Why are we here?

Permissionless II Keynote by Erik Voorhees
September 11, 2023

Fair ladies, fellow gentlemen, my name is Erik Voorhees, lover of liberty, founder of ShapeShift.

Some call me a crypto OG… my girlfriend calls me the “oldest man in crypto”… and from time to time I’m known for hunting down pudgy curly-haired scammers that over-index on acronyms, amphetamines, and abundant donations to Washington.

I was asked to give a little talk about why we’re here. Why we are in this place, why we are in this industry. It’s an honor to have such an opportunity.

But first let’s gather a little information on why you, the audience, are here…

Raise your hand if you’re here…

  • for the free coffee
  • for the lambo’s
  • because you love banks
  • To get your eyeballs scanned by Worldcoin
  • to celebrate KYC or other forms of wholesale spying on innocent people

Okay, raise your hand if you’re here for a rebellion against all of that nonsense.

That’s why I’m here. I’m here for a rebellion. Peaceful, but no less revolutionary.

As I was working on this speech, I realized the theme would match the name of this event… Permissionless

I love this name.

It’s one of the best words that captures the essence of our industry. It’s radical. It’s rebellious. It’s noncompliant. It’s American.

As the oldest man in crypto, let me remind you that this all began about 15 years ago with the invention of Bitcoin.

And why was that moment in time important? Why did it matter back then? Why was Bitcoin interesting? Because it was permissionless. Bitcoin invented permissionless money, and with the smart contracts of Ethereum a few years later, we had all the tools we needed to build an entirely permissionless financial system.

This attribute is revolutionary. And this attribute, more than any other, is the essence of crypto.

This attribute is imbued in all good projects in this space. And if something is not permissionless, we should consider it, at best, a stepping stone to that which is.

But isn’t it interesting that being permissionless has been so novel, and so difficult to achieve?

Isn’t it interesting that, in the realm of money, before crypto, all movement of money required someone’s permission?

You may say that cash is permissionless. But not if you’re sending it across any distance. Try moving $10,000 across a border and you’ll be swiftly reminded of the permissions imposed on you. No, cash is not even permissionless, and for all its virtues, it is disappearing from society anyway.

So, thank god a digital form of permissionless money was invented. It happened just in time.

PART II - Relevance

But why does this matter in the first place?

Consider that essentially all action in the economic sphere requires money. And in a world where most people struggle to put food on the table, the economic sphere is literally the arbiter of life and death for billions.

Most people don’t have the luxury of working in pursuit of their passion. They work, they toil, they transact, because they need money to live.

Thus, money is fundamental to our human existence. We should care about its quality and its character. We should care who controls it.

The permission is often subtle, but it is ubiquitous. Every time you pay with your card, you’re being granted permission. It appears as though the permission is simply whether you had enough money to pay… but in reality, there is another, more insidious layer of approval taking place. The bank, the financial institution, the government, numerous parties all along the line, strangers to you, people who you will never meet, bless each of your transactions.

And you don’t notice, because permission is usually granted. So long as you behave citizen, the permission will be there. But if you require permission to spend and to trade, then you require permission to exist.

Why do we accept this world, in which you are free to transact only on the conditional approval of strangers?

This, of course, is not freedom. It is subservience. It is serfdom. That the chains bear lightly down in most cases should not lull us into forgetting that we are chained. If they are tolerated, the chains will become heavier.

Let’s acknowledge that the laws restricting our affairs grow often and recede only rarely. Consider the average man of a hundred years ago, and the average man of today. Who was more economically free? 120 years ago there wasn’t even an income tax. Things were so radical that you were permitted to kept what you earned! You could even cross borders without an adorable book of stamps called a passport.

It’s amazing society could even exist under such anarchy! And yet, without any income tax or immigration restrictions, America experienced the greatest period of economic growth that had ever been seen in the history of the world. That society in which capital and labor is unpermissioned is the society that tends to grow fastest.

