By Elaine Ou
IT’S fun to imagine a world without cash.
Liberated from the burden of physical currency, consumers could make purchases from the convenience of a mobile device. Every transaction would come equipped with fraud protection, reward points and a digital record of its time and location. Comprehensive tracking could help the Internal Revenue Service reclaim billions of tax dollars lost to unreported income, like the $80 I made selling a used refrigerator on Craigslist. Drug dealers, helpless without an anonymous medium of exchange, would acquire wholesome professions. El Chapo might become a claims adjuster.
Such is the utopia recently described by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker and by a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Kenneth Rogoff, in a new book, “The Curse of Cash.” But this universe is missing one of the fundamental aspects of human civilization. A world without cash is a world without money.
Money belongs to its current holder. It doesn’t matter if a banknote was lost or stolen at some point in the past. Money is current; that’s why it’s called currency! A bank deposit, however, grants custody of money to the bank. An account balance is not actually money, but a claim on money.
This is an important distinction. A claim is only as good as its enforceability, and in a cashless society every transaction must pass through a financial gatekeeper. Banks, being private institutions, have the right to refuse transactions at their discretion. We can’t expect every payment to be given due process.
This means that politically unpopular organizations could easily be deprived of economic access. Past attempts to curb money laundering have already inadvertently cut off financial services for legitimate individuals, businesses, and charities. The removal of paper currency would undoubtedly leave similar collateral damage.
A cashless economy violates the basic laws under which currency has operated since before the Industrial Revolution. The justification for giving up a fundamental freedom is that it would clear the way for an experimental policy designed to place a tax on currency.
Money may be a shared illusion, but cash abolitionists are in a hallucination all their own.