Cashless Society: Microchips Under the Skin, a Desirable Future?

A couple of years ago, prominent German economist Max Otte published an article. There, he speculated on what would happen if the world banned cash payments, and only non-cash transactions would remain.

In his opinion, this would lead to the total state domination of citizens. One cannot but agree with him – if at some point the use of cash is completely banned, then total state control will be hindered by nothing.

Governments and their watchdogs love electronic transactions. Unlike cash, they greatly complicate any attempts to evade taxes. Police and agencies like the NSA highly appreciate the ability to trace the path that non-cash payments leave.

Our life has become completely transparent. And since the electronic system is somehow controlled by authorities, they can require the bank to withdraw from our accounts taxes, fines, or freeze funds for a hundred small reasons.

Now, citizens can flee to cash, which depreciates only at the rate of inflation, without any additional banking fees. But what if convenient banknotes and coins fall under strict control and eventually disappear? Then ordinary people will have no room for maneuver.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors is convinced that “cash has a lot of virtues. One of them is that it allows people to engage in voluntary transactions without the knowledge or permission of anyone else. Governments call this suspicious, but the rest of us call it something else: Freedom.” Dr. Thorsten Polleit, Chief Economist of Degussa and macro-economic advisor to the P&R REAL VALUE fund, takes the same view: “If the state bans cash, all transactions must be executed electronically. For the state to see who buys what when and who travels when where is then only a small step away. The citizen thus becomes completely transparent and his financial privacy is being lost. Even the prospect that a citizen can be spied upon at any time is an infringement on his right of freedom”.

Furthermore, the citizens themselves will have to pay for the whole system of control and punishment. Taxes and most of the “seized funds” will go to support a system of monitoring, such as, for example, AEOI (Automatic Exchange of Information) –  did you know that 101 countries of the world have already joined the structure? Controlled transactions are not bad, but are they really effective? Suffice it to recall the recent scandals with Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.

Live in the care of Big Brother

To some, surveillance of citizens is not so bad. Take, for instance, control of prisoners that were granted parole. Using Big Data technologies, “Big Brother” is able to predict the probable time and place of a potential crime.

Digitalization is brought to perfection in Scandinavia. Tax authorities there know everything about every payer: from their monthly incomes to the shopping list and more or less valuable contents of the apartment. Taxes are automatically written off from private accounts. As the Internet traces our searches, it shows banners with related offers that flash before our eyes hither and thither. And HR specialists dig through our Facebook, LinkedIn and other accounts before hiring us.

Well, the surest way to lull a person’s vigilance and bring him into a state of complacent carelessness is to offer him “convenience” that quickly becomes a habit. We quickly get hooked to the life’s little pleasures and forget about hidden risks. “The more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips,” said Dan Ariely in his book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves”.

The convenience factor is becoming more prevalent, and consumers are willing to move from cash to digital payments, just as they switched from gold and silver coins to paper money a hundred years ago.

However, the next financial panic will throw those who do not have material savings into the hands of banks and governments. Then, only they will decide how much of your own funds you are allowed to spend every day. It may sound a little far-fetched, but inhabitants of Cyprus, Greece and India, who have gone through similar experiences in recent years, will readily confirm this.

There are also other kinds of dangers. They arise from the fact that digital money is completely dependent on energy supply. If the power grid turns off for some time due to a hurricane, accident, or a cyber-attack, our digital economy will be completely shut down.

That’s why it’s a very good idea to keep some of the liquidity in cash while it’s still possible. Jeremy Light, head of payment services at Accenture, concurs with this: “Cash circulation is, paradoxically, on the up. And as we welcome a new Jane Austen-emblazoned £10 note next month (ed. in September 2017), there will always be people who rely on cash, or simply prefer using it. It is therefore important that cash is preserved in society, and that cash transactions are integrated into new digital processes.

And Victoria Cleland, chief cashier and director of notes at the bank of England, endorses the idea: “The vast majority of the world is seeing an increase [in banknote demand]. We are neutral to methods of payment… but we do seek to understand what direction cash demand is heading in… [cash] is still crucial to everyday life and I encourage the cash industry to continue to innovate”.

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