But some men love to plunder. The permission to keep what you earned and to move freely across borders was gradually retracted, wrapped always in appeals to collectivist propaganda like “the national interest.”

Today, across all the taxes you bear, half of your money is stolen by the state. But the state is just other people, just a set of strangers. Half of all your money is stolen by a set of strangers. What excuse do you tell yourself to cope with such embarrassment? The permission to build your own life is being withdrawn by those who plunder you while telling your its for your own good.

PART III - The Illegitimate Lord

So what prevents this trend from continuing? What prevents the man of tomorrow from even greater servitude? What force resists an increasingly permissioned existence?

We do.

You may not realize it, but what we are building is the sole economic defense of modern society against plunder and restriction by the state. We are saying no to the perpetual encroachment of permissioned existence. It is not the political process—the political circus—that saves us from this phenomenon, for it is that very process which caused it. No, as free men and women, our salvation is our own responsibility. It is us. It is ourselves, our hands, our minds, and our decision to act…. and we’re doing so without permission.

  • Permission is what the Kindergarten child attains to go to the bathroom.
  • It is not what the respectable man attains in his financial affairs.

For if I may transact with you only by the good graces of those watching me from above, then I am something below, I am a subject. I am not a man, but a child.

But is a child even an appropriate metaphor? Children are generally loved by their parents. Do you feel similarly loved by the Central Intelligence Agency? Farm animals, perhaps. That is the better metaphor. We have allowed ourselves to be treated like farm animals. We graze in the pen, we produce, we are harvested. Ahh but we can vote, however! Yes, we can choose who operates the sheers. We can vote whether we want blue or red to rob us, and we argue endlessly over the preferable color.

For us to surrender to these many permissions, we must really respect our leaders. We must aspire to the greatness of these lords. They must certainly be of brilliant mind, of high character, they must inspire and guide us toward that which we could not achieve without them.

Are these accurate descriptions of the political leaders of the world? Are they men of impeccable wisdom? Are Donald Trump or Joe Biden such paragons of virtue, such incredible specimens of humanity, that submission to them is in any way warranted?

I look out at the political class, that legion of bureaucrats suckling at the teat of plundered wealth, with all their ornaments of authority, with all their hubris masked as confidence, with the inauthenticity of their smiles matched only by the absurdity of their ideas, and I find no reason to submit to the permissions under which they seek to restrain me.

Part IV - Rally

To such people we owe nothing, but to humanity we owe much. That’s why we’re here, and crypto is our rebellion.

Crypto is our rebellion against this system so unworthy of its authority.

Crypto is our rebellion against coercion and servitude, it is our rebellion against the economically ignorant, the endlessly imperious, and the ethically impotent.

Crypto is our rebellion against permission, it is no less than a noble reclamation of dignity and grace as free and sovereign individuals in the service of peaceful civilization.

That is why we are here.

For the truth is that we don’t require permission to build great things from those petty tyrants who build nothing, and this was the very principle on which America was founded. The permission of the State is a facade, a ruse tolerated only by those afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. It is a curtain placed upon our eyes, effective only because we have been too weak, too afraid, too helpless, too distracted, and often too comfortable, to see beyond the shroud.

Many of us in this industry have seen beyond that shroud. We’ve seen that Washington is no more necessary for good society today than King George and the English Parliament were 250 years ago.

Crypto is a technology of individual freedom and a declaration of financial independence.

Crypto is the freedom to act out our own economic interests as free men and free women in a just society. To trade, to exchange, to deal, to build, and to barter. And we should be optimistic, for what a time to be alive, at the dawn of such peaceful revolution, where any two people on earth, can trade value without permission! Does that scare you? Or does it thrill you?

PART V - Superior Order

And yet, hubris afflicts all people. Are we sure we’re not suffering from it? As good skeptics, we should be skeptical, first and foremost, of ourselves and our own assumptions. This question we should always ask ourselves…. Are we agents of good, or of chaos, and how do we know?

