By Matt Tomlin
Reports of the West moving towards adopting a cashless society have been frequent in recent months. Sweden is talking of becoming the world’s first country to do away with cash by gradually phasing it out by 2023. In the UK, there has been talk that the finance sector could phase in a cashless society, with the government potentially rendered useless in any effort to interfere should it not interfere soon.
There are obvious benefits to business, and to us, of having a cashless society: no need to waste resources, including money itself, on printing, protecting and securing cash, the end of counterfeit cash, and the convenience of quick card or online payments, in place of any fumbling around you might have to do with cash in your hands at the checkout.
However, there are serious flaws and issues to be considered with a cashless society. To start with, while there is the aforementioned benefit of not having to protect and secure physical cash, this would likely only be replaced with increased need to protect and secure online cash. Cybersecurity attacks which steal capital from the public and from businesses are commonly viewed as a prolific and serious form of 21st century crime, with the NotPetya attack on Ukraine, allegedly from Russia, being just one example of a cyber-attack having caused financial damage to both a country and the wider world.
With a cashless society, the low-skilled manual labour of logistics and security surrounding the protection of physical cash would be eliminated, thus losing many people of all backgrounds their jobs. There is the danger that this would only be replaced with demand for more highly skilled jobs in the cybersecurity labour market, with business and government currently moving to invest in creating these jobs primarily near big firms in London and the South East; a trend many have been annoyed with previously with other sectors.
Outside of the issue of job losses, there is the issue of crime. It is understandable why some would believe a cashless society would reduce crime on the streets such as drug dealing. Without cash, people would have no money to trade for illegal goods underground, and outside of the surveillance state. However, it is just as possible that cash-for-drugs could be replaced with drugs-for-drugs deals. For example, a said amount of cocaine for a said amount of heroine. In addition, other forms of bartering could be brought in place of cash in criminal deals. Instead of paying cash-in-hand for said goods, the dealer would perhaps be more likely to request that buyers do favours for them, such as beating someone up.
On top of crime potentially being made worse without physical cash being available, the issue of homelessness could be exacerbated by this kind of society. Without cash, how are we supposed to give money to those we see on the streets who need it? Will The Big Issue and other forms of charity just become corporate, with those selling the magazines and asking ford donations also requiring card machines for transactions to be made with? Its highly possible beggars would not have any way of people giving cash to them, while official channels of charity such as The Big Issue would become another transaction process for the card companies to utilise and monitor.
There is always the argument that we should try to give food and drink to the homeless instead of cash, in case they take drugs or drink. I have never been the biggest believer in this mantra to begin with. Quite frankly, most people are lazy and will not increasingly go to the effort of buying things for the homeless in place of giving them cash. Part of the driving force of a cashless society would be the lazy consumer not minding that quicker alternatives to cash, such as card, online and mobile payments, would totally replace it. Laziness defines this whole process, so there is no reason to place faith in people by believing that they will be more likely to buy goods for the homeless as opposed to tipping them in such a society. This is not to mention that tea in takeaway cups and apples will not help homeless people in any way to gain some sort of footing in the world, which capital, when given to them as cash, can do so.
There is talk also of how a society lacking in cash may just reduce the value we place on money as a resource, as we will no longer have as much of a physical reminder of what we are spending and what it is. If money removes its own meaning by removing its physical form from existence, then it could well destroy itself as a system and means of structuring power, causing uncertainty as to what comes next for society as a whole. If it does not destroy itself, do worry, as we have all of the above and more to stress over. Enjoy your summer.