Coming To Terms With The Economic Reality Of Scaling
The blocksize war marked a pivotal chapter in Bitcoin’s nascent history, illuminating the ability of node operators to withstand systemic changes that could undermine the network’s foundational principles of decentralization and censorship resistance. At the crux of the controversy was the issue of scaling Bitcoin to accommodate growing transaction volumes. While one camp advocated sacrificing a degree of decentralization through a block size increase, their opponents maintained that the cost to Bitcoin’s core ethos was untenable. The ensuing deadlock culminated in a contentious change, Segregated Witness (SegWit). By restructuring how transactions are stored, SegWit offered a moderate capacity increase while also fixing the transaction malleability issue that had hindered advanced functionality. SegWit underscores the resilience of Bitcoin’s governance model in upholding its core values amidst internal strife. The deliberations remain highly relevant as the debate continues on how to scale Bitcoin while respecting the decentralization and censorship resistance properties that empower its users.
“Malleability is a problem for developers and users who want to reference a previous transaction in a new spending transaction before the previous transaction has been confirmed on the blockchain. This problem arises because, in order to spend bitcoin created by a previous transaction, the spending transaction must reference the txid of the previous transaction. If this txid can change, the reference will fail, and the spending transaction will be rendered invalid.
Specifically, transaction malleability was a problem preventing the adoption of the Lightning Network, which relies on the exchange of unconfirmed Bitcoin transactions.”
The activation of SegWit was a pivotal precursor to the development of the Lightning Network, a layered protocol solution that enables rapid Bitcoin payments. By settling transactions off-chain and only broadcasting opening/closing balances to the Bitcoin base layer, the Lightning Network aims to bolster Bitcoin’s scalability and transaction capacity without compromising its core security model. Since its inception, Lightning has witnessed remarkable growth as a payment rail, allowing for instant micropayments that highlight Bitcoin’s viability as an efficient medium of exchange. As Lightning continues to mature, it provides a real-world test case for layered scaling solutions that may shape Bitcoin’s technological roadmap in reconciling its goals of censorship resistance, decentralized security, and mainstream payment utility.
A key lesson that emerged from Bitcoin’s early scaling debates is the understanding that “Bitcoin scales in layers.” This design philosophy recognizes that Bitcoin’s base layer serves as a secure, decentralized foundation for supporting higher-layer protocols that expand functionality and transaction capacity. By leveraging the base layer as a trust anchor, innovative solutions can be developed to improve Bitcoin’s scalability and usage without compromising its core values of decentralization and censorship resistance. As Bitcoin matures, the layered scaling model aims to satisfy the goals of mainstream utility and payment efficiency while respecting the consensus-driven governance and security assurances afforded by its permissionless architecture. With continued technical progress, layer-two innovations may provide a pathway for Bitcoin to reach a global scale while upholding its foundational principles.
While the “Bitcoin scales in layers” paradigm was a constructive conceptual step, some have interpreted it dogmatically as an excuse for the total ossification of Bitcoin’s base layer. Driven by an overzealous desire to minimize risk and preserve Bitcoin as a pristine store of value, they argue that no changes should ever again be made to the underlying protocol. However, this extreme position overlooks nuances and unintended consequences. Strictly confining functionality expansions to higher layers may eventually undermine Bitcoin’s self-sovereignty and censorship resistance – qualities deeply valued by its users today. As transaction fees and congestion on the base layer increase over time, only wealthier entities may be able to afford directly interfacing with the base layer, centralizing everyday users onto custodial solutions. While caution and conservative progress are prudent, mindlessly rejecting any base layer enhancement out of paranoia risks inadvertently centralizing Bitcoin over the long term and disempowering regular users. Tradeoffs exist between scaling ambition and technical stability, but reflexive ossification fails to engage in nuanced cost-benefit analysis of proposals that may judiciously improve user experience without sacrificing decentralization.
Bitcoin’s core value proposition stems from its ability to offer users true self-sovereignty and censorship resistance. By design, Bitcoin empowers users with independent control of their funds, eliminating reliance on external third parties like banks or governments for transaction validation or custodianship. Users can truly own their bitcoin, holding private keys that make payments irreversible and impervious to interference. This establishes Bitcoin as the first permissionless and politically neutral monetary system, upholding financial autonomy regardless of nationality or institutional status. In contrast to traditional finance, no centralized authority can easily freeze, seize, or block payments on the Bitcoin network. These interlinked attributes foster decentralization and mitigate systemic risks, as Bitcoin has no single point of failure and is resilient even in adversarial environments. No longer must users place absolute trust in external institutions to engage in finance – Bitcoin enables direct peer-to-peer electronic cash on a global scale. The oft-cited refrain “Not your keys, not your coins” neatly encapsulates Bitcoin’s provision of self-sovereignty, censorship resistance, and escape from permissioned systems.
As Bitcoin gains wider adoption, there arises economic constraints around scaling capacity to meet increasing transactional demand. Bitcoin’s block space is inherently limited, greater usage creates more competition for this scarce resource. Basic supply-demand dynamics indicate that fees would unpredictably appreciate as global utilization grows, pricing out smaller transactions. While initially absorbable, sustained fee growth has externality effects that impact Bitcoin’s accessibility and ethos. Exorbitant fees make on-chain transactions unviable for regular users, forcing migration to custodial services contrary to Bitcoin’s premise of self-sovereignty.
