The Illusion Of Decentralisation

Harrison Ainsworth
hxa7241+articles (ατ) googlemail (dοτ) com


Decentralisation is not really what we want.

1000 words (5 minutes)

Decentralisation gives individuals power to decide and act.

But to act coherently there must always be something over which individuals do not have choice.

That is the defining problem: the two things people want are opposed. Everyone wants freedom, with no direction from authority – decentralisation! And everyone also wants – though more quietly – the benefits of an organised system. But you cannot fully realise both.

But can we not have order without command-structure? Does not a good decentralised system yield ‘cooperation without coercion’, in Milton Friedman's phrase? No: the best that could be said is that the coercion feels somehow latent or non-intrusive most of the time.

Why is it impossible to maximise both of these two? Because …

All systems of organisation are centralised.

The reason for the basic opposition is straightforward but unavoidable. Any cooperation is fundamentally a centralisation. Cooperation means coherent action – working together – and that means some structure must be shared between those involved. Our communication, for example, is centralised in us sharing a common language – if you remove the centralisation, the shared structure, you destroy the cooperative essence of the activity.

This might look like a rather abstract view of centralisation. But that is because the heart of all centralisation is informational. Information is the only thing that can be shared between multiple objects and flow between one and many. Understanding de/centralisation is about understanding its informational structure. Centralisation is not about whether there is a single company or group somewhere, and if orders are actively given – it is about how some core of information shapes behaviour.

This implies that a persuasive advocacy for decentralisation is almost inevitably deceptive …

Decentralised systems do not eliminate centralisation, they only hide it.

What decentralisation commonly means is not no centralisation, but instead a certain kind of it – a kind that sinks into the background. But the internet is decentralised, is it not? And Bitcoin, and markets? No. The internet is centralised in its protocols. Bitcoin is centralised in its algorithm and datastructure. Markets are centralised in the rules of property, money, etc.

There seems no explicit, active authority, yet it is still there implicitly. And that is the harm: though some centralisation is still constraining behaviour, we have less awareness and control over it. We can only think of such systems as non-coercive by overlooking their rules and the constraints they impose. The less we think there is centralisation, the less control we have over it.

And the supposed built-in remedy does not work …

The market-choice that decentralisation proffers as substitute cannot be sufficient.

It might seem that democratic regulation can be replaced by participatory choice. Instead of having some control of the group you are in, you choose which group to join in the first place. Cooperation always demands constraint, but what if each individual is free to look at what is offered and decide to ‘sign-up’ or not – like a market transaction? Is everything then not all nice and voluntary?

But this is an inaccurate picture. We are not free-floating individuals in an open market-place of possible groups. There is a single group and a single situation which we are all forced to be part of: the actual physical world of scarce resources. We cannot choose that, and its ramifications touch many things – the only resort we have is to some democratic control.

(And the democratic problem of ‘tyranny of the majority’ is not solved by market-choice. A system that dominates by large popular choice – by ‘network-effect’ – will then pressure everyone who did not choose it to also comply. Network-effect ‘lock-in’ is the ‘tyranny of the majority’ of market systems. Collective action, through markets or not, achieves its gain by drawing individuals together, by substituting a single course for multiple choices – individual freedom is inevitably somewhere decreased.).

So the upshot of making decentralisation a principle is counterproductive …

Decentralisation reduces the options of organisational structure available to us.

Decentralisation's common meaning, what it stands for, is systems with rules tacitly propagated and unconsciously accepted. That is its more inner form – as with the examples of the internet, Bitcoin, and markets: an informational centralisation that is relatively passive – there is no-one issuing commands, no palpable authority. The outward attractiveness is of a system of rules that are plain, limited, stable – and these properties are good for individual autonomy.

But taken strongly, this banishes a whole set of means of control of our circumstances, and it does so categorically and unconditionally. There are various mechanisms for ordering behaviour that are not stable, limited, or perhaps even plain, and all will be disallowed – but this will done be even if they produce better results.

The conclusion is in looking more clearly at other desiderata …

It is not decentralisation that we want, but the right mix of coherence and autonomy.

Even when we grant a rooted psychological value to plain/limited/stable rules (they disappear into the background and make us feel freer), there are other things we want that in various actualities are more important. The rules of property/money/markets might be plain/limited/stable, but the emergent effects might be quite undesired – if they eventually converge on 1% prevailing over everyone else, the appeal of the tag of ‘decentralisation’ would be rather overshadowed.

The common offer of ‘decentralisation’ amounts only to this: constancy of the rules. And while this has at least some merit it is distinctly meagre in itself. (One would expect it would be a favourite concern of the well-off in a system and not much for most others.). If you suffer some lack, to be told that you can at least rely on a predictability of that lack seems a most mean consolation. So constancy really depends for any of its force of appeal on already having all the other things that people want.

In conclusion, wanting decentralisation is too simple and the wrong focus. The question is really a more complicated technical one of cooperative structure. Which structures give which trade-offs and balances between individual freedom and general benefit (the more underlying things we want)? Which ways are there of combining participatory choice and feedback control? Computational/networking tech expands the range of ways of answering; our task is inventing and exploring such new structures.



   title:`The Illusion Of Decentralisation`
   creator:`Harrison Ainsworth`


   description:`Decentralisation is not really what we want.`

   rights:`Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 License`