The Bitcoin Foundation Doesn’t Need Elections, Anymore (Op-Ed)
As has been widely reported, Jim Harper and Olivier Janssens are no longer with the Bitcoin Foundation. As first reported here, the upcoming elections will be canceled and future board of director seats will be appointed and not elected. This all sounds really bad. Western sensibilities scream that democracy is always preferable to not democracy. But if the Bitcoin Foundation wants to continue, and clearly the remaining members of the board intend to continue it, then this is probably the only way forward.
The Bitcoin Foundation has taken a lot of heat. Much of it was deserved, especially in their past. When the Foundation funded development, I believe it had a moral obligation to be as transparent as possible with not only its paying members, but the community as a whole.
But those days are gone. The Bitcoin Foundation is no longer the primary financier of Core Development. They are a private organization with their own internal rules and regulations. Bitcoin has moved on without them and they no longer have the powers, real or imagined, that they once had. In 2014, when they had theoretical control of development, it felt important to criticize the Bitcoin Foundation, now it just feels mean.
The debate on if Janssens’ ousting was justified or not will continue on, but it is not one I am interested in having. The Bitcoin Foundation is little more than a group of private individuals at this point. If someone wants to leave that group, they have the right to, but they can’t force the rest of the group to disband. I’m not saying Janssens and Harper wanted to destroy the foundation, but I do feel like the rest of the Foundation’s board felt that way and that isn’t healthy for an organization.
Democracy can be slow, plodding and manic. It is nevertheless, preferable to other forms of government because the advantages tend to outweigh the disadvantages. However, when it comes to a non governmental organization, that isn’t always the case. In the real world, decisive action and a unified vision is often needed.
Additionally, transparency can be hurtful in the same way. Meeting minutes seem like a great idea, until you realize that it can stifle conversation within the organization because any comment will reach the public and potentially cause a firestorm of controversy.
When the Bitcoin Foundation had theoretical control (through funding) of development, these disadvantages were outweighed by the disadvantages that come with secrecy and central leadership. Specifically, that they could be doing things on our behalf, either to the code or as the face of bitcoin, without our permission. But they don’t have the power to influence bitcoin any longer. It is debatable if they ever did, but they certainly do not now.
Since they no longer have even the theoretical power to influence Bitcoin’s source code, and very few people see them as the community’s face any longer, there is little harm in letting them do what they want. It is worth pointing out that they were good shepherds of the code and there were no credible accusations of them attempting to control development during their existence, the concern was always about the potential and now that potential is gone.
No one gains anything by the dissolution of the remaining Bitcoin Foundation. I don’t think Bitcoin would be significantly harmed if it disappeared, but I see no evidence that it would be buoyed by the Foundation’s disappearance.
Honestly, the Foundation needs a name change. It isn’t what it once was and the name has a negative connotation at this point. The Google search results are less than flattering after you get past the official site, Wikipedia and similar pages.
With a new name can come a fresh start, a new direction and an understanding with their current members and the public that things have changed. Janssens and Harper and many in the community seemingly want the Bitcoin Foundation to dissolve, but what does that mean? The Foundation is essentially Bobby Lee, Brock Pierce, Meyer Malka, Elizabeth McCauley and Bruce Fenton deciding what to do with a few bitcoins. What are we going to do to dissolve this, forbid them from hanging out? Demand that they give away the remaining funds? If the problem is just the Bitcoin Foundation name, then maybe changing the name will solve some of their problems.
I haven’t always been a friend to the Bitcoin Foundation. I’ve criticized them in the past and honestly, I don’t think they made the right decision. Fenton says they are too broke to continue elections, and while much could be done with volunteers, it isn’t likely to be free. There may be some desire to avoid another Janssens situation through an election, even though Fenton denies that, but there is no doubt money is scarce for the Bitcoin Foundation and elections can be expensive. Whatever the case, piling on at this point isn’t helping. The Bitcoin Foundation is broke. It doesn’t matter for bitcoin, so let them be broke.
The democratic process is seemingly finished at the Bitcoin Foundation. I certainly understand why some individual members might be angry over losing that lever. If they had voted for Harper or Janssens, they not only lost their candidate but also the mechanism to replace him. Members have only one method of influence left: their subscription. If they don’t like the changes, their only recourse is to stop donating, I’m sure many will.
This article is not meant for them. If you are a card carrying member of the Bitcoin Foundation, then you have every right to demand that the election process be preserved, if you feel that vote was a critical reason why you joined. Your only recourse is to cancel your membership.
There really is a question of how many members are left actively paying anyway. The forums are a ghost town and Fenton’s latest comments got a reply each from Harper and Janssens, but crickets otherwise.
Janssens’ assertion that “The board just turned a member ran(!) organization into a dictatorship” may be true, but a dissolved dictatorship is the same thing as a dissolved democracy, so if the Foundation is unlikely to survive in its current form, as Janssens and Harper assert, why not just hand the keys over to the remaining members and let them run it until the gas runs out?
Harper is unsurprisingly (considering his resignation) saying that the Foundation is as good as dead and Janssens called the end of elections “how freedom dies” and insisted it was one last power grab from Fenton. It may be how democracy dies in the Bitcoin Foundation, but if it truly is a power grab from Fenton, he is reaching for an empty bag because the Foundation doesn’t have any power left.
So let him grab it. What the Bitcoin Foundation has to do from here, is prove that Fenton and the board can act like a collective “benevolent dictator” with member donations. By their actions, they will prove to be worthy of more, or not. The community should judge them by their actions within the community, not if they are a democracy or not. They admit bitcoin doesn’t need them, now it is their job to convince the bitcoin community that they should want them.
That will be a long road to travel, especially if they reject a name change. I suspect it will take some funding from their personal savings accounts if they are serious about it. But them trying isn’t going to be harmful, so why not let them try? They can put on conferences, they can talk to businesses, they can do things that anyone is free to do, but they have experience doing it. That is, at least from my observation, their current goal, and I can’t see many negative outcomes that would result from that.
The Foundation is no longer a critical part of Bitcoin’s ecosystem, so it isn’t critical that it’s democratic and transparent at this point either. It just needs to find a way to be helpful again, rather than a lightening rod for controversy. If that means they have to face some uncomfortable realities about their organizational structure, and sacrifice some ideological sacred cows, then that is what they should do.