“Bitcoin is P2P electronic cash that is valuable over legacy systems because of the monetary autonomy it brings to its users through decentralization. Bitcoin seeks to address the root problem with conventional currency: all the trust that’s required to make it work . Not that justified trust is a bad thing, but trust makes systems brittle, opaque, and costly to operate. Trust failures result in systemic collapses, trust curation creates inequality and monopoly lock-in, and naturally arising trust choke-points can be abused to deny access to due process.
Through the use of cryptographic proof and decentralized networks Bitcoin minimizes and replaces these trust costs. With the available technology, there are fundamental trade-offs between scale and decentralization. If the system is too costly people will be forced to trust third parties rather than independently enforcing the system’s rules. If the Bitcoin blockchain’s resource usage, relative to the available technology, is too great, Bitcoin loses its competitive advantages compared to legacy systems because validation will be too costly (pricing out many users), forcing trust back into the system. If capacity is too low and our methods of transacting too inefficient, access to the chain for dispute resolution will be too costly, again pushing trust back into the system.”
- Greg Maxwell
An open system such as Bitcoin will not retain the desired properties described in this post if it becomes sufficiently centralized such that aspects of the network can be controlled by individuals or cartels. Decentralization is the means, not the end. By distributing power as widely as possible we minimize the trust required in any single entity because we know that no single entity can interfere with our use of the system.
There are many potential dimensions of centralization and they can be difficult to quantify:
- Software clients
- Mining pools
- Mining hardware
- Economically active nodes
- General value ownership distribution
- Percent of users who control their own private keys
- Percent of users who audit the ledger with their own node
High centralization in any given metric isn’t necessarily a system killer, but we should consider that a system is only as strong as its weakest point. As such, any changes to the system should take care to avoid consolidating power along any possible axis.