Vitalik Buterin’s philosophical essays: they’re not good

  • Programming note: I’m going to Nashville this weekend, to hang out with financial regulators! That’s what people flock to Nashville for, right? It’s the North American Security Administrators’ Association (NASAA) Annual Meeting, 18–20 September. I’m on the panel “Protecting Investors and Consumers in the Age of Digital Assets” on Monday 19 September at 1:45pm. [NASAA; NASAA] Update: here’s the tour diary!


As well as leading the Ethereum project, Vitalik Buterin writes essays of his thoughts on the future of society — as powered by Ethereum. Some around the Ethereum project actively market Buterin’s blog as important reading from a great thinker, that you should be keeping up with. [Fortune]

With the Merge having gone through successfully, I’ve got journalists asking me if there’s anything to these essays. They’re … odd.

The short answer is: no, it’s not worth treating Buterin’s essays as saying anything useful.

Far be it from me to say that people shouldn’t post any brainfart they feel like to a blog. I have a Twitter, after all. But.



I must be understanding it wrong

Ethereum is best understood as a tech startup that succeeded wildly and made a bundle for everyone involved. Mostly Joe Lubin of ConsenSys, but the others too.

Vitalik was Joe’s front man — he was, and is, marketed as a magical boy wizard you can’t expect social skills from, beyond any mortal understanding.

We’re talking about a wealthy 28-year-old technocrat here, to be clear.

For a worked example, look at this bilge from Wired in 2016: “The Uncanny Mind That Built Ethereum.” Buterin as mysterious infantilised child genius. [Wired]

Buterin blogs extensive essays full of great thoughts on how to reorganise the world, and how Ethereum will be the basis for this once they add amazing new functionalities that will only require solving P=NP. []

With Buterin’s tech startup having elevated itself to being one of the two main cryptocurrencies, onlookers think: perhaps his other ideas might be worth a look!

Buterin comes from a long tradition of Silicon Valley special smart boys, who have had it hammered into them that domain expertise — i.e., actually knowing stuff — pales into insignificance compared to pulling ideas out of your backside by virtue of your superior intelligence and upbringing and social position.

He was taught this by other Silicon Valley special smart boys. Peter Thiel literally paid Buterin not to go to college any more, based on this theory — that one special smart boy reasoning from first principles will surely beat the accumulated experience and wisdom of mere humanity.

There are a million of these guys, and they all have long and wordy blogs.

Buterin has spent his life being told he’s smart and has important ideas. But I am deeply unconvinced any of the ideas in Buterin’s essays are worth anything — because they’re concocted without reference to anything that people who aren’t weird cryptocurrency anarchocapitalists want.

People read Buterin’s social essays, then they have to bridge the gap between the assumption that all of this must make coherent sense because it was written by an acknowledged genius wonder boy, and the undeniable fact that the stuff in front of you looks … stupid.

The fancy promises, the essays, the wild ideas that sound like they’re stupid but must have something to them, surely … it’s all marketing for Ethereum.

Ethereum makes more sense if you first assume it never mattered if the fancy promises ever worked out — even if Buterin believed they were supposed to. The purpose was to sell you their ether. And it worked.

*taps the sign again*



The Torment Nexus as a Service

Buterin is an interesting writer, and his essays are amazing science fictional ideas — but they’re nerdbait, not applicable programmes for society.

Remember that Buterin spent years working on a sharding plan for Ethereum that, had he done Intro to Theory of Computation, he might have realised was probably impossible.

Buterin’s essays posit Ethereum as the technological foundation of all our lives. This will never happen, because blockchains don’t scale.

He touts decentralized governance — based on Ethereum — because he’s spent his entire life steeped in anarchocapitalism, first from his parents and then from his venture capitalist friends, and thinks of it as normal, and not as the bizarre conspiracy theory economics that it is.

Buterin’s essays have slightly less redigested LessWrong these days — the people who worry that an artificial intelligence will turn into Roko’s Basilisk, so you should give them money — so that’s good. His pet cranks are no longer embarrassing mathematical cranks who think they can simulate a quantum computer on a classical computer fast enough to hack bitcoin mining.

Buterin’s pet cranks are now social cranks — e.g., Glen Weyl, with his Radical Markets theory, which is more or less Georgism with a concussion. Everything is a land tax, you set the price of your house, and anyone who’s rich enough can buy your house out from under you at any time, whether you like it or not! Everyone wants that, right?

Weyl and Buterin’s latest hit is their Soulbound Tokens essay. Being weird ancaps, they don’t trust governments to do identity — so you’ll have your social credit score tracked on a blockchain. It’s an implementation of the “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror — except they think this is a desirable state of being, and not a horrifying dystopia. They also crib from Vitalik’s Dark Enlightenment friend Balaji Srinivasan on “cancel culture.” [SSRN, PDF]

Weyl and Buterin’s stuff is crank economics and crank social theories straight from the Californian Ideology, with little to no reference to anything actual people think or want.

The best source for the current thinking of the Silicon Valley rich ancap cluster on “decentralised governance” is Balaji Srinivasan’s recent book on the subject: The Network State (US, UK). It’s bloody awful, and you need a decoder ring to understand the buzzwords and euphemisms. Fortunately, I wrote about Balaji’s ineffable genius previously, and I helped Elizabeth Sandifer write Neoreaction a Basilisk (the decoder ring), so I can save you the effort on this one:

  1. what if seasteading
  2. on the blockchain
  3. also we’re all neoreactionaries and race-and-IQ theorists, and we want our blockchain seasteads to have Kings.

