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Vitalik Buterin on Governance, Infighting and Human Fallibility


On February 8th, Vitalik Buterin appeared on a little known “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) at Of the many questions that were answered, one in particular gave great insight into the inner workings of Vitalik’s mind and worldview. For those not familiar with Vitalik Buterin (founder of Ethereum), see his Wikipedia page.

I feel like I’ve been very fortunate over the last few years to have been paying close attention to several parallel situations at the same time: US politics, increasingly Asian politics, the Bitcoin block size debate, and the various issues inside of Ethereum, and I feel like this is increasingly giving me insights about how the world works, and how the world will work no matter who is running it because it arises out of laws of economics and social psychology that apply to everyone.

Many people, including very early on myself, thought that Bitcoin would somehow liberate us from the foibles of human politics, but the Bitcoin block size wars of the last 2 years have, in my opinion, proven conclusively that that has utterly not happened at all, and that the situation is in fact highly political from all sides. Backdoor negotiations between Bitcoin Core and Chinese miners, censorship, sketchy meetings that claim to be open to those from the other side, but where in reality the other side is only invited to fly halfway across the world 36 hours in advance – all of it is in there. I sometimes find myself visiting the /r/btc and /r/politics subreddit in the morning, and wondering “ok, seriously, which one is crazier today?”.

What all of this means is that corruption and political squabbling are not something that happens because a particular set of evil bankers is in charge, but rather they are natural results of incentives in large-scale social systems and the way human beings respond to them. Solving the problem can thus only be done by changing the underlying institutions. I spend a lot of time thinking about this, but so far I can only tell that the problem is deep and difficult. One sub-problem that I think we can make substantial progress on within a shorter time scale is building tools and institutions for epistemic self-defense – helping people figure out what is true and what is false, even in the face of powerful actors trying to give you a wrong answer or just plain confuse you.

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Nick Founder