Blockchain isn’t about democracy and decentralisation – it’s about greed
Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin result in the concentration of wealth, not greater equality
By Nouriel Roubini
Oct 15 2018
With the value of bitcoin having fallen by about 70% since its peak late last year, the mother of all bubbles has now gone bust. More generally, cryptocurrencies have entered a not-so-cryptic apocalypse. The value of leading coins such as Ether, EOS, Litecoin and XRP have all fallen by over 80%, thousands of other digital currencies have plummeted by 90%-99%, and the rest have been exposed as outright frauds. No one should be surprised by this: four out of five initial coin offerings (ICOs) were scams to begin with.
Faced with the public spectacle of a market bloodbath, boosters have fled to the last refuge of the crypto scoundrel: a defence of “blockchain,” the distributed-ledger software underpinning all cryptocurrencies. Blockchain has been heralded as a potential panacea for everything from poverty and famine to cancer. In fact, it is the most overhyped – and least useful – technology in human history.
In practice, blockchain is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. But it has also become the byword for a libertarian ideology that treats all governments, central banks, traditional financial institutions, and real-world currencies as evil concentrations of power that must be destroyed. Blockchain fundamentalists’ ideal world is one in which all economic activity and human interactions are subject to anarchist or libertarian decentralisation. They would like the entirety of social and political life to end up on public ledgers that are supposedly “permissionless” (accessible to everyone) and “trustless” (not reliant on a credible intermediary such as a bank).
Yet far from ushering in a utopia, blockchain has given rise to a familiar form of economic hell. A few self-serving white men (there are hardly any women or minorities in the blockchain universe) pretending to be messiahs for the world’s impoverished, marginalised and unbanked masses claim to have created billions of dollars of wealth out of nothing. But one need only consider the massive centralisation of power among cryptocurrency “miners,” exchanges, developers and wealth holders to see that blockchain is not about decentralisation and democracy; it is about greed.
For example, a small group of companies – mostly located in such bastions of democracy as Russia, Georgia and China – control between two-thirds and three-quarters of all crypto-mining activity and all routinely jack up transaction costs to increase their fat profit margins. Apparently, blockchain fanatics would have us put our faith in an anonymous cartel subject to no rule of law, rather than trust central banks and regulated financial intermediaries.
A similar pattern has emerged in cryptocurrency trading. Fully 99% of all transactions occur on centralised exchanges that are hacked on a regular basis. And, unlike with real money, once your crypto wealth is hacked, it is gone forever.
Moreover, the centralisation of crypto development – for example, fundamentalists have named Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin a “benevolent dictator for life” – already has given lie to the claim that “code is law,” as if the software underpinning blockchain applications is immutable. The truth is that the developers have absolute power to act as judge and jury. When something goes wrong in one of their buggy “smart” pseudo-contracts and massive hacking occurs, they simply change the codeand “fork” a failing coin into another one by arbitrary fiat, revealing the entire “trustless” enterprise to have been untrustworthy from the start.