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Bitcoin Dictators Inflate Block Size Debate

Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:44 PM
Alex Gorale
Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:44 PM

The motion in Bitcoin’s Ocean – size does matter. Ex-Bitcoin Foundation developer Gavin Andresen and Bitcoinj Author Mike Hearn, think Bitcoin needs a benevolent dictator to affect change. Maybe they need a reminder that Bitcoin’s purpose is to replace monetary dictators with Computer Science.

Dictators, no matter how benevolent, are the ultimate act of centralization.

Nobody Puts Bitcoin in the Corner

The block size debate is a Computer Science  and Economics debate. Its resolution should be subject to market forces. In this instance, those “Market Forces’ are us. Which leads to the question – If the ultimate outcome for Bitcoin is a return to the very dictator-based system of monetary policy it was meant to subvert why have Bitcoin at all?

Bitcoin is constantly under attack from all sides by individuals and groups attempting to put Bitcoin in the corner.

In one camp dissenters are self-appointed blockchain analysts proclaiming no use for the blockchain data structure outside of Bitcoin. In a camp nearby, more of these experts assure that no use exists for proprietary, closed-loop, or federated block chains .

The current frontline salvo is the block size debate. The argument is whether or not to increase Bitcoin’s throughput capacity. Upping the maximum space allocated for transactions would increase the number of transactions the network confirms each time a block is mined.

The raucus does not come from cryptographic experts but from behind the protective gates of the recently re-branded and Social Justice Warrior-friendly domain of Reddit’s /r/Bitcoin. The heavily moderated, shadow banning bastion of “free speech” is home to multiple echo chambers for parrots, lemmings and angry teenagers who failed to launch (White Knights) and have no problem letting you know your ‘facts’ interfere with their feelings. Therefore, you are wrong.

If you are able to ignore their platitudes you may hear the voice of ex-Bitcoin Foundation Chief Scientist Gavin Andresen and Bitcoinj Author Mike Hearn. Both have made it known publicly they favour an increase to the block size. On his blog , Andresen has taken steps to address some issues with the proposed increase. Hearn has already declared he will unilaterally hard-fork Bitcoin XT to support larger blocks, regardless of consensus. He argues other developers who disagree with his methods do not want to scale Bitcoin.

Both Andresen and Hearn are willing to let the ends justify their means. As early as 2011  Andresen was willing to call himself alongside Satoshi, a “benevolent dictator.” That term returned when Gavin tweeted the question to his followers, “How should Bitcoin tech be governed?”

Governing Does Not Equal Governance

No other Bitcoin developers, regardless of their opinion on block sizes or Bitcoin’s future, have made bids at creating Bitcoin Dictators. The consensus that served Bitcoin over the past four years is good enough. Andresen and Hearn may not be asking for exclusive control. Though, forcing a hard-fork without the consensus of the other core developers is certainly a step in that direction through a deed.

So it was that Bitcoin Core Developer since 2011 and HashCash inventor Adam Back posted a public appeal  on the Bitcoin-dev mailing list requesting that Hearn, specifically, engage in the debate publicly.

we owe it to the users who see Bitcoin as the start of a new future and the$3b[sic] of invested funds and $600m of VC funds invested in companies, we owe it to them that we be open and transparent here.

Back goes on to question the enormous risk to governance, security, scalability, openness, network divergence and authority the hard-charging developers plan to introduce to the ecosystem. Effectively breaking the change control and governance model. Even if successful in their code changes, the action sets precedence. Future changes that undermine the rest of the developers suddenly becomes justifiable. Gavin previously commented on this concern, calling the current change system “Analysis Paralysis ” with regard to block sizes despite progress being made in the discussion.

Further, Back points out that neither of the would-be Bitcoin Dictators, Andresen nor Hearn, have the authority to make their claims against Bitcoin’s source code. Andresen stepped down as development lead to spending more time thinking and writing about problems that affect Bitcoin. Also that Hearn has not been particularly active in Bitcoin for the past one and a half years. Make no mistake, Hearn’s efforts with BitcoinJ and Lighthouse speak to his skill and his perspective is absolutely welcome.

Though, neither Andresen nor Hearn has posted their BIPs for an analysis of its technical merit. Nor do they explain why they feel qualified to supersede the opinions of the other Bitcoin developers.

Hearn’s response  welcomed back to make the discussion private. Mike confirmed a BIP was in the works, that he would not attend a summit to discuss the change and that:

I started to write up a much longer reply, but I’m tired – we’ve long since been going in circles. I feel like I’ve written down answers to almost all your questions before, including some in the email above.

Hearn also noted:

anyone who agrees with noted non-programmers Mike&Gavin must be non-technical, stupid, uninformed, etc …. OK, go ahead and show them the error of their ways. Anyone can write blogs.

In The Capacity Cliff  Hearn details his interaction with Satoshi at the end of 2010. He asked Nakamoto about the block size, specifically.

Eventually when we have client-only implementations, the block chain size won’t matter much. Until then, while all users still have to download the entire block chain to start, it’s nice if we can keep it down to a reasonable size. – Satoshi Nakamoto

And goes on to discuss introducing complexity, risks to performance, and what will happen if we do not act now to make changes to the protocol. (Hint: He does not believe the market will find a solution through fees.)

In the end, Hearn details a Bitcoin dystopia where rebooting nodes make double-spending transactions easier, Wallet submissions are rejected. Blocks become so crowded that miners drop your low-fee transactions into Bitcoin limbo worse than the airport queue from Total Recall.

Just how expensive is an “Affluence Attack” – filling up the block with transactions such that higher fee transaction crowd out low or no-fee transactions? Its cost is trivial. Miner’s ultimately decided what transaction to include in a block. Regardless of where the cap is set a miner is free to fill the block with nebulous transactions originating and ending with their own wallets. The biggest risk to this surreptitious miner is the race condition of transmitting a full block across the network. More data in the block could possibly take longer to transfer than a smaller block by a competing miner. Which Andresen recently showed the advantage to be effectively trivial .

One of Bitcoin’s strengths is its ability to change. This feature has given more individuals a voice than any ballot box, and certainly more than any “benevolent dictators.” That malleability and lack of a central authority are what truly decentralizes Bitcoin.

I don’t know what Bitcoin needs, that is not the purpose of the article. It’s merely to point out that if Bitcoin accepts a unilateral authority it has become what it sought to replace. If Bitcoin fails as a software let it fail as the nascent tool for liberation that it currently is. Don’t kill Bitcoin to save it. At worst, let Bitcoin die a hero instead of letting it live long enough to see it become a villain.