Block Size Political Economy Follow-Up 2: Market Intervention through Voluntary Community Rules

Continues from Part 1: Software Choice, Market Differentiation, and Term Selection

If a given block size limit is part of a given cryptocurrency at a given time, can economists legitimately say anything with regard to such a limit? Must this topic be left alone as a mere qualitative characteristic of a product that users have freely selected?

From one perspective, if user preferences are subjective matters of taste and opinion, nothing can be said other than that Ravi prefers this, Setsuko prefers that, and Heinrich prefers some other thing. If various users prefer a cryptocurrency with one block size limit or another, economists must remain silent and leave users to their purely subjective preferences, only taking note in abstract and neutral terms of the shape of these preferences. Personal preferences are “ultimate givens,” their specific content irreducible “black box” starting points for economists.

This appears to be a sounder critique. Block size limits are indeed characteristics of specific cryptocurrencies as products. Users may well differ in their subjective preferences on such matters for reasons not even fully understandable. Users differ in their values. Motivations can even include various grades of membership signaling. An economist speaking on such things, this criticism goes, merely “smuggles in” his own particular personal preferences or party affiliation “dressed up as” objective analysis.

Can any role for economic analysis here be rescued from this critique? It may help to take a step back and consider some other scenarios to gain perspective and then return to apply that perspective to the case under consideration.

First, consider two hypothetical cryptocurrencies, one with a block size limit that directly influences the ordinary structure of supply and demand in its transaction-inclusion market, and another that does not (this can equally be the same cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, at two different phases in its history). The first cryptocurrency’s code alters the operation of the market between transaction senders and miners, limiting the total quantity of services that can be supplied per time period. Certain economic and industry-structure effects follow. These effects apply to a coin with this characteristic, but not to one without it. What are those differences? Those differences were the central theme of the interview to which this series follows.

Yet subjective individual preferences do not alter the distinctions analyzed. Thus, even though the content of the preferences themselves may be a black box for economists, the two differing transaction-inclusion markets still have objectively describable economic distinctions independent of any such preferences. Dropping a stone from the Tower of Pisa is a choice, one with all manner of possible motivations, but the resulting acceleration of gravity is not altered by any personal opinion as to the nature and effects of such gravity.

Three intentional communities and their altcoins

Next, consider several hypothetical intentional communities. It is possible to establish and run such communities under various rule sets. Although intentional communities have often been to some degree communistic (“commune”), it is possible to set up other idealistic havens, perhaps some real-life attempt at an Ayn-Rand-style Galt’s Gulch or a Neal-Stephenson-style Thousander retreat. Participation is governed by a kind of “social contract,” but in this context the contract is more likely to be one that actually exists, including specified conditions to which participants have assented by joining and staying, possibly even signing a written agreement with terms of residence.

Let us assume that in all cases, no matter what the other internal rules and cultures, participants are not forced to either join or stay. This freedom of entry and exit corresponds to cryptocurrency participation choices.

Now consider three such voluntary intentional communities. Bernieland features a $20 minimum wage. MagicCorner bans "wage relations" altogether. Finally, Murrayville has no numerical restrictions on wage agreements. Even though all three are voluntary communities, only Bernieland and MagicCorner include labor rules that restrict wage rates. The voluntarily agreed community rules specify certain wage-market restrictions. These types of restrictions are traditionally analyzed under the rubric of market intervention by state agencies, which are often subsumed under the term “government.” Whether one wants to also call a complex around intentional community rules and enforcement measures a type of “government” or not is beside the point. There may be valid reasons for either using or not using that word, provided suitable definitions and qualifications are set out.

In this case, it is analytically valuable to be able to note how Murrayville is free of rules that specify restrictions on the existence or range of wages in its labor market. Murrayville might therefore be described within this context as having a labor market free of intervention—unlike Bernieland and MagicCorner. Considering this difference alone, one would expect Murrayville to therefore have the best functioning labor market of the three, with more ample employment opportunities for those aiming to work on a wage basis.

The fact that all participants in all three communities voluntarily join and agree to the respective terms of each does not alter the economic distinctions between their differing labor market rules. Even though all three communities are voluntary, it remains that only one has a minimum wage, another bans wages, and a third does neither.

Arguing that the term “intervention” can only apply to state agency actions does not aid in the economic analysis of wage rate restrictions within these voluntary intentional communities. One might try to suggest a better term to use here instead of intervention. However, since the effects of wage restrictions have already been analyzed under the rubric of state-made laws described as “interventions,” using established terms—with suitable qualifications, as was done—easily accesses the appropriate implications.

