do so. Those who want to explore Zamfir's law can do so through private ordering (contracts) rather than "law."
Shapiro maintains interest in this aspect of Zamfir's proposal: "[T]o Vlad's credit, there is nevertheless quite an interesting idea he has implicitly cottoned onto – namely, that of combining blockchain technology with the power of private ordering via legal contracts."
Buterin furthered the conversation on Zamfir's proposal to diverge from Szabo's principle by imagining some concrete scenarios in which it might be advantageous to violate Szabo's law in hopes of achieving an objective that can be expected to lead to more good than harm.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Governance, structure, and the question of whether neutrality in any system is even possible, are already topics under debate in the Ethereum community. The biggest takeaways from the discussion sparked by Zamfir's post are 1) the practical suggestion of private ordering via legal contracts, and 2) the concern tacitly shared by both Zamfir and Shapiro: An approach such as Szabo's is a strong cultural force, and it's important to examine how the contours of these "invisible laws" influence the shape of technology and governance.
These issues are not unlike some of those raised by Lane Rettig last month, in which he invoked the concept of the "Tyranny of Structurelessness" to reflect on approaches to Etherean governance. The gist of the idea is that nothing is structureless; when there's no apparent formal structure humans will create ad hoc ways of organizing themselves. Because the social structure is not acknowledged, this makes it hard to hold leadership accountable and can end up creating its own kind of tyranny.
In this sense, no structure is apolitical. One certainly can (and should) take issue with Zamfir's verbal aggression toward Szabo, but there's something to his assertion that Szabo's law is "politically loaded not politically minimal, apolitical or antipolitical." To opt for a minimal crypto political and legal processes is, in fact, a political position. It would be unfair to characterize Szabo's approach as more political than other philosophies, but to the extent that any approach is popularly understood as apolitical, invoking the Tyranny of Structurelessness is a useful exercise.
Shapiro's suggestion to utilize different blockchains, and the idea of private ordering through contracts, is one more step toward a concrete, practical resolution of the tensions inherent to governance of a decentralized platform. The Law of Szabo and the Law of Zamfir can both be tested and explored, and the ad hoc governance that emerges in relation to different blockchains can be named and given formal definition through private contracts.
This also makes room for the "local" social economies of individual blockchains to contribute to the larger ecosystem of blockchain adoption by exploring what works, what doesn't, and the conditions in which these experiments succeeded or failed.
Instead of battling beasts or establishing universal laws, we'd be better served to talk through specific hypothetical use cases as Buterin suggests. There's a certain allure to "wrench-in-the-gears" mentalities – and to some extent blockchain technology has this quality by virtue of what it is: a revolt against old systems that are not working for everyone, and a collaborative effort to create something new.
But the generative potential of apocalyptic thinking can all too easily be undermined by ego, which stifles creative (re)construction by framing the issues as an epic battle with the individual self (or group of people) on the front lines. We can admire Zamfir's chutzpah in declaring that he's "prepared to die on this hill" – but also challenge the assumption that death by combat is even necessary.
Attack, aggression, the postures of war – these bullheaded tacks offer no creative solutions following deconstruction. Listening, providing informed critique, thoughtfully assessing structures so that we aren't unwittingly ruled by them – this is the stuff that leads to generative collaboration and the building of a better future. How's that for a political statement?