Liberty on a Jeffersonian Blockchain?

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale


The definition of True Liberty is arguably captured most gracefully and completely by the Lockean-Jeffersonian instantiation of it in a single sentence, made famous by the Declaration.

Yet, True Liberty is as fragile as it is precious.

It’s fragility emanates from the sheer number of preconditions that it relies upon, and the inescapable fact that, when any one of them is diminished from its ideal realization, individual Liberty itself is compromised. And Liberty compromised is not Liberty at all; the theory of the second best simply does not apply to Liberty. When rights over the self are in any way abridged, even the most splendid of outcomes that a society enables become jejune.

The list of preconditions are substantial, and include, at a minimum, an educated, well-informed and engaged citizenry; a government that credibly and repeatedly restrains its impulses for the usurpation of individual freedoms; and an apotheosis of individual natural rights over the constructed social good, while recognizing that the two are not uncorrelated.

These preconditions make it clear that True Liberty cannot be ‘granted’ to an individual. It must be earned by the individual who stands ready and able to receive it in full, and who guards against any inclincations that may arise in the course of events that impel her to relinquish it in any measure once it has been secured.

How, then, can it be that True Liberty has ever been achieved by any body of people, let alone successfully retained for any significant period of time? After all, a government and society of the people is easily subverted by the meaner intentions of the power-hungry, corrupt, lazy and unscrupulous. Such a transmutation is simply predestined to eventuate.

Throughout the course of human history, every concerted effort to achieve Liberty has been violently challenged, thrown asunder of its own volition and even extinguished through a dying of the will. Yet, it is in those particular ideals that were sometimes amalgamated into a concordat, and that impelled the grand enterprise for the ‘pursuit of liberty’ to begin with, that also kindle hope for any contemporary effort to accomplish True Liberty. Those ideals are immortal.

Any new effort must, of course, deal, head-on, with all those challenges that threaten to interpose themselves between the present and the idealized future.

Among these challenges is that of a livable income. The fact that the minds that I admire most — chief among them Thomas Jefferson, Bertrand Russell and Thomas Paine — all argued in favor is reason enough to give this idea deeper thought.

A guaranteed livable income is an inviolable premise for any purported drive towards Liberty for the individual for the simple reason that no individual can be deemed to have genuine freedom over herself if her livable income is held hostage by a grasping government, an acquisitive rentier, her own lethargy, or, indeed, any circumstances that are beyond her control. Subtracting such individuals from a society’s pursuit of Liberty is like building a castle on an unsteady base; any mounting weight of achievement only serves to make the sense of imbalance keener.

Yet, a guaranteed livable income for all — or, a universal basic income, that is now increasingly being discussed in all parts of the world — has to be financed, and the most obvious nominee for the source is taxation, be it on capital or labor income.

Herein, then, lies the paradox because Liberty and taxation are as incompatible as Liberty and a basic livable income are enmeshed. How might his paradox be addressed then?

Citizenship by blockchain

Presently, it is fair to say, the predominant use of blockchain technology is in building enterprise applications, either publicly or, increasingly, privately. This is simply the inexorable nature of the market, which tends to encourage and reward expeditious experimentation with new technologies. However, whether corporations and their surrogates are inspired by the rational pursuit of profit by using a revolutionary technology or the narrow desire to adopt it solely for window-dressing purposes is entirely immaterial. What is important is that the blockchain’s potential value in creating a lasting compact across a large and diverse body of citizens is at risk of being buried under the flummery.

What thoughts, I wonder, would Thomas Jefferson have on the use of blockchains, were he alive today? (After, that is, he had taken a couple of minutes to understand all its complexities).

My guess in response to that question is that he may have suggested that a public FOSS application of the blockchain technology ought to drive citizenship. In other words, citizenship ought to be reified in a national blockchain.

Jefferson once wrote that ‘civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent.’ Since he keenly apprehended the myriad problems associated with collective action in large groups, he proposed creating manageably small blocks as the most proximate electoral base. He would, therefore, have approbation for the broader consensus mechanisms of a blockchain that can scale the basic ideals of Liberty to its every citizen.

The consensus rules of his national blockchain would likely operationalize key aspects of the constitution, giving government the mandatory task of running full nodes to ensure that the consensus rules are maintained. The wonders this would do to ensuring government accountability hardly need to be spelled out, and would have achieved his objective of keeping the size of government modest.

By a national blockchain I do not mean that such a setup ought to be used for decentralized storage of an individual denizen’s information in a cryptographically secure manner. This, of course, has been done, and more of it is, gratifyingly, being done by governments at city, state and federal levels all over the world. No, a Jeffersonian national blockchain would provide a more foundational premise for nationhood itself — a premise that allies citizenship with the pursuit of Liberty.

In practice what this would comprise is that every citizen of a nation would be accorded a public identity on a national blockchain with the express purpose of building the individual’s wealth on the basis of collective pursuits that redound directly to Liberty and freedom. For every collaborative public benefit that the citizen participates in creating, the citizen would receive an additional stake in the future of her nation, fundamentally deepening her commitment to its citizenship.

A living wage would be earned by internalizing the public externality of informed and engaged citizenship; citizenship would transform into a concept that is constantly being refined and enhanced. And, given his penchant for an informed citizenry, I suspect that Jefferson would have found this to be patently desirable.

Citizenship is universally seen as a distichous event; you are either a citizen of a country or you are not. Presence within some discrete borders and the acquisition of a passport seem to be almost all that matters to a large majority of ‘citizens’. While it is the principal mechanism by which an individual’s identity is tied to a country, citizenship has no meaningful and necessary correspondence with the nation’s collective struggle for Liberty. Without such correspondence there is no reason for True Liberty to ever become a common good, with the result that it ends up being the concern of none.

Why must this be so?

As Jefferson observed, ‘the ground of liberty is to be gained by inches’. To make national identity congruous with True Liberty, citizenship, too, must be a constant struggle, gained by inches.

Every citizen of a nation has a stake in that nation’s ability to enable individual’s pursuit of True Liberty. Why then can this stake not be tokenized?

What I am asking you to imagine is nothing short of the tokenization of Liberty itself through the tokenization of citizenship. If this sounds transactional, delusional, or perhaps even impudent, I submit that it is far less so than what the average citizen of a country believes citizenship involves.

Tokenizing citizenship would consist of public participation in a set of activities carrying a commonly determined token value that each participant would receive. Naturally, we are not talking about public goods and infrastructure, but of acts of informed citizenship. Voting is but one of these activities, but its effect would be made more vivid to an individual by a national blockchain through its ability to generate engaged participation throughout the election process.

There are, of course, scores of other such initiatives that a citizen might propose by creating state channels for organic and specific objective-oriented civic society organizations on the national blockchain using his or her citizenship tokens. But, what is perhaps most enticing about a Jeffersonian national blockchain is that, as the pre-eminent constitutional revisionist (especially when excisions and insertions favor Liberty), he would have liked both the stability of consensus rules and the ability to revise them periodically.




Social scientist interested in the economics of innovation. Part-time author. Full-time blockchain explorer.

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Prateek Goorha

Prateek Goorha

Social scientist interested in the economics of innovation. Part-time author. Full-time blockchain explorer.

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