A moral analysis of ConstitutionDAO

I’ve written this piece ages ago, but I found the time to publish it only now. Sorry!

For those of you that aren't already hardwired into the crypto-metaverse, let me give a very quick summary of what happened a few weeks ago.

  • There are only 13 known extant original printed copies of the American Constitution. All but two are currently owned by public institutions.
  • A few weeks ago it became known that one of the mentioned two private collectors would be putting their copy of the constitution up for auction at Sotheby's.
  • A group of people that watched too many Nick Cage movies thought "what if?" and fired up a DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organization) to take part in the auction and buy it.
  • The mechanism was simple: You give them ETH and receive governance tokens. The ETH was to be used for the auction, the goverance token to vote and decide about what to do with the constitution afterwards (how to take care of it, where to put it on display etc).
  • The ConstitutionDAO - as it was called - managed to get over 40 million dollars in ETH in a matter of days.
  • The auction happened, ConstitutionDAO did unfortunately lose, but nevertheless became legend.

Why does this matter?

Aside of the considerations that are obvious for everyone in crypto (power of memetics/degens, investment opportunities, DAOs are the future of finance, etc.) and the incredible entertaining value of the experience (personally I'm more than happy to have provided a few $$ to literally watch the auction live on Youtube with the same state of mind I am in when I'm watching the World Cup finals), there is something much more going on. Let me explain.

Up to now, decentralised autonomous organizations have mainly developed around the idea of investing and finance. The mechanics is simple: You put crypto in, you receive some tokens in return, the DAO does something and your tokens will hopefully increase in value. This has been true for DeFi liquidity pools and farms, for many governance tokens (that are often considered to be the equivalent of shares in a company by their owners, but don't tell the SEC please) and for NFTs, that are often bought to be resold - flipped, as we say - more than for their intrinsic artistic value. With ConstitutionDAO something else happened. A copy of the constitution of the most powerful country on Earth, that along with France bootstrapped the process of modern Democracy in the whole western world, was owned by a private collector. When you think about it, this sounds so ludicrous to be straight up paradoxical: No other document has influenced the lives of the people in the US and more in general in the post-WWII world more than this one. It literally contains the law and guiding principles that build up a democracy, which by definition should empower people. The thing even starts with the words "We, the people" and yet it is owned by someone. The moral perversion of all this should be absolutely evident. Mind me, I say moral and not legal, because legally there is nothing wrong going on, it's a historic manuscript that can be bought and sold like any other old book. It's the content and political significance of the manuscript that turns everything in a moral crime.

And well, having understood this, we are finally able to frame ConstitutionDAO actions in different terms: A bunch of people - a community - banded together to take the Constitution out of the hands of a private collector and transform it into what it was supposed to be from the start, a public good. This is unprecedented, and totally different from the usual "DAO as a mean of investing" lore that has been underlining the crypto world for so long. To be more blunt, what I am saying is that I don't give a flying fuck that people managed to raise 40M in a week, the real important thing is how this happened to make justice to a moral wrong.

For sure, as in any revolution there are a bunch of idiots following the crowd not really understanding what is going on. I am very sure many people invested in this project, that is, they put money in hoping for a return. As of me, and I'm sure as of many others, this thought never fucking ever crossed our minds in that moment. In an epic twitter space hosted by Cal shortly after the auction I have been able to talk with many other participants, and the whole situation was very poetic: Everyone was saying something, some considerations more trivial, some less, but there was this underlying feeling that something important had just happened. As it is for any milestone event, one is not exactly able to pinpoint why what's happening is important, but the gut feeling stays. In simple terms, when you are witnessing history in the making you don't really know precisely what you are witnessing until, well, history is made.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo: Il quarto stato. Oil on canvas, 1898-1901. Museo del Novecento di Milano. Souce: Wikipedia.
Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo: Il quarto stato. Oil on canvas, 1898-1901. Museo del Novecento di Milano. Souce: Wikipedia.

In my opinion, which per what I said above may just be part of the story, or altogether wrong, the real important event here is having proved how DAOs aren't just a nice tool to do investment and finance, but how they can indeed be increadibly useful to operate in the space of public goods. This is unprecedented, and we can barely imagine where this will lead.

What then?

As one could imagine, having failed to acquire the Constitution we were then in the pickle of having more than forty million dollars and zero clue about what to do with them. An obvious suggestion was to give them back to the people that wanted to leave the project. This was made difficult by some nasty technicalities, namely that the crowdfund and token distribution happened on ETH Layer 1 and that many people made small donations, around 200$. Another suggestion was to keep going, and use the money to do something nice. This is the thing that interested me the most. I didn't think we should have just spent the money to seek an economic return. I thought, instead, that we should have kept in mind the moral significance of what we just did, and persever in this direction, the one of the public good. In any case, in the end the project closed shop, part of the ETH got redeemed and many people sold their tokens.

Isaac Asimov: Foundation. Cover of the first edition. Source: Wikipedia.
Isaac Asimov: Foundation. Cover of the first edition. Source: Wikipedia.

I don't know if you are familiar with Isaac Asimov's work, but in his Foundation Cycle he describes this collective, called Foundation, that has the purpose of preserving knowledge and history in the event of a tremendous societal collapse, to aid the reconstruction of civilization. This is what ConstitutionDAO made me think of. I like to think that our intent may have been similar: In a world where everything is owned by the few, where inestimable art pieces are kept away in underground vaults as a mean of economic insurance, where inequality is tearing our society apart, we had the possibility of taking care of the public space, of returning things to the public good, and of managing them together. If you don't think this is increadibly important you're ngmi, not just in crypto but in life.

To conclude, this is the moral lesson that the ConstitutionDAO taught me:

We, the people shall embark on a mission to reclaim all the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of humanity from private collectors and owners, and return it to the public good.

I still hope that, one day, the Foundation will begin.


I want to thank everyone at ConstitutionDAO for having made this possible, everyone that participated in the crowdfund, Cal for the wonderful Twitter space and the gracious hosting after the auction, the degens in the YT auction live chat that were priceless, and all my colleagues and friends for useful inputs for this piece. Thanks to you all now I can proudly say “I was there”.

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