an Erik Voorhees' speech.
This is a transcript of Erik Voorhees' legendary speech at the opening of the Permissionless conference. You can watch it here.
All right, fair ladies, fellow gentlemen, my name is Eric Voorhees, lover of Liberty, founder of Shapeshift. Some call me a crypto OG. My girlfriend likes to call 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 industry, why we are in this place. It's an honor to have this opportunity. But first, I want to gather a little bit of information about you, the audience. Raise your hand if you are here for the free coffee. Raise your hand if you're here for the Lambos. Unfortunately, you probably won't be getting those this year. Raise your hand if you're here because you love banks. No hands. Raise your hand if you're here to get your eyeballs scanned by Worldcoin. Raise your hand if you're here to celebrate KYC or other forms of wholesale spying on innocent people. Raise your hand if you're here for a rebellion. That's why I'm here. I'm here for a rebellion, peaceful for sure, but no less revolutionary.
As I was working on this speech, I realized that the theme was going to match the name of the event: Permissionless. I love this name. It's one of the best words that captures the essence of our industry. It is radical, it is rebellious, it's non-compliant, it's American. And as the oldest man in crypto, let me remind you that this all began about 15 years ago with the invention of Bitcoin. Why was Bitcoin interesting? It was interesting because it was permissionless. Bitcoin invented permissionless money. And with the invention of smart contracts on 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. The attribute is imbued in all good projects in this space. And if something is not permissionless, we should consider it at best as 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 funds required someone's permission? You may say that cash is permissionless, but not if you're sending it across any distance. Try moving ten thousand dollars across a border, and you will be swiftly reminded of the permissions that are imposed on you. No, cash is not even permissionless, and for all its virtues, it is receding from society. So thank God that a permissionless form of digital money was invented because it happened just in time.
But why does this all 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 or death for billions. Most people don't have the luxury of working toward their passion. They work, they toil, they transact because they need to live. Thus, money is fundamental to our human existence. And because of this, we should care about its quality, its character, and 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, but in reality, there is another much more insidious layer of approval taking place. The bank, the financial institution, the government, numerous parties all along the line, strangers to you, people you will never meet, bless each of your transactions. And you don't notice because permission is usually granted. As 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.
So 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. And that the chains bear lightly down in most cases should not lull us into forgetting that the chains exist. If they are tolerated, they will become heavier.
Let's acknowledge that the laws restricting our affairs grow often and recede only rarely. Consider that the average man of a hundred years ago, compared to the average man of today, who was more economically free? 120 years ago, there wasn't even an income tax. Things were so radical back then that you were actually permitted to keep what you earned. You could even cross borders without one of those adorable books of stamps we call a passport. It's amazing that society could even exist under that kind of anarchy. And yet, without any income tax or immigration restrictions, America experienced the greatest period of growth that the world had ever seen. That society, in which labor and capital are unpermissioned, is the society that tends to grow the 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 that you bear, half of your money is stolen by the state. But the state is just a set of strangers. So half of 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 and tell you it's for your own good.
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. We do. You may not realize it, but what we are building is the 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 that is the very process which caused it. Now, as free men and free women, our salvation is our own responsibility. It is us, it is ourselves, our minds, our hands, and our decision to act. And we are 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'm 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, is the better metaphor. We've allowed ourselves to be treated like farm animals. We graze in the pen, we produce, we are harvested. But we can vote, however. Yes, we can choose who operates the shears. We can vote whether we want red or blue to rob us. And we argue endlessly over the preferable color. For us to surrender 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 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. 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. It is a rebellion against a system that is unworthy of its authority. It's 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. And 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 was 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, to barter. 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 that thrill you?
And yet, hubris affects all. People, are we sure that we are not suffering from it? As good skeptics, we should be skeptical first and foremost of ourselves and our own assumptions. The question we should always ask ourselves: Are we agents of good or of chaos? And how would 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 very 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 actually a better demonstration of order? One is a matter of engineering, the other is a matter 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 board 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 the common ground we share. We all want rules. We all want rules. Rules are good.
And this is the most important point that I'll make today. The traditional financial system is built on the rules of men rather than the rules of math. And 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 man 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. And if we care about orderly markets, how can we respect that? 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 for the very fun by the very agency tasks with ensuring orderly markets.
So you want to call us agents of chaos? You want to dismiss us as the destructive anarchists? We are the only ones building financial rules that are enforced to 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 ten thousand dollars in my pocket. Interesting. I can so easily violate that law that it's an embarrassment. The very definition of that 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, they 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 yet again increase next year. Now, compare the subjective laws of regulators or rebellious adolescents with the law of code. Compare the Dodd-Frank Act, that detestable tome, 2300 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 the 20th-century technology, and which the product of the 21st? Compare the open-source collaboration of crypto with the backroom dealings of DC. Which process of rulemaking is more noble and more virtuous?
We are not agents of chaos, but agents of order. And while some may not approve of the systems of order that we're building, then again, no dinosaur ever approved of an asteroid. Do we care about society? Yes, of course. 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 improvement. 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 rulemaking. Compared to what we are building, they are the agents of chaos. They are the people printing billions of dollars and then pretending not to know where inflation comes from. 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 the way.
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 that they haven't built. And now, finally, they can't. And for the rest of us, for those radicals who don't impose their opinions upon millions of innocent people by force, how optimistic we can be. How bright the light of opportunity shines for everyone who has discovered this permissionless, Promethean fire. How much brilliant, creative energy is captured in this single room? Yes, we endure seemingly endless setbacks and struggles. Yes, scammers abound. Yes, we are condemned by the system that 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 that you face in your work, for you are alive, and your work is important. Be grateful for this opportunity in front of you. 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. So embrace it, and cherish it, and build upon it.
Wild and romantic, these words still define the heart of crypto. And in a world of bureaucratic, soul-crushing 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, 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 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 no one. And we have invented, not just on the clean whiteboard of imagination, but in the dirty cauldron of real engineering, the world's 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 rule sets and voluntary association among consenting adults. To demand the compliance and submission of peaceful people 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 are done ignoring us. They're certainly still laughing 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 back again. But capital will flow to well-ordered, decentralized finance as water flows indelibly to the sea. And both will happen naturally, and both will happen without permission.