Blockchains: A Promise Enforcement Engine

Anthony Lee Zhang on blockchains

How do blockchains change the state of things? Blockchains are an alternative system for promise enforcement, fundamentally different from any system human history has seen before. Promises in blockchain systems are enforced by miners, who — in reasonably competitive mining markets — have limited ability, and weak incentives, to do anything other than execute others’ promises roughly according to the gas fees they pay. In other words, the blockchain can be thought of as a universal, extremely low-discretion promise enforcement engine.

Consider, for example, automated market maker (AMM) protocols, such as Uniswap. An automated market maker allows anyone to become a liquidity provider, that is, to contribute capital, to make markets in a pair of tokens. Fees are collected from anyone trading with the market maker, and can be programmatically redistributed to liquidity providers. These “terms” are promises in the same way classic financial contracts are — but, rather than promises stated in English enforced in courts of law, they are written in Solidity and “enforced” by Ethereum miners.

Lending protocols, such as Aave, allow agents to borrow if they pledge their risky assets to the system as collateral. Aave values the collateral automatically using price oracles, and automatically seizes and liquidates collateral when the amount borrowed is worth too much compared to the collateral staked. MakerDAO similarly functions like a virtual “pawn shop”, taking risky assets and printing tokens whose value derives from the fact that they are overcollateralized by risky collateral, automatically valued using collateral price feeds. Aave and Maker function similarly to margin lending systems in traditional finance, except that the lenders are bots instead of banks. A nontrivially large fraction of the useful promises that are traded in financial systems, it seems, can be approximately as easily expressed in Solidity as they can in English, and thus can be enforced by miners rather than by courts.

The consequences of the existence of blockchains are thus that, for the first time in human history, we have a real alternative to governments and legal systems for the enforcement of promises. What are the effects this will have on the world?

Governments in developed economies are imperfect but they are adequate promise enforcers and they have reasons to suppress their competitor, blockchains. Hence Zhang argues:

…The future of finance will not be built on Wall Street, by a handful of privileged graduates from a handful of top colleges in a handful of high-income countries. The future of finance will be built on blockchains, in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, through the combined efforts of many billions of people, who for the first time in human history will be able to participate on an equal footing in the market for promises.

This is similar to what Tyler and I write in cryptoeconomics:

Traditional finance relies on legal documents like contracts, titles, and personal identification and thus it ultimately relies on a legal system that can enforce those contracts quickly, reliably, and at low cost. Relatively few countries in the world have all the required abilities, which is why traditional finance clusters in a handful of places like New York, London, Singapore, and Zurich.

Decentralized finance, in contrast, relies on smart contracts and cryptographic identification that work exactly the same way everywhere. Decentralized finance, therefore, could be broader based and more open than traditional finance. Indeed, decentralized finance could prosper in precisely those regions of the world that do not have reliable legal systems or governments with the power to regulate heavily.


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