A recent paper entitled ‘Liberal Radicalism’ explains a mechanism to fund and sustain open source software (and other public goods) in a new and unique fashion. Written by Vitalik Buterin, Glen Weyl, and Zoë Hitzig, the paper introduces a mechanism called ‘CLR’ (‘Capital-constrained Liberal Radicalism’) which I’ll explain in greater detail later a bit below.
A summary of the paper (and the CLR mechanism), is as follows.
We propose a design for philanthropic or publicly-funded seeding to allow (near) optimal provision of a decentralized, self-organizing ecosystem of public goods …
Individuals make public goods contributions to projects of value to them. The amount received by the project is (proportional to) the square of the sum of the square roots of contributions received.
We’ll dive into ‘the square of the sum of the square roots’ which is 1) a mouthful and 2) a bit confusing for those who need to brush up on their maths, like me. However, it’s important to note that CLR’s mechanism is 1) is focused on ‘optimally’ funding public goods (like open source software) and 2) is relatively simple to implement.
But First… Why Does It Matter For Open Source?
For the past decade, open source software has been the internet’s largest blind spot. — Nadia Eghbal, Roads & Bridges
As highlighted time and time again, open source software is broken. We currently expect domain-specific expert developers to maintain internet-critical code for less than they could make as first year developers anywhere in the US. Many times, even that much money is a stretch.
I’d recommend reading pages 23–24 of the paper for more. Here are a few snippets, for now.
(As) Lanier (2013) argues, in many ways the open source movement has been a failure. It almost always relies on some level of proprietary corporate backing or directed, hierarchical government support, and even then almost all contributors tend to be geeky men from privileged backgrounds, as others cannot afford to give their time away in this manner…
Open source communities are increasingly trying to address these limitations and provide funding for public goods provision through open source development through a variety of methods.
( Vivek Comment: Including many of the ideas on the Lemonade Stand)
The CLR mechanism is proposed to solve this problem by determining how valuable a piece of software is, then paying the developer (or team, or project) accordingly. A pretty simple idea, really.
It’s also a pretty simple formula to achieve this goal.
- Crowdfund individual donations towards open source projects.
- ‘Match’ or ‘top-off’ the contributions of individuals from a government, grants program, or private philanthropist
Each of these mechanisms have been tried individually (crowdfunding and large, grant donations). What hasn’t been attempted is putting these two ideas together. If Weyl, Buterin, and Hitzig are right, that will make all the difference.
To me, this is a fascinating way for us to be at the forefront of a movement to sustain and grow open source while testing an innovative economic approach. This also follows @owocki’s growing narrative that the ‘killer app’ of blockchain is the funding that is native to the protocols which are being created.
It also just so happens to coincide with what we’re already doing with Gitcoin Grants…
So What Exactly Is CLR?
CLR is a mechanism that allows individuals to state how much they value a public good, and make a contribution towards that good knowing their contribution could be matched by a philanthropic authority (like EF / ConsenSys) if enough public interest is shown.
An example of this is included by Alex Tabarrok here.
In equilibrium, individual 1 contributes 45/8 to the public good, individual 2 contributes 5/8 and the remainder,15/4, is contributed by the government. But recall that the government had no idea going in what the optimal amount of the public good was. The government used the contribution levels under the top-up mechanism as a signal to decide how much of the public good to produce and almost magically the top-up function is such that citizens will voluntarily contribute exactly the amount that correctly signals how much society as a whole values the public good. Amazing!
This allows for some interesting features, including a main idea relevant to open source: “The mechanism provides much greater funding to many small contributions than to a few large ones.” The fact that many small contributions are made to @austingriffith ’s Burner Wallet means that the EF / ConsenSys / another beneficiary would programmatically contribute more to getting this done than if one big contribution was made.
I still have some brushing up on the maths to fully explain CLR, but the paper / resources help and I think this illustrates it for now.
As I’ve heard Dr. Weyl say in the past, CLR benefits from following the categorical imperative made famous by philosopher Immanuel Kant. “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature].” When you contribute to something via CLR, you know that a contribution is coming back from the universe.
There are a number of open questions associated with CLR, including the following.
- Sybil resistance: We know that grants which receive many small contributions result in a larger ‘top-off’ value from the ‘benefactor’, incentivizing an attack vector to create multiple dummy accounts to try to confuse the system
- Reliance on philanthropists: In practice, CLR still suffers from reliance on a benefactor or government, a part of the problem which it purports to solve. The paper simultaneously shows disappointment in OSS leaning on “proprietary corporate backing or directed, hierarchical government support” while CLR still requires a ‘benefactor’ to direct capital towards OSS resources of value. This being said, it is clearly an upgrade to use crowdfunding signals to
Implementing CLR Using Gitcoin Grants
Using ConsenSys Grants + Ethereum Grants as a proxy, build a Liberal Radicalism ‘track’ into the grants program, stating that every contribution from the community will be ‘matched’ by ConsenSys / the EF in the LR fashion.
A further reason we may be uniquely positioned to help push LR forward today is found at the bottom of LR.
Clearly, LR relies heavily on separate human identities and can easily
be exploited if identities can be replicated. Whether these difficulties can be overcome is an interesting question that experimentation and technological advances for identity solutions will reveal.
Given our close tie to Github (and the Sybil resistance this helps offer), we’re uniquely positioned to give this a go now — while decentralized identity is still in it’s infancy.
I think we’ve actually stumbled into being one of the best suited parties to help implement these ideas in a real and constructive way. These experiments fit quite well with both a) Gitcoin Labs and b) Gitcoin Grants.
Open to thoughts, feedback, and questions on this idea. I think there is the potential for usability on Gitcoin Bounties / Gitcoin Grants / potentially CodeFund if we think it’s interesting.
Please feel free to share the conversation link with anyone who you think might be interested in contributing to the discussion.