Bitcoin mining is more than just a method of passively validating blocks and acquiring bitcoins as a reward. It involves what political philosopher Hannah Arendt would call the "vita activa," or a positive action. It is both an act of freedom, and something that sets people free.
If this sound overly philosophical, Arendt saw things in a practical light. Humans, Arendt said, are at their fullest when they are politically engaged, when they step into the public realm and take part in the community's decisions. Similarly bitcoin miners are not mere participants but active contributors in a network, and the work they do shapes the ecosystem's present and future.
This story is part of CoinDesk's 2023 Mining Week, sponsored by Foundry. Burak Tamaç is a researcher at CryptoQuant, an adjunct professor at Brookdale Community College and adviser to several crypto projects.
In a way, to work or contribute to something larger than yourself is to become free. Although the Bitcoin network is not bound to existentialist concerns, there is a powerful motivation driving some bitcoin miners to contribute. It's not uncommon to hear something like, "because Bitcoin is a tool for human liberation, one of the greatest things I can do is to support the network."
To understand the significance of mining in relation to freedom, we must delve into what freedom means. Specifically by looking at Isaiah Berlin’s dual interpretations of negative and positive liberty.
Negative liberty, which is essentially what political scientists mean by liberalism, emphasizes an individual's freedom from intervention from governments and other people. This kind of freedom allows people to chart their paths without external constraints (physical or otherwise).
On the other hand, positive liberty necessitates action. It's not just about the potential of doing something, but the act of doing it. It's the freedom embodied in actively participating and realizing one's potential (see Berlin's seminal essay titled "Two Conceptions of Liberty").
What Berlin missed, however, is a third type of freedom. What is sometimes called republican or neo-Roman liberty in philosophy circles is an understanding of human rights where people should be able to live free from subjection, deference and vulnerability to the arbitrary will of others. It specifically emphasizes the idea of non-domination and learning to co-exist with others, similar to ideas advocated by early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and popularized by Cambridge history Quentin Skinner.
What this theory means in practice is that as long as we have a voice in the decisions that affect us, "intervention" does not make us less free. In fact, in many cases, interventions that we consent to and authorize could enhance freedom.
In the context of Bitcoin, mining encapsulates this positive freedom in the sense that miners are not bystanders but instead active validators. They keep the decentralized system in check. They ensure that transactions are genuine and, in the process, validate the integrity of the entire network. Like citizens who actively engage in political processes to hold rulers accountable, miners play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of power within the Bitcoin network.
Further, because Bitcoin mining is permissionless – i.e. has a low entry barrier – anyone with the right tools can join the decentralized network. It's not reserved for the elite or those with significant capital; it’s a domain where individual contribution matters, and collective participation strengthens the system. In short, Bitcoin is democratic.
Bitcoin mining is sometimes criticized for being overly concentrated. However, it's important to note that many of the largest miners are public entities. While the ideal situation might be small scale individual miners competing in the free market, and mining bitcoins from their laptops, this is also economically unviable for a decentralized monetary network that has to guard itself against corporate and nation-state attacks. There is much at stake, and if Bitcoin is to survive then serious resources need to be committed to it.
In this case, publicly-traded bitcoin miners or other forms of community-ownership like mining pools are the next-best thing. With such arrangements, single ownership and decision-making get dispersed into boards, distributing power and decision-making. It also helps to emphasize that mining bitcoin is a way a taking responsibility and engaging in a political process.
In essence, bitcoin mining is a profound exercise in positive freedom. It's not just about the ability to participate but the act of participation itself. Every miner is a political actor, actively shaping and preserving the network's ethos of decentralization and bitcoin freedom. In other words, it is a vita activa.