Rousseau's breadcrumbs and the blockchain leviathan
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November 1st, 2022

Modern politics, and its underlying post-Enlightenment political theory, is stuck in a rut. Since the French Revolution of 1789, when the nobles sat on the right side of parliament and the commoner delegates sat on the left side, we’ve used these terms to describe the political spectrum.

Political polarization has become so entrenched that it is hard to see the path out. While the temperature of political discourse has turned up dramatically in the past few years, it’s a phenomenon that has been growing for decades. Here’s a visualization of polarization in the US House of Representatives, 1949-2011:

Suffice it to say: the picture has not gotten prettier since 2011 and it’s increasingly unclear how we can break this cycle. We need a new paradigm of political philosophy that steps outside of the well-worn troughs we find ourselves stuck in.

Those Right and Left wheels of democratic society are deeply entrenched in ruts caused by two foundational works of political theory: Hobbes and Rousseau. If we backtrack to the origins of Right and Left, we can better understand how modern technologies and ancient social practices offer a more compelling future that throws out the Right/Left divide in favor of a focus on supporting a wider range of small, local, diverse, and decentralized governance structures.

A short refresher on Political Philosophy 101

The grandaddy of the Right is Hobbes, who espoused the need for centralized sovereign leadership in order to avoid “the war of all against all” in an imagined state of human nature. You can skip the fine print and get the basic gist of his perspective by admiring the original cover etching for Leviathan, which Hobbes helped design himself. It features a giant white dude with a crown and a dashing mustache—scepter of governance in one hand, sword of war in the other—a sovereign body, literally made of people, paternally watching over the city of civilization:

the sovereign as the people (vs the people as the sovereign)
the sovereign as the people (vs the people as the sovereign)

In contrast, the Left looks to Rousseau to define a social contract for humanity. Rousseau’s Social Contract provided, at the time, a radical new perspective: sovereignty was not just a top-down phenomenon, but a bottom-up one. People could devise methods of self-governance that replaced a traditional all-powerful leviathan ruler with a system of government that derived legitimacy from the people.

It’s easy to draw analogies along this well-worn spectrum: Hobbes/Rousseau, Right/Left, autocracy/democracy, centralization/decentralization. But this dichotomy blinds us to other ways of thinking about self-governance.

Breaking the dichotomy

While Rousseau’s Social Contract developed the crucial principle of self-governance, it disappoints in the same way the modern Left tends to disappoint: glimmers of a hopeful alternative, ultimately undermined by complicated bureaucratic abstractions.

Rousseau has long been viewed as the grand alternative to Hobbes, but a modern reading of his works leaves the reader feeling like Rousseau is just rearranging furniture in Hobbes’ house. The problem is that both men came from a time and place deeply steeped in the idea of monarchs and large sovereign states. Hobbes justifies this condition as a necessity, and Rousseau suggests that some technocratic administrative changes to the governance structure could promote greater equality (sound familiar?).

Ultimately, both of these threads of modern political philosophy rely on the assumption that governance happens at the scale of millions of people. These philosophies were born and formed as part of the transition from kingdoms to nation states, and the conclusions they come to are constrained by the scale of the problem they are trying to solve.

But Rousseau drops some hints, little sets of breadcrumbs, that point towards different paths outside of the culturally accepted standards of his time. The first breadcrumb comes from the preamble to his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.

It’s a cheeky bit of subterfuge. While Rousseau takes six opportunities to dedicate the essay to his “most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords,” he uses the rest of the dedication to describe the type of society he would prefer to live in: one that doesn’t have sovereign lords.

Instead, he describes a society “which had an extent proportionate to the limits of the human faculties […] every person being equal.” In other words, a small, cooperative, democratic city-state:

a free city situated between several nations, none of which should have any interest in attacking it, while each had an interest in preventing it from being attacked by the others; in short, a Republic which should have nothing to tempt the ambition of its neighbours, but might reasonably depend on their assistance in case of need.

The second breadcrumb comes in a preface and footnote in his seminal work, The Social Contract. In the preface, he claims he “will show later how the external power of great people can be combined with the ease of administration and the good order of a small state”. In a later footnote, he acknowledges that while he “would have come to confederations” to address this question, he has “long since abandoned” the pursuit and “the rest of the work no longer exists.”

