Now the Code Runs Itself: On-Chain and Off-Chain Governance of Blockchain Technologies

Topoi 40 (4):821-831 (2021)
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Abstract

The invention of Bitcoin in 2008 as a new type of electronic cash has arguably been one of the most radical financial innovations in the last decade. Recently, developer communities of blockchain technologies have started to turn their attention towards the issue of governance. The features of blockchain governance raise questions as to tensions that might arise between a strictly “on-chain” governance system and possible applications of “off-chain” governance. In this paper, we approach these questions by reflecting on a long-running debate in legal philosophy regarding the construction of a positivist legal order. First, we argue that on-chain governance shows striking similarities with Kelsen’s notion of a positivist legal order, characterised by Schmitt as the machine that runs itself. Second, we illustrate some of the problems that emerged from the application of on-chain governance, with particular reference to a calamity in a blockchain-based system called the DAO. Third, we reflect on Schmitt’s argument that the coalescence of private interests is a vulnerability of positivist legal systems, and accordingly posit this as an inherent vulnerability of on-chain governance of existing blockchain-based systems.

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References found in this work

The Concept of Law.Hla Hart - 1961 - Oxford University Press.
State of Exception.Giorgio Agamben - 2004 - University of Chicago Press.
The Concept of Law.Stuart M. Brown - 1963 - Philosophical Review 72 (2):250.
Pure Theory of Law.Hans Kelsen - 1967 - Lawbook Exchange.

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