What if the state had absolutely no control over marriage? Wow, that would solve some problems. No political figure would have a stake in how to define it. All control would devolve to social institutions. The existing bitter and divisive political battles would vanish. Everything would be handled by agreement, promises, contracts, private law, and non-state institutions, same as other areas of life. Disputes would be handled through private arbitration.
In a couple of weeks, I’m helping to take history in a significant step in this direction. At the conference Coins in the Kingdom, a Bitcoin event held at DisneyWorld, I’m honored to be officiating at the first-ever marriage done on the Blockchain. (It’s already getting some press attention: 1 2 3.)
The Blockchain is the fantastic digital innovation that provides not only a ledger for the currency unit Bitcoin but also an indestructible public record of verified contracts with timestamps. It works without any public authority — or any third party at all.
This wedding between my new friends David Mondrus and Joyce Bayo will be recorded on the Blockchain. The plan is to “burn” exactly 0.1 Bitcoin through a CoinOutlet Bitcoin ATM that will be right there in front of all the witnesses. The transaction permits secure messaging, which, in this case, will be the wedding vows themselves, which will then be permanently available for the world to see.
What’s the advantage of this approach over the conventions? Well, if you know the way marriage licenses work, the jurisdictions don’t communicate with each other. They are bogged down in terrible bureaucracy. The couple has to depend on access, verification, and confirmation from the public sector, and, meanwhile, disputes result in massive human suffering for everyone involved, and only the lawyers win.
Moving agreements to the Blockchain detaches the vows from the court system, the political system, jurisdictional geography, and third parties in general, among which the state itself. It’s a form of privatizing your own marriage, transferring it from the public sector to the realm of private decision making — the two people who actually make the marriage happens — where it belongs.
Recall that aside from the technology here, this private status is precisely how marriage has been contracted for nearly all of human history until fairly recently. Marriage has only been the monopoly of the state for little more than one-hundred years. That’s when we got this thing called a marriage license, and it wasn’t long before the politicians were using the institution for its own purposes, deciding who you could marry and could not.
The idea behind the politicization of marriage was to control demographics. It was all about reproduction, and along with that came eugenics, the chilling hope among elite intellectuals for wiping out undesirables in one generation. Even today, you find remnants of the eugenic spirit in the medical tests associated with the license to marry and the requirement that people who officiate at the marriage do so in the name of the state.
No surprise here: anything that politics touches doesn’t end well. If you are looking for a root cause of the current culture wars over marriage, look at its nationalization and you find the answer.
In our times, technology offers a viable alternative. Since the Genesis Block was released in January of 2009, all the focus has been on Bitcoin and its spinoff coins. But if you isolate the merit of the Blockchain itself, you find an extraordinary innovation that is capable of doing far more than provide a new de-politicized money for the world.
The Blockchain is a system of providing durable, verifiable, time-stamped records of information transfer, peer-to-peer and without third-party trust relationships. It holds out the possibility of reinventing the way we think of all contracts and even contract law.
This realm of distributed ledger technology is only now being explored. Just imagine its use in business-to-business contracting, futures contracts, public stock offerings, titles and mortgages, and so much more. What if all the institutions that are currently doing these things come to be displaced by the same P2P system of shared exchange that is reinventing so many other services today?
Does it sound outlandish, this idea of removing contracts and laws from the realm of the state? Probably. But remember that five years ago, Bitcoin was so crazy that even highly educated and informed dismissed it as non-operational. In the intervening period, Bitcoin is being accepted by huge companies and nonprofits, is being embraced by the world’s largest payment systems, and is being used all over the world. Just in the last year, Bitcoin wallet transactions have nearly quadrupled.
Looking back further to the origin of email itself, I can recall dismissing it as a geeky innovation without any practical significance. Who needs the ability to send some message to far-flung box on cyberspace that will be picked up at some unknown point in the future by only the handful of people who happen to have this thing called an “email address?” The way history unfolded from there was not anticipated by the mainstream.
It’s been this way with online commerce too. Amazon, Youtube, Google, Wikipedia, the app economy, gaming, and the whole of the world that we all live in every day was all dismissed by those in the know. It’s been 25 years of non-stop surprise. Given this, why do we cling so tightly to our embedded expectations that the status quo will persist? Why do we continue to dismiss edgy technology experimentation as an inevitable dead end?
This is why I’m so respectful of the prospects for the Blockchain to change the way we engage in our commercial and personal relationships, even if we can’t know precisely how this will evolve. The Blockchain makes something possible that has never been previously possible. With it, we can create property out of information, scarcify itself, verify it, seal it up with cryptography, prohibit its alteration or duplication, and have every assurance that it will stay exactly as it is forever. And in doing this, we don’t have to use coercion or worry about geography, politics, governments, and the immense legislative cruft that bogs down most all societies today.
The groom in this wedding is himself an adviser to Bitnation.co, which is a company that is going this direction, a leading-edge innovator in the Bitcoin 2.0 commercial space.
Remember that progress starts small. It can begin with the first flight, the first phone conversation, the first email sent, the first Bitcoin transaction on the Blockchain, the first marriage contracted on distributed cryptographic ledger.
What will it mean in the future? One thing we’ve learned about the course of civilization is that people gravitate toward institutions and technologies that improve life and eventually come to throw out those that do not. Might this be just the beginning of a new way of thinking of contracts, law, and even government? Perhaps.
Regardless, it is going to be an enormous amount of fun, and that makes it all worth it. Here’s to the bride and groom!