10 October 2014

Crowdsourcing a New Wall Street?

. #MichelleWindsor. #bitcoin. #market. #cryptocurrency.

As many in the libertarian community already know, Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne recently unveiled a plan to build a revolutionary new model of finance on the back of the old financial system. Namely, by creating a Bitcoin equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange in hopes of eventually replacing Wall Street entirely with a crypto-security trading system that would liberate previously elite investment tools into “the hands of the general public.”

Such a populist vision may seem surprising coming from a former venture capitalist who descends from a good ‘ol boy lineage of concentrated capital – the sort of capital that is accumulated over generations with the help of state-enforced regulatory and legal barriers designed to favor the elite at the expense of the general public. As a former beneficiary of the very system he now seeks to replace, he stands as an odd figure to lead a populist financial revolution.

Given that bitcoin is a tool designed to empower the 99% and has the ability to destruct the very system of state and legal privileges that currently produce and protect Mr. Byrne’s wealth, it seems strange that he advocates the construction of a new system that would level him onto the same economic playing field as the rest of us. Yet despite this apparent philosophical discrepancy within his vision, Mr. Byrne wears an aura of Messianic servitude as he goes about his new-found destiny as the unlikely leader of a Rebel Alliance against the evil empire of Wall Street.

Confidence aside, Byrne himself actually has no idea how a stateless crypto-equity system might actually work in real life. And so he’s boldly enlisting the help of the public to fill in the blanks for him, asking anyone with ideas to contribute them freely to an open-edit wiki page that immediately greets the viewer with Overstock’s trademarked red and white logo along the header space. While looking through this wiki, my first thought was “what motivates so many people to do all of this hard work for free on behalf of a brand that belongs to an enormously wealthy individual?” An individual, no less, who isn’t likely to financially reimburse the efforts of all these anonymous volunteers who are not only giving him free brand advertising, but writing what may ultimately become the corporate charter of whatever next financial scheme he has in mind.

If Mr. Byrne’s worker bees will pause for a moment to examine the fine print in the Terms & Conditions portion of O.info(TM), they will notice that although the content they create for the website falls under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, the content may nonetheless “be protected by other intellectual property rights such as trademarks.” And O.info(TM) is clearly a trademark. Additionally, the contract states that as a condition of meeting the CC ShareAlike requirements, any and all use of the wiki’s content must be attributed as the creative work of Overstock.com and preferably provide a link back to the Overstock-branded wiki page. Not only are the wiki’s content creators providing free advertising for Overstock, but additionally they’re forfeiting credit for any of the work they’ve done or content they’ve produced on Overstock’s wiki. Additionally, just like any other fineprint contract, the agreement comes with the condition that “Overstock may modify these Terms at any time.”

I want to make it really clear that I’m not intending to paint Mr. Bryne in a villainous light. Not only is he one of today’s most-respected business minds, but he’s also contributed much of his own free time and energy to bring the Bitcoin movement forward into mainstream acceptance. I have no doubt that he has good intentions. And as far as weaving the project into his corporate branding, he is merely pursuing his own self-interest, as any rational individual should. What bothers me is not Mr. Bryne or his company, but how the mostly-libertarian authors of his wiki page have seemingly forgotten how to look after their own self-interests.

And as for those who believe that the promotion of Bitcoin as a concept and moral philosophy is even more important than the pursuit of self-interest, then it’s all the more important for them to question the motives behind the powerful companies and individuals that would attempt to shape its future. A healthy dose of skepticism is needed in such high stakes situations. When the elites of any particular system become aware of a potentially serious threat to their continued dominance, they generally have two options: either fight against the threat or co-opt and absorb it. Threatened by the growing popularity of stateless currency, the current financial elites are desperate to retain their state-subsidized market dominance by co-opting the movement that would flood the market with newer and better competitors.

As a bitcoin enthusiast myself who believes in the revolutionary potential of the bitcoin economy, I can understand the initial eagerness to volunteer for free in any project that promotes Bitcoin both as a currency and an idea. But one also has to remain wary of opportunists and consider the larger picture and long-term future of cryptocurrency that is at stake. What needs to be realized is that if we allow the current financial elites to keep the ball in their court, we’re helping to build a new system that remains tilted in their favor, one that preserves the current balance of power and does nothing to remove the state-sanctioned economic advantages that privilege a few at the expense of all others. Though Overstock is only one example among many, it’s symbolic of all fortunes built upon the inequities of the old system. Besides which, is it really a good idea to give the Mr. Byrnes of the world a head start advantage over the rest of us when we could be cultivating that advantage for ourselves?

As any good libertarian should know, if you’ve decided that you’re going to work for free, at least work as part of a public project for the greater good rather than for the narrow interests of a particular individual or for-profit entity. One such entity that first came to mind is the Bitcoin Foundation. But upon closer inspection, I found that its board of directors has been infiltrated with old school (read: pre-Bitcoin era) venture capitalists who are circling the territory like vultures. And in fact, the traditional VC industry is so interwoven with the Bitcoin community that it deserves its own separate article. But for purposes of wrapping up this first article, I’d like to promote the idea of using an already-existing bitcoin wiki that has no centralized leadership and no gatekeepers and is a natural fit for the type of agenda Byrne claims to pursue. Another possibility is that a stock exchange could even be built directly into the blockchain infrastructure itself. But regardless of what’s possible, what matters is that the platform itself does not come to represent the agenda of any particular brand or interest group, but rather the agenda of Bitcoin as a concept and a community.

As a free market anarchist, I’d personally prefer to see these cryptocurrency stock markets emerge spontaneously from the market in a decentralized manner. And while many will argue that Byrne’s approach evolved spontaneously through the market, it did not evolve through a free market, because capitalism is not a free market. If the stock market is fated to reinvent itself one way or another, does the Bitcoin community really prefer to have any specific person singlehandedly spearhead the project and claim it as his own? Or would they rather spearhead it collectively in the decentralized spirit of a community that values leaderless markets?

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