In this opinion piece, the authors discuss why blockchain may be more disruptive than the so-called ‘general purpose technologies’ that transformed society in recent centuries.
While cryptoeconomics is already a vibrant research field, the study of the blockchain must not be left solely to computer scientists and game theorists.
The rollout of blockchain technology raises complex questions in economics, public policy, law, sociology and political economy. What we call “institutional cryptoeconomics” starts from a simple premise – the blockchain is not just a new general purpose technology, it is a new institutional technology.
This may sound like a pedantic distinction, but the difference between these two conceptions is
profound. General purpose technologies allow us to do what we already do better, faster and cheaper. Economists understand general purpose technologies (like steam power or the semi-conductor) as great engines of economic growth.
There is no doubt that the blockchain is a general purpose technology, but it is much more.
Rather, the blockchain is a new mechanism to coordinate economic activity and to facilitate cooperation between individuals. It opens up new opportunities for exchange, for collaboration and for building communities that were previously closed off due to high information costs and transactions costs.
As a new institutional technology, we expect that blockchains will disrupt and transform both economic activity and social organization. Institutional cryptoeconomics is a new analytic framework to study that evolutionary process.
In the very first instance, we believe that the transaction costs approach of Oliver Williamson – who won the Nobel in economics in 2009 – is the ideal theoretical framework to understand the blockchain. Williamson was primarily interested in understanding the ‘make’ or ‘buy’ decisions that firms have to resolve.
Is it better the buy inputs on the open market or produce them in-house?
That choice defined the limits of the firm, which in turn determined the incentive structures that decision makers faced.
A key determinant of the limits of the firm is “opportunism” or “self-interest seeking with guile” as Williamson described human behavior.
The combination of opportunism and asset specificity (which refers to how easily an investment can be resold or repurposed for another use) meant that complex economic behavior had to take place in large corporations. This in turn implied the need for substantial financial capital investment.
Thus, we saw the dominance of shareholder capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The blockchain breaks this relationship between size, opportunism and asset specificity.
By substantially eliminating opportunism (that is, being a ‘trustless’ technology), the blockchain allows specific assets to be deployed in small businesses supported not by large amounts of financial capital but by large amounts of human capital. It allows market incentives to deeper penetrate into firm structures resolving problems of team production.
For many industries, the blockchain will radically redefine the boundaries of the firm, allowing individuals to trade their talents and skills in an environment devoid of big business.
The eclipse of the large public firm has been predicted before, of course, but this time we believe those predictions will eventuate for many, if not most, industries.
The decline of shareholder capitalism will have ricochet effects across the economy and society itself. It will put new pressures on employment, inequality, political power and the regulatory state. And it opens up vast new opportunities. The Williamson framework can also help us understand how the blockchain changes – and enhances – the provision of insurance, the provision of public goods, and the provision and protection of identity.
It is often said that we are at the start of a “blockchain revolution.” Institutional cryptoeconomics offers an exciting way to understand what features of the ancien régime we’re about to lose, and what might take its place.
Keys in a box image via Shutterstock