- Jan 2016
It is the third bucket that contains the most ambitious applications: “smart contracts” that execute themselves automatically under the right circumstances. Bitcoin can be “programmed” so that it only becomes available under certain conditions.
In other words, it can facilitate a deferred payment system that works when the payer provides payment in escrow, like Kickstarter and other crowdfunding systems. It could manage deposits on purchase-and-sale agreements and handle escrows on legal judgments, without a third party holding title to the money. The core financial system itself could hold the money.
Could it be made into a complete deferred payment system for managing loans, mortgages, and coupon bonds? I don’t know how, since the source of those payments is outside the bitcoin system and generally doesn’t exist at the time of the loan or bond purchase. But imagine if a financial system was entirely built around a programmable trust system, then financial instruments themselves become a part of the logic of a company’s assets and liabilities. When a corporate bond coupon comes due the company treasurer doesn't create a transaction, instead the coupon payment is automatically transferred to the holder of the bond by the financial system itself. That is, the structure of the bond has been integrated directly into the financial system for automatic execution.
If a future government were to implement blockchain technology and legislate its adoption throughout the financial community (perhaps as an option, in parallel with the pre-existing system), it could 'write the code' for legally certified instruments like corporate bonds, mortgages, car loans. It could further write legally permissible derivatives of those instruments (yes, derivatives have tremendous value in reducing risk, when used wisely).
At that point, financial companies like Vanguard or Fidelity could issue mutual funds whose prospecti assert that the only kind of instruments held by the fund were those certified by the government to use the legislated systems. This could reasonably allow safe and less expensive adoption of powerful financial instruments with far less risk to the system.
Sure there are plenty of flaws and dangers in this kind of a system. But could they be worked out to create a safer, less expensive, more transparent and more accessible financial system than we currently have? Would it help engender some of the trust that has most recently been lost?
This has implications far beyond the cryptocurrency
The concept of trust, in the sociological and economic sense, underlies exchange. In the 15th-17th centuries, the Dutch and English dominance of trade owed much to their early development of instruments of credit that allowed merchants to fund and later to insure commercial shipping without the exchange of hard currency, either silver or by physically transporting the currency of the realm. Credit worked because the English and Dutch economies trusted the issuers of credit.
Francis Fukuyama, a philosopher and political economist at Stanford, wrote a book in 1995, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, on the impact of cultures of trust on entrepreneurial growth. Countries of ‘low trust’ have close family culture who limit trust to relations: France, China, S. Italy. Countries of ‘high trust’ have greater ‘spontaneous sociability’ that encourages the formation of intermediate institutions between the state and the family, that encourage greater entrepreneurial growth: Germany, England, the U.S. – I own the book and (shame on me!) haven’t yet read it.
I thought of this article in those contexts – of the general need for trusted institutions and the power they have in mediating an economy, and the fascinating questions raised when a new facilitator of trust is introduced.
How do we trust? Across human history, how have we extended the social role of trust to institutions? If a new modality of trust comes available, how does that change institutional structures and correspondingly the power of individuals, of institutions. How would it change the friction to growth and to decline?
Prior to reading this article, I had dismissed Bitcoin as a temporary aberration, mostly for criminal enterprises and malcontents. I still feel that way. But the underlying technology and it’s implications – now that’s interesting.
- block chain
- Computer Science