Are we merely rebellious adolescents enabling a chaotic world without permission? Are we no more than subversive degenerates, petulant teenagers who, too immature and naive to see the value of order, lash out at its existence? How can we so irreverently condemn the necessity of compliance, the virtue of permission, the many resplendent wonders of central administration?! Do we not care about society? If we have our way, won’t bad actors thrive and society degenerate?

These are the strongest allegations against us, and yet they are easily defeated.

They are defeated upon the recognition that what we seek is not actually freedom from permission and rules, per se, but simply a preference for rules which are objective and transparent, rather than the status quo of rules which are subjective and opaque.

We like to say that code is law, but that’s a misnomer. Code is better than law.

And we are highlighting, for the world to see, the fundamental difference between law based on men, and law based on math.

Compare a redundantly audited and formally verified smart contract to any embarrassing mess of congressional legislation. Which is more scientifically sound? Which is a better demonstration of order? One is a matter of engineering, the other of electioneering. Compare a smart contract in which every variable is mathematically defined, to the Securities Act of 1933 which has thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers arguing over the degree to which cartoon pictures of Bored Apes are comparable to Florida orange groves.

The absurdity of most financial regulation is plain, and we shouldn’t tolerate it.

But all of us should desire orderly, objective, transparent markets. And to all the regulators in the audience, before you send me yet another subpoena, consider that this is all the common ground we share. We all want rules.

We all want rules. Rules are good. And this is the most important point I’ll make today: The traditional financial system is built upon the rules of men rather than the rules of math. Society can do better.

The rules of men are formed through a political process which all people acknowledge as fallible, and often corrupt. The rules of men rely on highly subjective human language, and leave wide areas open for interpretation. When it comes to enforcement of these already squishy rules, nobody can predict a priori which infractions will actually be enforced. Gary Gensler alleges that all tokens are securities. Okay Gary, why hasn’t the SEC enforced against all tokens?

The most charitable explanation is that they are under-resourced. Okay, but that still proves the point that financial regulation as it exists today is subjectively and partially enforced. If we care about orderly markets, how can we respect that? Compare this to any smart contract, which enforces 100% of the time and we can all know, a priori, how that enforcement will be executed.

Uniswap’s enforcement division is never under-resourced, and the rules by which it operates are objective and transparent.

We don’t have to suffer subjective rules in the realm of finance any longer, but instead of Uniswap winning the Nobel Prize for the development of orderly markets, they are persecuted by the very agency tasked with ensuring orderly markets.

You want to call us agents of chaos? You want to dismiss us as destructive anarchists? We are the only ones building financial rules that are enforced 100% of the time.

Code polices better than police.

We desire strong rules in our markets, and any rule which can easily be broken is a weak rule. There is a law that I may not cross a border without declaring the $10,000 in my pocket? Interesting. I can so easily violate that law that it’s an embarrassment to the very definition of the word. The laws of physics. The laws of mathematics. The laws of code. These laws have meaning, they are powerful, they are consistent, they are worthy of respect. The laws of men? The laws of a DC regulator? These are comparatively pathetic from the perspective of consistent order, and they are an unfit foundation upon which to build civilization into the 21st century.

No, man’s law is, at best, highly fallible and porous. Perhaps it was needed, once, just as we once needed the Post Office to send mail. Yet both the Post Office and the SEC still exist, vestigial and embarrassing, though I’m sure their budgets will again increase next year.

Now compare the subjective laws of regulators, o’ rebellious adolescent, with the law of code! Compare the Dodd-Frank Act, that detestable tome, 2,300 pages long which spawned thousands more pages across 400 new financial regulations, with Aave’s lending contracts.

Toward the achievement of orderly markets, which of these is more emblematic of an advanced civilization? Which is obviously the product of 20th century technology, and which is the product of the 21st? Compare the open-source collaboration of crypto with the backroom dealings of DC. Which process of rule-making is more noble and virtuous?