It’s impossible to know if Rousseau abandoned these paths because he understood the ramifications they could create for the sovereign lords that determined if he stayed alive or if he ran into mental roadblocks trying to imagine a future beyond the sovereigns and nation states of his day. But I believe that these two breadcrumbs—a preference for small, local, cooperative political structures and the idea of autonomous confederations of these structures—point the path towards a better social contract.

The success and failure of early federations

The founding fathers of the United States seem to have understood this in principle when they created a carefully balanced federation of semi-autonomous states. While their creation was a miracle of political progress, it suffered the same two limitations as Rousseau’s philosophy: a culture deeply steeped in existing sovereign monarchies and the need to create administrative systems that could work at the scale of a growing nation-state.

Their goal was to organize 2.5 million former subjects of kings, spread across a quarter million square miles of land, with extremely limited transportation and communication technologies. The options on the table were limited by these realities, and further constrained by the boundaries of the Rousseau-Hobbes spectrum of political possibilities (and, of course, the fact that it wasn’t exactly a diverse decision-making body):

This painting depicts an event that never happened. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were never in the room at the same time, an example of the deeply challenging limits of their coordination technologies.
This painting depicts an event that never happened. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were never in the room at the same time, an example of the deeply challenging limits of their coordination technologies.

Given these limitations, our current political state should come as no surprise. The grand attempt at a federated structure has ultimately re-centralized, devolving into a low fidelity duopoly of political parties, entrenched in each of the basic social contracts offered by Hobbes and Rousseau. It’s a damning choice between being trapped in submission to a strongman and the bureaucratic administration of increasingly complicated attempts to manage inequality.

Considering alternative paths

What happens if we take a step back and retrace the origins of these political philosophies to look for alternatives? Are there other approaches that make more sense within the context of the coordination tools now at our disposal?

If we want to find alternatives to the trappings of our Western political philosophy, an obvious starting point is the woefully understudied political organizations of non-Western civilizations. David Graeber and David Wenrow’s The Dawn of Everything extensively documents historical examples of political and social structures that are not well understood or accounted for by Western political theory. The WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) society that has been writing history recently has deep cultural blinders to other ways people can self-organize. Our basic cultural story — simple egalitarian tribes in the garden of Eden, the emergence of agriculture and hierarchy, the development of states and economies, the inevitable resulting tradeoffs of leviathans and inequality — is not the only path:

We do not have to choose between an egalitarian or hierarchical start to the human story. Our early ancestors were not just our cognitive equals, but our intellectual peers too. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the earliest known evidence of human social life resembles a carnival parade of political forms.

The society described by Rousseau is not just some abstract ideal. It was the lived reality of some groups of humans for long stretches of history, alongside an incredible diversity of other approaches to political systems and social contracts. The goal here is not to identify some abstract idealist tribal state to return to, but to consider the full set of options available to us and then run lots of local experiments.

Governance experiments

Political science is not, per se, about science. Most of academia got physics envy over the past half century and tried to turn everything into science. But no matter how much statistical analysis you do on nation states, the questions of political science are really philosophical debates about how we should live and govern ourselves. There aren’t many nation states, and they typically don’t let academics go run experiments in governance.

The field of political science is defined by the study of sovereign entities and the historical biases of Hobbes and Rousseau. But some political scientists have broken out of their WEIRD blinders and explored other methods of self-governance. The founding explorer of this political tradition is Elinor Ostrom, who studied questions of common pool resources and collective action problems, with a focus on irrigation networks in traditional agricultural societies.

In one of her excellent essays, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems”, Ostrom describes the ways in which “humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas than posited in earlier rational-choice theory.” In order to understand and improve the complex adaptive systems in which humans self-govern, she argues, it’s “important to examine the effect of precise combinations of variables in an experimental setting.”

As a starry-eyed fan of Ostrom in college, I designed my senior thesis around this goal. I ran experiments using common-pool resource simulation software created by Marco Janssen (a research scientist alongside Ostrom) with the guidance of my thesis advisor Tun Myint (who completed his PhD with Ostrom). The experiments brought groups of students together to play a computer game managing a shared common pool resource. I studied how successfully they maintained the shared resource under different communication and information limitations.

