Blockchain Code as Antitrust

  • Commentary
  • May 30, 2020

Vitalik Buterin and Thibault Schrepel’s recent collaboration discussing the potential for decentralized blockchain solutions to contribute to mainstream antitrust objectives represents a useful and optimistic effort to extol the virtues of decentralized blockchains to wider, non-expert audiences. While the brief article raises some arguments that many will find novel, and does introduce arguments worthy of more extended discussion, the article’s brevity ultimately disappoints, as it does not allow for more than cursory discussion of a number of intriguing issues.

Buterin and Schrepel consider antitrust laws to be fundamentally concerned with ensuring fairness in markets, primarily through efforts to ensure open access and prevent isolated actors from exercising outsized influence in markets. In blockchain contexts, decentralized architectures function with generally similar implications. In describing how decentralized blockchains can further antitrust objectives in established markets, they argue that blockchains—often viewed as external to or in opposition to most mainstream systems—can actually facilitate and bolster the aims of those systems. Further, blockchains present unique opportunities to extend the professed aims of antitrust systems to settings and contexts where traditional legal systems struggle to exert their influence, such as cross border contexts or when dealing with marginalized groups. For both these reasons, the authors argue that blockchains should be considered a useful complement to and extension of existing mainstream structures, and, when understood in this manner, should be encouraged and supported by governments and regulatory agencies, an argument that ultimately forms the central thrust of the article.

While these arguments are useful, thought-provoking contributions to discussions of the role of blockchains and decentralized structures within established economic and governance structures, the article also breezes past a number of critical points. For instance, as Matt Stoller convincingly argues, both in Goliath and numerous blog articles, it is highly debatable to ask if decentralization even remains a serious concern of antitrust regulators, whether in the United States or globally. In this context, arguing that meaningfully impacting antitrust efforts is likely to come from an increasing presence of decentralized blockchains in public and commercial life seems improbable, particularly when larger political and economic structures have shown little interest in positively contributing to the antitrust efforts. This question becomes even more poignant when, in the face of recent pandemic-related economic weakness, already powerful forces like big tech have actually increased their efforts to dominate their industries, with hardly the slightest opposition being voiced. These concerns aside, arguments that a wider trend towards renewed approaches to antitrust are slowly emerging from a range of quarters must nevertheless be considered intriguing. In this regard, Buterin and Schrepel’s article is perhaps best viewed as an effort to link blockchains to those debates, much the way Buterin’s forward to Eric Posner and Glen Weyl’s Radical Markets sought to illustrate the relevance of blockchains and decentralized systems to the laudable efforts to rethink markets presented in that book. Seen from this perspective, “Blockchain Code as Antitrust” is perhaps most usefully read as suggesting a potentially fruitful debate about less frequently considered impacts of blockchains, rather than definitively arguing a fully developed and well articulated view about likely near-term impacts of the proliferation of blockchains across societies.