Here’s Vitalik’s review. He describes Balaji’s loud and explicit reactionary politics as any variety whatsoever of “liberal.” This is not a writer who knows what words mean. []

They’re mapping out tech dystopias and thinking they’re architecting heaven. They are not.

The job should surely not be to propose new iterations of the Torment Nexus and say they’re a good idea.



Memento stultus

Buterin’s essays are science fiction advocating a particular politics. This is not about technology. It never was.

Even Ethereum was never about technology. Blockchain tech isn’t that complicated. The fancy stuff is financial engineering, not software engineering. If it works as a platform for penny stock scams, all is right with the crypto world.

There’s no reason for anyone to put any store by Buterin’s other ideas, and there never was. Ethereum is a successful tech startup with really dubious politics attached.

And none of that matters — because Buterin and the Ethereum crew are set up for life after the stupendously successful tech startup called Ethereum, and are much richer than you or I are.

But I would suggest that financial success is not a reason to take any of the essays seriously.

Smart people need the ghost of Socrates to follow them around as a Memento Stultus. “Remember: you too are a dumbass.”


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20 Comments on “Vitalik Buterin’s philosophical essays: they’re not good”

  1. Look I know it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but Buterin has the face of the insufferable, snarky nerd who got punched a lot in the high school toilets.

  2. Peter Thiel will sue you through Hulk Hogan for messing with his boy. There’s no way to win, so succumb to anarcho-capitalism and take the payout.

  3. Just answer one question. How will Bitcoin function when block reward goes to zero and the fee is 10 BTC a day? That means a 6 block double spending attack only cost 0.416 BTC.

      1. You know this is a non-answer. It is a mathematical truth that 0.42 BTC will be enough to attack the network. There is no way to solve it unless you cancel halving, cancel supply cap.

        1. admittedly it was a non-answer, otoh it doesn’t matter because bitcoin has literally always been barely functional – like a battery that uses a potato, and their idea of scaling it up is to add more potatoes.

  4. “you set the price of your house, and anyone who’s rich enough can buy your house out from under you at any time”

    I set the price of my house at one of my house. NFTs for the win! No more currency, only barter!! Whoot! Where’s your ethereum now? All herald the new NFT driven blockchain with no underlying fungible tokens.

  5. “Vitalik Buterin’s philosophical essays: they’re not good”

    Agreed. I started reading and critiquing the Vitalik link on Balaji’s Network States.

    How does any of this differ, in basic kind, from, say, Scientology?

    “Someone of almost any political ideology could find some form of network state under this definition that they could get behind.”

    It’s basic nature to assume that others are like you until shown differently. Vitalik and Balaji both need to get out into the world more, and talk to a more diverse set of people.

    Huge chunks of the population are non-affiliative by nature. If born into a non-voluntary state we will affiliate to that state by default, but if there’s anything voluntary required in the association, or easy options outside of the association (which will be the case for *all* sub-national states that don’t have the larger state explicitly backing them), we’ll tend to disaffiliate.

    r/loner exists for a reason. And there’s also a reason why it (or r/loners) doesn’t get much interaction. Anyone familiar with the Instinctual Variants should refer back to the social instinct and what it means to be social last.


    “A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.”

    All of this, with the exception of physical territories and capital (non-affiliatives like to have a place and buy or make things), are things that many non-affiliatives either tend not to care about, or are actively repelled by.


    “counterintuitively, it’s the religious communes that demand the most of their members that are the most long-lasting.”

    And all of those religious communes shed members like mad, and the vast majority ultimately fall apart without external support or external pressure (along with internal policing of members).

    To the extent “collective action” is maintained years or generations into the commune, it’s because a sufficient percent of the community still believe in a set of shared values that the external world doesn’t share. How are you going to maintain this through voluntary organizations?

    Everyone thinks the world would be great if it was just a bunch of people like them. But even if this magically was the case, the next generation would have variation.


    “we don’t need to stick with the specific political collectives we have today, which are highly flawed and increasingly unrepresentative of people’s values.”

    Yes, and why do those collectives still exist despite their flaws? Because *numbers matter*, and more particular collectives don’t have the numbers to do much.

    And it seems you’re ignoring political collectives such as the variety of environmental organizations, animal welfare organizations, medical NGOs, etcetera that exist on a much smaller scale than the political parties. Because those are indeed pretty representative of their member’s values.


    I’m stopping here. If Vitalik has criticisms of Balaji’s points that parallel my criticisms he should have written this piece differently (explanation, criticism, references and tie ins, explanation, criticism, references and tie ins, etcetera, point by point). I don’t have the caring, and thus don’t have the fortitude, to read further. There’s a reason my favorite part of Slate Star Codex was the open threads, and that I only rarely read an actual post by Scott all the way through.

  6. It doesn’t seem too likely, but is anyone using these technofuture ideas as primary justification for the greenhouse gases emitted by pre-merge Ethereum (and the easily foreseen switching of ethereum miners to other chains after the merge)? I know there’s a strain of “as long as the economy and innovation grow at the maximum possible pace we can geoengineer our way out of climate catastrophes” in these sorts of people. So I presume it’s a secondary justification. But is anyone using it as primary, or do they tend to just not care?

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