Now in an effort to compete for residents, each community launches its own altcoin. Berniecoin does not allow any transaction with a fee above 1.5 Bernielashes/byte to be mined. This seeks to create a price ceiling for transaction inclusion. No one can pay more within the protocol. No one can use greater wealth to supersede other transaction senders. MCcoin’s protocol includes no way for transaction fees to be included at all; no one can bid for priority by including a fee. Finally, Murraycoin does neither. Transactions with any fee, or none, can be sent, and each miner is free to include or exclude any of these. Each node is likewise free to either relay any of them or not, or to try to figure out some ways to monetize such services.

Once again, based on this alone, Berniecoin and MCcoin demonstrate forms of what has heretofore been best characterized as “market intervention” within their respective communities. In this case, their protocols specify this directly. Murraycoin alone is free of any such effective intervention in its transaction-inclusion market. The others have policies that place a ceiling on the payment of transaction fees. The voluntary nature of participation in all three does not alter this distinction. One cryptocurrency has a maximum transaction fee, another bans fees, and the third does neither. These respective encoded policies are indeed part of what users implicitly choose when they use one rather than another. Nevertheless, distinct economic and social implications follow from those differences, and do so apart from any beliefs or wishes as to the nature of such implications.

This price-ceiling example demonstrates the general applicability of market intervention analysis within the context of voluntary arrangements. With the issue of a block size limit that restricts normal transaction volume, the relevant concept is not a price ceiling, but an output ceiling.

How to have a cartel without forming one

A subtler misconstrual of my interview assumes that I argued that since a particular situation or dynamic exists, someone must have acted to bring it about. However, I made no mention of any specific persons or groups, nor did I attribute any intentionality or motive. If there is thunder, it does not necessarily follow that Thor must have hammered it out.

Instead, I identified a market. I noted an effective limit to industrywide service provision as actual market volume begins to interact with a limit long in place, but formerly inert for this purpose. I described some of the general effects of any such limit to the extent it actually begins to limit ordinary volume. I argued that these effects are negative, but also easy for observers and participants of all kinds to miss or underestimate because they entail hidden costs and distort industry structure evolution from paths it could have taken instead, but did not, thus rendering those possibly better alternative paths “not seen” in Bastiat’s sense.

Certain economic effects follow from output ceilings and these have commonly been analyzed in terms of cartel situations. Yet this implies no necessary argument that anyone has set out to form a cartel or to create any of these situations or dynamics. That would be a completely different argument, more journalistic in nature and evidence requirements.

Being encoded in a protocol is a new way for an output ceiling to exist. Normally—but not in this case—any given industry actor, either current player or potential entrant, could just violate such a ceiling unless facing some overt or threatened form of legal or quasi-legal enforcement. Consider post-war Japanese steel production. An industrywide output ceiling was maintained for many years to limit competition. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry “recommended” this as a “voluntary” measure for domestic steelmakers. Of course, when some rebels sought to exceed the limit, MITI simply refused to approve their requests for increased purchases of more iron ore and fuel, which it also oversaw. Only through MITI could such a limit be maintained.

This type of limit sets up an upside-down and sub-zero-sum dynamic in an industry. There are concentrated gains for the inefficient (who should otherwise probably quit and sell off assets), somewhat less concentrated losses for the more efficient (who are unable to expand as much), hidden losses for would-be entrants (who are never seen because they avoid entering a market with an arbitrary ceiling), and dispersed and nearly invisible losses for many anonymous end users (who mostly have little clue about any of this and how it is happening at their own expense). Once again, though, all this can be so regardless of anyone’s knowledge or intentions.

To say with regard to the block size limit that there exists an industry situation with effects like those of an enforced cartel does not necessarily also imply that 1) some people set out to create it, or that 2) all or even any such people actually benefit from it on balance, or that 3) any of them fully understands it. Each actor has his own intentionality and working models of causality, but all of this combines into social outcomes that result, but were not necessarily planned from the outset to take the forms taken. Describing such unplanned social effects, Adam Ferguson wrote in 1767 that, “nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”

That said, noting the social science concept of spontaneous emergence as one factor to consider does not also constitute a claim that certain effects have not been planned or that they do not actually produce special interest benefits for some at the expense of others. It only points out that any such intentions and plans as may or may not exist are not directly relevant to the comparative analysis of rule effects. The topics are distinct.