It was a rudimentary experimental design using meager academic resources. There were no conclusions that could be reasonably abstracted to other settings, and Ostrom’s dreams of an experimental political science felt hopeless in the real world. Political science, as a discipline, remained trapped in its philosophical roots. Political scientists assumed that one did not just go start new governments in the real world to see what happens.

Now we can. Informed by the vast tapestry of human organization across history, we can use blockchain tools to create new models of coordination. We can design new social contracts—not by writing theoretical essays and submitting them to academic contests (as Rousseau did), but by studying history and testing in prod out in the real world.

The blockchain leviathan

The Left/Right dichotomy is an increasingly false choice. It treats the leviathan — whether in the form of a king or a federal bureaucracy — as a basic requirement to organize large societies and enforce the rule of law.

What is fundamentally interesting about blockchains is that they refactor the basic assumptions of Hobbes and Rousseau into a technology that doesn’t require human administrators: a new type of leviathan. By allowing people to self-organize into capture resistant small pods of effective coordination, blockchains rewrite the basic assumptions about the necessary scale of governance.

I’m not suggesting that blockchains are prepared to fully replace the monopoly on violence of nation states. But in the same way that iPhones put a supercomputer in everyone’s pocket, blockchains put the basic building blocks of sovereignty in everyone’s private keys.

Without the need for any additional sovereign entity, anyone can now create an organization that provides immutable rights of governance to members and, if they want, create an independently controlled currency for the organization. Re-read that last sentence, and then consider how Rousseau might have reacted if you told him this was possible.

Social smart contracts

DAOs are social smart contracts. Each one uniquely embeds a set of cultural norms and immutable rules into an entity. They are using this socialware and trustware to actively develop, test, and explore blockchain tools for coordination and self-governance.

Through building and operating these organizations, we can experiment across a broad design space of rules, norms, and behaviors for people working together. Through the chaos, we can develop political systems that reach into the knowledge of the past and apply it to the tools of the future.

Over the past 18 months, a few principles have developed across many projects simultaneously, pointing towards some possible underlying truths of the unique powers of these new tools. One principle that has become increasingly clear for DAOs is the need for small, autonomous pods loosely coordinated through diverse, decentralized governance. Vitalik wrote about this model in his most recent piece on DAOs and Metropolis has pioneered on-chain management tools for pods.

Whether they are called pods, working groups, fellowships, guilds, or subDAOs, most decentralized organizations have come around to the realization that you need small groups to get things done. If you ask people what group sizes they like working with, they will generally tell you numbers between 2 and 12 people. Amazon is well known for popularizing the term two pizza team to describe this concept (though at Cabin, we prefer one sauna teams).

Adding more people usually doesn’t result in better outcomes, because coordination costs increase geometrically. This coordination cost is the flip side to Metcalfe’s Law:

more than 5 people (10 connections) is complicated. more than 9 people (36 connections) gets out of hand quickly.
more than 5 people (10 connections) is complicated. more than 9 people (36 connections) gets out of hand quickly.

Macroeconomics generated the idea of economies of scale, and similar calculations are made in the context of the macropolitics of nation states. But in what we might call micropolitics — the study of small group collective action — scale comes with significant costs. When there is no need to use economies of scale to subsidize centralized coordination and trust management mechanisms, the default size is small and the topology becomes a network.

David Ehrlichman, who has been studying and growing impact networks for years, has diagrammed the way that this network topology grows over time:

the end state: a confederation of overlapping hubs form the core
the end state: a confederation of overlapping hubs form the core

These networks of small self-sovereign entities are starting to look a lot like what Rousseau hinted at in the margins of his greatest works. We are rediscovering in practice what he began to theorize about: small, local, cooperative political structures organized into autonomous confederated networks.

But we no longer need to theorize about how they could work. With the tools of governance and self-sovereignty offered by the blockchain leviathan, we can begin to explore and create these complex network structures. Hopefully they point the path towards a better social contract.


Thanks to Lauren Alexander and Chase Chapman for ideas and feedback for this essay

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