Vitalik Buterin Is Embracing a New Role: Political Theorist

On Sunday, Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin called for blockchain developers to think proactively about how their work can build new systems for organizing society, instead of just tools for privacy and independence. The speech was delivered at RadicalxChange, a conference co-conceived by Buterin and economist Glen Weyl to expand the ideas in Weyl’s book Radical Markets.

The conference, held in Detroit, was an unprecedented mix of blockchain developers and activists, economists, and social scientists, and Buterin’s speech reflected that cross-pollination. Above all, it was a retelling of how the individualist cypherpunks who laid the foundation for bitcoin have, particularly over the past five years, discovered the necessity of working with others.

“One of the properties of this early cypherpunk tradition is this very strong individualistic mindset,” Buterin recounted, to an audience not uniformly well-versed in the history of digital culture. “Basically this [cypherpunk] idea that it’s you, personally, making the decision … to switch from being part of the old world to being part of the new world. And the new world is on the internet—nobody knows you’re a dog.”

That reference to an epochal New Yorker cartoon was just one of many of the speech’s well-delivered jokes. I saw Buterin announce Ethereum in 2014, and while he’s still charmingly awkward, he’s infinitely more confident and comfortable in his own skin than he was five years ago.

Buterin walked his audience through three vital turning points for crypto. The first was the financial crisis of 2008-2009, which coincided with the launch of bitcoin. He recounted Satoshi Nakamoto’s decision to embed a headline about British bank bailouts in the bitcoin genesis block.

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“You could argue that [Satoshi] was just trying to make a timestamp,” Buterin said. “But there are lots of ways to make a timestamp. This was clearly a statement that this is not just about making a peer-to-peer digital currency. This was really about something different and something greater.”

That “something greater,” bitcoiners would agree, is providing a counterbalance to state and central bank power. But the second turning point Buterin highlighted forced hard questions about exactly how to do that. Buterin recounted the stakes and outcomes of both the bitcoin block size debate and the DAO hack, which he framed as a stark lesson for those would-be individualist cypherpunks.

“One of my theses here is that the cypherpunks’ attempts to get into the money business forced them to realize some other things along the way. And [one of those things] is that money is a fundamentally social thing in a much deeper way than, say, two-party encrypted communication,” Buterin continued. “You have to start thinking about governance, social contracts … common shared expectations in this community, how do changes get made, how do we decide how changes get made, how do we discuss things … These are all very political things.”

“To this day, there are people who will disagree with me,” he continued, “People who will say things on Twitter like, ‘Oh, there is no bitcoin community, there are just a bunch of people who use the same cryptocurrency.’ And, as you can tell, I disagree with this attitude.”

Related: Vitalik Buterin Hopes This Man’s Ideas Can Break America’s Political Logjam

This individualist mantra around bitcoin is a clear echo of conservative British leader Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that “There’s no such thing as society.” This may have been on Glen Weyl’s mind during our recent interview with him, when he criticized the individualism of some in the bitcoin community.

The growing attention to governance wasn’t theoretical for the Ethereum developers in attendance. Immediately after Buterin’s keynote, nearly two dozen adjourned to a meeting to discuss a proposal—EIP 1789—that would set aside money from Ethereum’s block reward to create some sort of development fund. The proposal is sure to be hotly debated in coming months, and the discussion saw Ethereum devs considering more governance-focused blockchains including Decred and Dash as potential models.

But Buterin’s concerns have grown well beyond blockchain. As his keynote continued, he pointed to a third moment of crisis, the 2016 wave of populist election victories in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere. This, he argued, reflected the failure of broader social systems, with two possible responses emerging: “1950’s-style centrally planned statism” on the far left, and “free-market capitalism with slightly more welfare” among centrists. “Both of these ideas,” he said bluntly, “Are kind of intellectual dead ends.”

Buterin did present a third option. “How many people here agree with the neoreactionary opinion that the solution to the problems of the United States is to go back to being ruled by King George III?” He asked, to a wave of laughter. “OK. King George IV, maybe?”

In other words, Buterin now sees blockchain projects not just as tools for escaping offline societies—like the cypherpunks thought of the online world—but as models and resources for improving those societies.

Instead, Buterin argued, the world needs bolder ideas to build a better society. Here he turned to those championed by Weyl, which have generally been dubbed “liberal radicalism” or “radical markets.” Broadly, they could be described as a hybrid of socialism and capitalism, involving rethinking ownership structures and the way markets work. That’s shared territory, Buterin pointed out, with smart-contract platforms including Ethereum. In other words, Buterin now sees blockchain projects not just as tools for escaping offline societies—as the cypherpunks saw the online world—but as models and resources for improving those societies.

His speech, as a kind of capstone to the work he has been doing with Weyl, shows Buterin transitioning from his role as a tech innovator, into that of a thinker concerned with the biggest questions facing society as a whole. It was a display of intellectual heft, breadth, and confidence far beyond his early thinking about mere computer science, weaving together politics, economics, and technology in ways that illuminated all three. The speech also, unquestionably, packed more wit and insight into 30 minutes than has passed through the lips of Mark Zuckerberg in his entire lifetime.

This is not just a coder or technologist—this is an intellectual, whose ideas happen to have first taken the form of code. In that respect, at least, he is the true heir of the cypherpunks, not of Silicon Valley’s commercial grasping. And while he has often professed discomfort with his role as a worshiped figurehead of Ethereum, he appears much more comfortable—even eager—when it comes to adopting a leadership role in a nascent political movement.