We are not agents of chaos, but agents of order. And while some may not approve of the systems of order we’re building, then again, no dinosaur ever approved of an asteroid.

Do we care about society? Yes. Deep in our bones we care about society. Many of us are here because we see widespread economic injustice in the world and we want to help. We live amid society, we benefit from it, and we owe our efforts toward its betterment. But unlike any politician who mandates compliance with his ideas at the point of a gun, we are here to build peacefully, and we impose on no-one.

So do not let the statist tell you that you do not care about rules or society. For you are building a superior technology for rules within society!, and it is they, the politicians, the regulators, the leeching, plundering class of Washington DC who should be praising your fine work in the realm of order and rule making! Compared to what we’re building, they are the agents of chaos.

They are the people printing billions of dollars a day and then pretending not to know what causes inflation. For them to claim the moral or intellectual high ground, in any matter of economics, is absurd. They could at least have the decency to get out of our way.

PART VI - Virtue and Capital

To be sure, our enemies are numerous. There are many who find the idea of open, permissionless finance to be abhorrent, for they’re used to controlling things they haven’t built, and now, finally, they can’t.

For the rest of us—for those radicals who don’t impose their opinions upon millions of innocent strangers by force—how optimistic we can be! How bright the light of opportunity shines from everyone who has discovered this permissionless Promethean fire. How much brilliant creative energy is captured in this single room? Yes, we endure seemingly endless struggle and setbacks. Yes, scammers abound. Yes, we are condemned by the system which we aim to replace. Some of us endure persecution, and all of us periodically pain.

But Friends, try to see through those struggles. Be grateful for every noble challenge you face in your work, for you are alive, and your work is important. Be grateful for this opportunity in front of you, for consider all those people in traditional finance, those cogs in the regulatory state who go to work each day with dead eyes, and weak hearts. Their soul knows that they are involved in nothing creative or beautiful. They are involved in nothing wild or romantic. But many of you are. Embrace it, cherish it, and build on it.

Wild and romantic. These words still define the heart of crypto. And in a world of bureaucratic soulcrushing absurdity, where society seems to be eating itself, grinding to dust all those who dare stand as individuals against an arcane apparatus, this wild and romantic heart of crypto still beats, block by block, with unrelenting ambition.

Stand tall and remember that you are neither slave nor serf. In America, the common man is the noble… so act like it. Be men and women of vitality, of integrity, and of proud disposition. Be the pioneering industrialist and reflect the nobility of that role. Build with intention, and see through every form of lowly interference, especially if it comes wearing flags and demanding tribute. Any regulator can submit a pull request. That they don’t is telling.

The traditional intra-legal financial territory was lost long ago to the political circus, so now we venture into a new financial territory, that we’ve built, extra-legal, and Permissionless. Here, in this new land, west of the old, we admit only a subservience to moral virtue, to mathematics and to the awesome power of open, composable, immutable code. In our audacity, we build things and force them on nobody, and we have invented—not just on the clean white board of imagination, but in the dirty cauldron of real engineering—the worlds first and only transparent, objective financial system for all mankind. We built it without a dollar of tax money, and we built it without permission.

Consider what it means to be in opposition to this development, to be opposed to objective, transparent rulesets and voluntary association among consenting adults, to demand the compliance and submission of peaceful individuals at the point of a gun. Examine those who act like that, and you will discover where those enemies of humanity so pitifully lay.

They’re done ignoring us. They certainly still laugh at us. And they’ve obviously started to fight us. But we will win, ethical arguments aside, because man is a capitalist creature, and capital flows where it is respected. Like water, it flows where it may, and as the permissions of the fiat system constrain and strangle, so our open, decentralized alternative stands ready to receive it.

True innovation is messy, sometimes veering in unhelpful directions and then back again. But capital will flow to well-ordered, decentralized finance as water flows indelibly to the sea, and both happen naturally, and without permission.

Thank you.

Erik Voorhees. Permissionless II Keynote on September 11, 2023 in Austin, TX.