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Nov 22, 2017

Decentralization and Privacy Are Inevitable — in Tech and in Government

Good tech principles will become good governance principles, whether governments want them to or not.

Decentralization and encryption/privacy are good principles for digital technology.

They’re also pretty good principles for effective, fair, and just government.

Those two principles are becoming more widespread within digital technology, and trend will only accelerate as more of our lives, interactions, transactions, and work move into the digital realm.

This will have inevitable, positive effects on political liberty and human flourishing.

The positive effects result from the fact that digital decentralization and encryption make it harder for the government to employ the tools it has to enable further centralization and to breach our privacy.

Centralized, large, and intrusive states require our lives — our communications, interactions, and economic transactions — to be legible. They have to know what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and what resources we’re acquiring and using to facilitate it.

“Require” here should be read in two ways.

First, states “require” legibility because it’s necessary to their functioning. Without making its citizenry legible, the modern, officious nation state simply cannot operate in the way it has. It cannot dictate anywhere near as much of our lives as it currently does, because to dictate our lives, it must know our lives.

Second, states “require” legibility in the sense that they demand it of us. Governments believe they have the right to make us legible by watching what we do, looking into our records, making us transact and interact via systems the state can surveil, and otherwise prohibit our own efforts to make ourselves illegible. States believe we are required to — have an obligation to — make ourselves legible to our rulers.

As technology makes us illegible to the state, the state will lose its power over us. Government is well-aware it requires legibility in both senses of the term. Moving to a decentralized, encrypted, peer-to-peer communication infrastructure and economy will mean the state will find it impossible to continue to regulate us, tax us, monitor us, and punish us to anywhere near the degree it’s become accustomed to.

The state will fight back, of course. It will seek to ban technology. It will try to scare us with stories of how our technology enables terrorism and crime. It will threaten innovators and entrepreneurs and pass laws with the aim to slow the development and adoption of strong encryption, cryptocurrencies, and surveillance-proof networks.

It will try all these things, and it may even succeed, occasionally and for a time. But progress — and math — are on our side. We know that a good government is a less intrusive government, that decentralization — through federalism or just smaller states — is the key to peace and prosperity, that every person has a right to be as legible or illegible as she chooses.

And we know that this genie is very much out of the bottle. There’s no going back, no stopping it, no reversing technological progress so the state can win the war for mass surveillance and so maintain our legibility.

The emancipated individual — and the thriving communities she chooses to cultivate and participate in — win in the end.