To quote Anthony Towns in his piece: PUTTING THE B IN BTC
“the headroom there isn’t unlimited — expect it to show up as fee pressure and backlogs and less ability to quickly resolve transaction storms. And that will in turn make it hard and expensive for people with small stacks to continue to do self-custody on the main chain. At that point, acquiring new high value users means pricing out existing low value users.”
To quote James O’Beirne in his piece: Thoughts on scaling and consensus changes
“The quiet part out loud here is that by the time 1 billion people want to use bitcoin, the main chain is very expensive to transact on. Note that I say “very expensive” and not “impossibly expensive,” because if users lose the ability to take some form of layer 1 physical custody, bitcoin is just gold with less friction: a paper market will develop and all the nice properties of bitcoin will diminish”
Lastly, the immortal Hal Finney said this back in 2010
“Actually there is a very good reason for Bitcoin-backed banks to exist, issuing their own digital cash currency, redeemable for bitcoins. Bitcoin itself cannot scale to have every single financial transaction in the world be broadcast to everyone and included in the block chain. There needs to be a secondary level of payment systems which is lighter weight and more efficient. Likewise, the time needed for Bitcoin transactions to finalize will be impractical for medium to large value purchases.
Bitcoin backed banks will solve these problems. They can work like banks did before nationalization of currency. Different banks can have different policies, some more aggressive, some more conservative. Some would be fractional reserve while others may be 100% Bitcoin backed. Interest rates may vary. Cash from some banks may trade at a discount to that from others.
George Selgin has worked out the theory of competitive free banking in detail, and he argues that such a system would be stable, inflation resistant and self-regulating.
I believe this will be the ultimate fate of Bitcoin, to be the “high-powered money” that serves as a reserve currency for banks that issue their own digital cash. Most Bitcoin transactions will occur between banks, to settle net transfers. Bitcoin transactions by private individuals will be as rare as… well, as Bitcoin based purchases are today.”
The resolution of this pressing economic dilemma remains shrouded in uncertainty. While we may unearth innovative technical engineering solutions, it is equally plausible that this predicament is rooted in a foundational and inescapable economic constraint—a veritable constant that necessitates acknowledgment and adaptation at all echelons. It is imperative to brace ourselves for the prospect that certain economic trade-offs and limitations are inherently woven into the fabric of our established system. If we are to embrace custodianship as an inevitability, our foremost duty is to diligently impose stringent constraints upon custodians, effectively curbing risks while nurturing an ecosystem ripe with positive free-market economic incentives. Furthermore, they must fortify themselves against the encroachment of state authority, preserving their autonomy to ensure unfettered participation in an unbridled free market.
Irrespective of one’s stance on the scalability of self-custody or the inevitability of custodianship, it is paramount to ardently oppose the phenomenon of ossification for as protracted a period as possible. The paramount lesson gleaned from the crucible of the blocksize war is that the expansion of Bitcoin necessitates enhancements at its foundational level. The advent of the Lightning Network, a transformative development, would have remained a pipe dream had it not been for the vital upgrade to Segregated Witness (SegWit). This underscores a crucial correlation: the efficacy of secondary layers is inextricably tied to the efficacy of the bedrock base layer protocol. Bitcoin’s evolution must persist if we aspire to achieve the scalability of self-custody and the imposition of constraints upon custodians, with a steadfast commitment to free-market incentives and the fortitude to withstand state coercion through robust censorship resistance.
Allow me to clarify that my stance does not advocate for the endorsement of reckless behavior nor the indiscriminate implementation of every proposed change. Rather, we should adopt a stance of utmost caution, rigorously examining each proposal with meticulous scrutiny. Our overarching mindset should revolve around the question of how to modify elements that we may be hesitant to alter but recognize as imperative. The linchpin of this approach lies in fostering an environment of candid and constructive discourse within our community. Unfortunately, the presence of actors with ill intentions, accompanied by their deceptive marketing strategies, poses a substantial hindrance to our development endeavors. They not only consume our valuable time but also divert the attention of those genuinely seeking knowledge. It is incumbent upon us to actively contribute to the creation of authentic spaces where meaningful discussions can unfold, and individuals can engage in continuous learning.
It’s possible that my argument for the necessity of change in Bitcoin has not yet persuaded you. You may hold the belief that the current state of affairs is satisfactory and that any challenges encountered during the scaling process are outweighed by the potential risks associated with unknown uncertainties. Your perspective is valid, for if a critical mass shares your viewpoint, we may indeed have already arrived at a point of protocol ossification, and we must adapt to this reality accordingly.
The ongoing narrative of Bitcoin remains an unfolding tale. As this groundbreaking economic innovation continues to mature, its precise trajectory remains an enigma, shaped by a multitude of unpredictable and diverse influences. While Bitcoin’s decentralized structure precludes any single entity from wielding absolute control, the individuals operating nodes wield significant sway over its course. Their values, philosophies, and visions for Bitcoin’s future will inevitably leave their mark on the protocols and systems they choose to embrace. What lies ahead for Bitcoin is a narrative yet to be written, and only time will reveal the direction it ultimately takes.