It Isn’t ‘Consensus’: Toward Cooler Protocol Debates

By September 10, 2016Bitcoin Business

Jim Harper is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and former global policy counsel at the Bitcoin Foundation. In this opinion piece, Harper critiques the idea that bitcoin and blockchains run on "consensus" among their users, arguing that it is counterproductive to equate use with consent. If Ayn Rand were involved in the bitcoin or crypto world, she might well identify "consensus" as an "anti-concept". The anti-concept , she said, is a "rationally unusable term". It conveys an approximate sense of meaning, but lacks the precision needed to fully communicate an idea. "In the realm of cognition," Rand said, "nothing is as bad as the approximate." "Consensus" mischaracterizes the decision-making processes that exist around bitcoin. Adoption or non-adoption of network software says nothing about the broader expectations, wants or needs of users and potential users. Talk about "consensus" will tend to sting users whose preferences conflict with the majority-run protocol and software. That does not mean that credit isn’t due to an author going by @MAbtc for the thoughtful contribution of his recent article: " Hard forks and Consensus Networks: Meta Questions and Limitations ." It is a helpful exploration of important ideas, and it won high praise from Bitcoin Core developer Adam Back. In particular, it offers valid thoughts on the ethereum hard fork , a development that is ripe for examination. (Another excellent after-action report is Josh Stark’s " Building the Foundations for a Scalable Ethereum Community "). @MAbtc’s article draws an intuitive distinction between the "consensus mechanism" for validating transactions described in Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin white paper and the "consensus rules" on which the broader bitcoin network operates. In his view, one set is amenable to change and the other is not. His aim is to clear up "widespread misunderstanding of the limitations of consensus […]

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