Graeber & Wengrow (2021) seemed to argue that much of European liberal political philosophy came from North America. The more I look at Locke (1690), the more I’m convinced. It’s on this foundation that I’ll build the first version of an argument for coordinated autonomy.

There are a number contemporary tensions we’re experiencing in early 2024. At this time, it’s far from certain if Democracy is going to survive. There’s a lot of mistrust and dissatisfaction with the way systems aggregate and select choices, and how gains are allocated. Yet, the way that institutions that work in places without working democracies appears to drive an optimism in democratic technology as alternative. If you’re growing up in a broken state, you might be tempted to look to technology for a solution to corrupt, ineffective, institutions. What other surface do the youth realistically have?

I think about Locke’s time, of young European people looking around their societies and their experience with mistrust and dissatisfaction with the way that the feudal system was aggregating and selecting choices, and how gains were allocated. When I squint, it’s kind of hard to tell the difference between the feudal system and authoritarian regimes. Young Europeans used the new technologies of printing to spread ideas of how things might be different. Locke had a few ideas. As did Hobbes. Lots of great debate ensued. Institutions failed to adjust. Violence ensued. Gradually, Europeans and North Americans figured out gradualism.

These days, youth focus on technology as a vehicle for making society somewhat better. Zooming in, there’s still a segment of the population holding on through winter, and a segment within that segment that wants to believe in collective democratic institutions through Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO’s). It’s been a long winter for Web3, and the relevance challenge is as great as ever. I’ve followed up on those themes by asking what if people don’t learn from losing money, and wrote about issues of deceit and deception. What problem is Web3 trying to solve?

I can’t tell who genuinely believes in DAO’s, who doesn’t understand what a DAO is yet has a social need to signal that they do in order to fit in, and who needs to appear to believe in DAO’s so they can get in on the next grift. It’s hard to tell where conscious self-deceit, involuntary self-deceit (delusion) and deceit begins and ends, within people, and among people.

Different people have different mixes of optimization objectives. Some in Web3 appear to be optimizing for their own financial gain. Desperate people act out of desperation. I suppose some fraudsters believe that they’re desperate. Generously: it’s a casino mentality. Less generously: it’s Pizarro rolling up on Lima. It isn’t right that so many who have so little in the first place will get caught up in the grift. I’m talking about deliberate plots to defraud some of the poorest people from what meagre savings they have.

Some people appear to be optimizing for fairness. Whether there’s genuine misidentification of what that word means, if it’s retributive justice, restorative justice, opportunity equalization, or the belief that whatever is best for them as an individual is utility maximizing for the entire society: I can’t tell. And I don’t even know in which pockets the wolf-pack driven narrative serves the purpose of score-settling, or if the justification truly doesn’t matter. Sometimes people will say anything in the moment to secure the perception they won an exchange. The state of oneupdness must be maintained whatever the social cost. And some people act in a way that is aligned with optimizing fairness. They’re great people. We’d be, in aggregate, better off if more of them won more often.

Some optimize for autonomy. John Boyd did. You can see it in his life choices. He believed that everybody wanted to maximize their independence. Not everybody agrees. And sometimes, people need to agree to trade autonomy for some other good, like collective security.

Consider the road network. Abraham Lincoln was acutely aware of the misery of a lack of public road infrastructure had on rural communities. So too were Canadian policy-makers in the 1800’s. The geography of the country isn’t fantastic — as the Great Lakes only go so far inland into the continent and the Hudson Bay is covered with ice for much of the year. Policy makers in the global south are acutely aware of the misery that a lack of water transport causes. How much misery do the roads in developing countries cause the poorest people? It’s lamentable. If you can’t get your produce to market, are you really producing?

Within cities, we all have to give up some autonomy to be able to optimize the public good of an interconnected road network. If you want to get across any dense network, you need to respect a red light and let traffic pass. You don’t block the box. You adjust your speed to the road conditions to prevent your vehicle flipping over. We all make a little bit of sacrifice, to go along, in order to get along.

Rules are limits on autonomy, and, because the cost of enforcement rapidly exceeds the marginal benefit, most of these systems rely on consent. The only reason why it’s possible have the autonomy to drive anywhere, to take a driving vacation in a van with the screaming kids, to live far away from a manufacturing plant or direct service industry job is because the collective agreement is upheld. Cheaters are punished and never prosper because tickets are issued for minor infractions and vehicles are crushed into a cube for major ones. In this way, some semblance of a coordinated autonomy can happen. You give up a little to get a lot.

Locke has this wonderful optimism about him – as though rational people can calculate the aggregate welfare function and choose to behave in their best interest in the trade. It’s from that base rationality that a peaceful state of nature can be calculated as inevitable. The real equilibrium is peace. I can understand why that’s an indigenous North American ideal. I want to believe that.

And that’s funny. Because it’s patently obvious that it isn’t true. Evidence to the contrary is written in blood on roadways throughout the world.

Evidence to the contrary is literally written in multiple distributed ledgers across thousands of Web3 projects. How much more evidence do I need that the basis of Lockean arguments are false? People don’t behave rationally all the time. The cheaters, the wolves, prospered. And they’re rubbing their paws together in anticipation of the next great bull run. The Bitcoin Halvening is upon us. The dinner bell is ringing. Millions will play. Hundreds will win. Hundreds of thousands with the most to lose will lose everything.

Could there be another way?

If we want to benefit from decentralization and from DAO’s, there has to be popular consent for those benefits, and, a striking mechanism to deter the wolves and to shake the delusional. The freedom to cheat is traded for access to the network. It should be forfeited by the contract to engage with a DAO. It’s as though it must be so.

I can trace a part of the dissatisfaction with participative democracy in the West, and dissatisfaction with hierarchal authoritarian social coordination in the East, with dissatisfaction that cheaters appear to be prospering. But it isn’t as though those who are committing the worst frauds are never convinced that they’re causing harm.

It’s a fractal of paradox and ignorance all the way down.

But if we want it to turn out differently, we’re going to have to learn how to calculate how much autonomy we’re willing to trade for a collective benefit. It’s worth the effort, all the tears of failure and of laughter, because the benefits of free and fair trade are so great. Systems that enable coordinated autonomy are unreasonably effective at ameliorating human living conditions, and yet so delicate and fragile.

Democratic institutions take decades to build and mere days to destroy.

How could DAO’s be any different?


Bateson, Gregory (1935) “Culture Contact and Schismogenesis”, Man, Vol. 35 (Dec) pp.178-183

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. Penguin UK.

Locke, J. (1690). Second Treatise on Civil Government