In simple terms, cryptoeconomics is the use of incentives and cryptography to design new kinds of systems, applications, and networks. Cryptoeconomics is specifically about building things, and has most in common with mechanism design — an area of mathematics and economic theory.
Cryptoeconomics is not a subfield of economics, but rather an area of applied cryptography that takes economic incentives and economic theory into account. Bitcoin, ethereum, zcash and all other public blockchains are products of cryptoeconomics.
Cryptoeconomics is what makes blockchains interesting, what makes them different from other technologies. As a result of Satoshi’s white paper, we have learned that through the clever combination of cryptography, networking theory, computer science and economic incentives we can build new kinds of technologies. These new cryptoeconomic systems can accomplish things that these disciplines could not achieve on their own. Blockchains are just one product of this new practical science.
Bitcoin’s innovation is that it allows many entities who do not know one another to reliably reach consensus about the state of the bitcoin blockchain. This is achieved using a combination of economic incentives and basic cryptographic tools.
Bitcoin’s design relies on economic incentives and penalties. Economic rewards are used to enlist miners to support the network. Miners contribute their hardware and electricity because if they produce new blocks, they are rewarded with amounts of bitcoin.
Without these carefully calibrated economic incentives, bitcoin wouldn’t work. If mining did not come with a high cost, it would be easy to launch a 51 percent attack. If there were no mining reward, there would be no industry of people who buy hardware and pay for electricity to contribute to the network.
Bitcoin also relies on cryptographic protocols. Public-private key cryptography is used to give individuals safe, exclusive control of their bitcoin. Hash functions are used to “link” each block in the bitcoin blockchain, proving an order of events and the integrity of past data.
Without the hardness of cryptographic protocols like hashing functions or public-private key cryptography, we would have no secure unit of account with which to reward miners — no confidence that our record of past accounts was authentic and exclusively controlled by a rightful owner. Without a carefully calibrated set of incentives to reward an industry of miners, that unit of account could have no market value because there would be no confidence that the system could persist into the future.
In this way, bitcoin’s design requires an understanding of both cryptography and how incentives affect the security properties and functionality of systems built with cryptography. Cryptoeconomics is strange and counterintuitive. Most of us are not used to thinking of money as a design or engineering problem, nor are we used to economic incentive design being an essential component of a new technology. Cryptoeconomics requires us to think about information security problems in economic terms.
One of the most common mistakes in this industry is made by those who view blockchains only through a lens of computer science or applied cryptography. We have a strong tendency to prioritize the things we are most comfortable with, and see things outside of our domain of expertise as less important.
In blockchain technology, this leads many people to assume or abstract away the crucial role of economic incentives. This is one reason we see meaningless phrases like “blockchains are trustless”, “bitcoin is backed only by math” or “blockchains are immutable.” These are all wrong in their own way, but all have the effect of obfuscating the essential role of a large network of people whose necessary participation in the network is maintained through economic incentives.
Cryptoeconomic systems like bitcoin feel like magic to someone who views them only as a product of computer science, because bitcoin can do things that computer-science alone could never accomplish. Cryptoeconomics isn’t magic — it’s just interdisciplinary.
2. How does it relate to economics more generally?
Economics is the study of choice: how people and groups of people respond to incentives. The invention of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology does not require a new theory of human choice — the humans haven’t changed. Cryptoeconomics is not the application of macroeconomic and microeconomic theory to cryptocurrency or token markets.
Cryptoeconomics has most in common with mechanism design, a field related to game theory. In game theory, we look at a given strategic interaction (a “game”) and then try to understand the best strategies for each player, and the likely outcome if both players follow those strategies. For instance, we might use game theory to look at a negotiation between two firms, relations between countries or even evolutionary biology.
Mechanism design is often referred to as reverse game theory because we start with a desired outcome and then work backwards to design a game that, if players pursue their own self interest, will produce the outcome we want. For instance, imagine we are responsible for designing the rules of an auction. We have an objective that we want bidders to actually bid the real value they place on an item. To achieve this, we apply economic theory to design the auction as a game where the dominant strategy for any player is to always bid their true value. One solution to this problem is called a Vickrey auction, where bids are secret and the winner of the auction (defined as the player with the highest bid) only pays the second highest amount that was bid.
