During a recent interview on Epicenter Bitcoin, Bitcoin Core Developer and Bitcoin Foundation Chief Scientist Gavin Andresen was asked about the idea of having a benevolent dictator for life control the Bitcoin codebase. The topic was brought up by Co-Host Brian Fabian Crain, and Andresen seemed somewhat sympathetic to the concept. After all, Satoshi Nakamoto had essentially acted as the benevolent dictator of Bitcoin in the early days of the network’s development, and it is helpful in making sure changes can be made to the protocol in a timely manner. Having said that, it appears that Andresen is more accepting of a certain implementation of Bitcoin having a benevolent dictator rather than having a single person make decisions for the base protocol.
The Lack of a Leader Makes Consensus More Difficult
In his initial remarks regarding the usefulness of a benevolent dictator, Andresen talked about the value of a clear decision-making process:
“I think it makes sense for a particular codebase — particular set of code — to have a clear structure for how [decisions are made]. You know, who ultimately makes the decision or is there some voting process that makes decisions or whatever?”
Andresen then discussed the problems that have come about in the development of Bitcoin Core ever since he stepped down as lead maintainer. The Bitcoin Foundation Chief Scientist pointed out that the lack of a benevolent dictator has slowed down the overall development process:
“I think Bitcoin Core, the reference implementation, has had kind of this fuzzy process. You know, when I was the lead maintainer of Bitcoin Core, basically the process was anything that there was broad consensus would go in. If there was something that seemed like we just couldn’t come to consensus, I’d make the decision. I would just arbitrarily decide we’re going to go this way instead of that way, and I think that worked. I was acting as benevolent dictator for Bitcoin Core.”
A Benevolent Dictator Can Allow More Innovation to Take Place
Andresen expanded on the current issues with the development process in Bitcoin Core by pointing out how current Lead Maintainer Wladimir J. van der Laan’s philosophy on leadership has led to other developers essentially having veto powers over new proposals:
“When I stepped down from Bitcoin Core and Wladimir became lead maintainer — he’s not willing to have that benevolent dictator role. So, he’s more conservative. He will not merge things that don’t have consensus. Watching that dynamic — it really means that changes can be vetoed. It just takes a loud developer to say, ‘I don’t like that change. I’m going to veto it.’ I don’t think that’s healthy. I think for a software project it does help for a software project to have a clear way of making decisions and coming to decisions, and I think [Bitcoin] Core recently has been having problems with how [it] should come to decisions.”
The “veto powers” mentioned by Andresen have led to less innovation in his eyes. In fact, he believes the current development process in Bitcoin Core could be frustrating would-be Bitcoin developers:
“If we want to remain innovative, I think it’s important that there be room to take risks. Somebody who’s contributing can at least have some idea that their contribution will come to a decision at some point. It won’t just be in limbo forever, which I think is one of the big problems with contributing changes to Core. There are certain changes where it’s unclear if there’s consensus or not, so they just kind of hang around for months and months and months, which if you’re a developer is very frustrating.”
The Benevolent Dictator of BitcoinXT
While most people believe that BitcoinXT is about nothing more than an increase in the Bitcoin blocksize limit, there are also other philosophical differences between the Bitcoin Core and BitcoinXT teams. For example, Mike Hearn will be acting as the benevolent dictator of BitcoinXT rather than having decisions made by a group of developers. Andresen noted this point during the interview:
“Mike Hearn will be the benevolent dictator of BitcoinXT. He will be the ultimate decision maker. I’ve said that I’m happy to help out with maintaining that project — you know, accepting pull requests. I, frankly, don’t really want to be a benevolent dictator of an open-source software project. It just sucks up a ton of time.”
Hearn’s role as benevolent dictator comes down to the project’s dedication to upgrading the codebase in a faster manner than what’s currently going on with Bitcoin Core. The idea is that Hearn’s ability to make the final call on new pull requests will help BitcoinXT avoid many of the delays and conservatism that has recently plagued Bitcoin Core.