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💸 Money and speech

💡 "Put your money where your mouth is!"

Economic actions have always been the most significant kind of speech. Making certain that the means by which we transact cannot be easily manipulated is a critical part of ensuring an open, equitable, and efficient marketplace for ideas.

Magic internet money talks

If you think back to value, you'll remember that the shared record of societal debt and the mythic narratives around which society coheres were separate things before 2009. However, the "free-as-in-beer" vs "free-as-in-speech" dichotomy is no longer valid online. Memorize 12 magical words, incant them into an internet-connected machine and you have immediate access to monetary value, anywhere in the world.

Even better, you can encode a reference to a specific newspaper headline into the genesis block of your network of timestamp servers (Satoshi's wording) to make a permanent political statement. It's unprecedented.

An efficient marketplace for ideas is the most oft-quoted reason for supporting free speech and this argument would seem to be strengthened by a technology that merges money and words and ensures that 'money' is a protocol with which anyone can speak. However, there is something deeper and more paradoxical at work here.

Regulation vs expense

People tend to think that censorship resistant blockchains enshrine free-as-in-speech just by virtue of their architecture, though the truth is almost the exact opposite. Free-as-in-speech is an ideal imposed by regulatory fiat and protected by human interpretation of our legal codes, hence all of the edge-case problems it is exposed to: hate speech, racism, libel, defamation and so on.

In blockchains, speech and execution are one and the same thing and interpretation is deterministic. The protocol has the bare minimum of rules required for consensus, basically: you cannot double spend a coin. Apart from this - as Andreas said - it lacks any meaningful context: every peer processes every transaction which passes these basic rules without fear or favour.

The context is determined not by legal interpretation, but by economics. Rather than enshrining an ideal like "free speech" which we agree is good, certain behaviours we agree to be malicious are made prohibitively expensive. They are not disallowed, they are just economically unsustainable. Vitalik touches on this in his Devcon 1 talk and we'll return to it again and again.

You can validate any kind of state transition you like in Eth2, but if it's provably malicious, your stake will get slashed. The incentive structure ensures that the only state transitions worth validating are those that correctly maintain consensus. It is a profound change in how we regulate expression.

Again, it points at complementary opposites:

💡 The most effective way to protect free speech is to price it correctly.

Math beats bureaucracy

Pricing different kinds of speech appropriately, rather than enshrining some imagined and culturally-conditioned ideal, has the second-order cybernetic effect of providing the funds needed to secure public goods. For instance, SSTOREs are a relatively expensive operation/expression on Ethereum because storing data on public networks is costly, and it is a cost borne by all of us. Therefore, we agree upon prices for such operations that incentivize developers to find ways of writing contracts which store the minimum possible information required for critical transactions.

We could even say that, on a blockchain, there is no such thing as free speech. There is only increasingly costly speech for increasingly damaging kinds of expression, with the incentives programmed such that the costs borne by the speaker are always provably more than those suffered by the community of listeners.


Further References

EIP-1559 is a great example of how we price transactional expression in practice, as is the debate it has sparked.