Cryptoeconomics, like mechanism design, focuses on designing and creating systems. Like in our auction example, we use economic theory to design “rules” or mechanisms that produce a certain equilibrium outcome. But in cryptoeconomics, the mechanisms used to create economic incentives are built using cryptography and software and the systems we are designing are almost always distributed or decentralized.
Bitcoin is a product of this approach. Satoshi wanted bitcoin to have certain properties — for instance, that it be able to reach consensus about its internal state and that it be censorship-resistant. Then, Satoshi set out to design a system that would achieve those properties, assuming people responded in rational ways to economic incentives.
It is worth noting that mechanism design is not a panacea. There is a limit to how much we can rely on incentives to predictably shape future behaviour. As Nick Szabo rightly points out, ultimately we are speculating about people’s future mental states and making assumptions about how they react to certain incentives. A cryptoeconomic system’s security guarantee depends in part on the strength of its assumptions about how people react to economic incentives.
Remember that the whole point of requiring miners to buy hardware and spend electricity is to impose a cost on miners, as a way of raising the cumulative cost of attempting a 51 percent attack sufficiently high that it becomes too expensive. The idea behind proof-of-stake systems is to use deposits of cryptocurrency to create the same disincentive, rather than real-world investments like hardware and electricity.
Once we have solved the fundamental problem of blockchain consensus, we are able to build applications that sit “on top” of a blockchain like ethereum. The underlying blockchain gives us (1) a unit of value that can be used to create incentives and penalties, and (2) a toolkit with which we can design conditional logic in the form of “smart contract code.” The applications we build with these tools can also be a product of cryptoeconomic design.
Cryptoeconomics is also applied to design token sales or ICOs. Gnosis, for instance, used a “Dutch auction” as a model for its token auction, on the theory that this would result in a more fair distribution (an experiment that had mixed results). We mentioned earlier that one area where mechanism design has been applied is in the design of auctions, and token sales gives us a new opportunity to apply some of that theory.
m0t0k1ch1.icon Status や MetaMask のようなアプリケーションは cryptoeconomic とは言えない
Example 3: State channels
Cryptoeconomics also includes the practice of designing much smaller sets of interactions between individuals. The most notable of these are state channels. State channels are not an application but a valuable technique that can be used by most blockchain applications to become more efficient.
They can trust this process because both Alice and Bob know that each update passed between them could be sent to the blockchain. If the channel is properly designed, there is no way to cheat — say, by trying to submit a previous update as though it were the most recent — since recourse to the blockchain is always available.
For instance, “permissioned” blockchains that are centrally managed and do not use proof-of-work have been a source of constant controversy since they were first proposed. This area of work is often referred to as “distributed ledger technology” and is focused on financial and enterprise use cases. Many partisans of blockchain technology dislike them — they may be blockchains in the literal sense, but there is something about them that feels wrong. They seem to reject the thing that many people see as the whole point of blockchain technology: being able to produce consensus without relying on a central party or traditional financial systems.
A cleaner way to make this distinction is between blockchains that are products of cryptoeconomics and blockchains that are not. Blockchains that are simply distributed ledgers and do not rely on cryptoeconomic design to produce consensus or align incentives might be useful for some applications. But they are distinct from blockchains whose whole purpose is to use cryptography and economic incentives to produce consensus that could not exist before, like bitcoin and ethereum. These are two different technologies, and the clearest way of distinguishing between them is whether or not they are products of cryptoeconomics.
Secondly, we should expect that there will be cryptoeconomic consensus protocols that do not rely on a literal chain of blocks. Obviously, such a technology would have something in common with blockchain technology as we call it today, but labelling them blockchains would be inaccurate. Again, the relevant organizing concept is whether such a protocol is the product of cryptoeconomics, not whether it is a blockchain.
The ICO craze has also focused attention on this distinction, though few have articulated it clearly. Manypeopleindependentlyidentified that one of the strongest signs of a token’s value is whether it forms a necessary component of the application to which it is connected. To put this in clearer terms, the question should be: is the token part of a necessary cryptoeconomic mechanism in the application? Understanding the mechanism design of a project holding an ICO is an essential tool in determining that token’s utility and likely value.
In the past years, we’ve moved from thinking about this new field solely through the lens of one application (bitcoin), to thinking about it in terms of one underlying technology (blockchains). What needs to happen now is to step back once again and view this industry in terms of a unifying approach to solving problems: cryptoeconomics.