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Cashless debate: Why cash is crucial for individual freedom





When an object or an idea is commonplace, it is easy to discount its significance. Certainly, the very notion of money, in its physical form as banknotes, is more powerful than we generally acknowledge. That is why maintaining access to cash is far from a trivial pursuit; it is, in fact, intrinsically linked to the expression and preservation of the dignity, freedom, and privacy of the individual.
 
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in Paris in December of 1948, set out a common vision of a world built on fairness, cooperation, and good will for all. Within its 30-articles a clear emphasis emerges: whenever conflict exists between the personal freedom of the individual and any other rights or interests, then the freedom of the individual should prevail.
 
Understanding the significance of cash through this lens is crucial in averting the erroneous dissolution of this important amenity. Cash is a public good, like any other.
 
Relevant to this discussion, Article 3 of the Declaration states that every individual “has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 12 goes on to emphasise that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy." And, additionally, that all have the "right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
 
As with many other dimensions of the human experience, people should be free to choose the way they pay as well as how they live. Freedom of choice is a pillar of liberal democracy. Individual choice should always be given, and it is important to understand why this concept extends even to the manner or medium through which people transact.
 
Additionally, cash plays a second important role. As a buffer against private control of financial systems, cash guards us against the inevitable loss of privacy exemplified in digital payments.
 
Freedom of choice
 
Certainly, paying cashless — through bank cards, or apps, or whatever else — is not irredeemably problematic. There are concerns, but we will cover those in a moment. The essence of the issue with the cashless discussion, however, lies in the realm of choice and freedom.
 
As an individual, there are many reasons to use cash. And an individual’s right to do so will only exist for as long as cash remains an option.
 
Banknotes are pieces of "printed freedom" which citizens should be entitled to, according to German economist Lars Feld: they offer an escape from all-out state control. This is, in essence, why many authoritarian regimes, such as China — are pushing so hard on the roll out of cashless technologies. Cashless financial systems empower private and state structures, not the individual.
 
With cash, a person enjoys the freedom to transact wherever they please. Cash is and always has been an incredible technology, enabling the exchange, delayed or otherwise, of raw value. Greasing the wheels of trade and cooperation, cash allows people to go beyond the sluggish bartering of objects and tools.
 
Like other property, while you possess it, cash belongs to you — assuming it has been acquired or accrued lawfully. And there is something extremely empowering for the individual in having this capacity to spend as they please without the consent of the state.
 
Furthermore, there is no need to use someone else’s services, such as a bank, an app, a POS device — to make a purchase. We certainly do not need to ask our bank figuratively for permission to use our wealth. Nor is there any reliance on an internet connection or a fully charged mobile phone. Far from it, cash needs only its owner and one other entity to engage in a transaction.
 
Moreover, while it can be difficult for the majority to understand, there are many people within our society for whom owning a bank account is merely an aspiration; people who do not possess a mobile phone, or certainly not one that does anything beyond making calls. Such people, no doubt, require and appreciate cash and the freedom it intrinsically offers them. In this sense, cash plays a role in social support and financial inclusion.
 
This was one of the reasons that Advocate General Giovanni Pitruzzella of the European Court of Justice stated that the right to use physical currency should be, and indeed is, protected under law.
 
In his remarks, Pitruzzella underlined the ethical importance of having cash available for use by people in vulnerable circumstances. In particular, he noted that a direct link between cash and the exercise of fundamental rights exists in cases where there is a social inclusion element to the use of cash.
 
For vulnerable individuals, "cash is the only form of accessible money and thus the only means of exercising their fundamental rights linked to the use of money.”
 
Risks of digital currency for privacy
 
The way cash enables all of this without the need to rely on a third party, without the need to record your personal information, your location, your habits — also makes it inherently privacy preserving.
 
Many find cashless transaction technologies highly convenient, and this is a strong incentive for their use by the public. However, as with a number of modern inventions, it might not be immediately obvious what is being given away as a result of this shift away from physical currency.
 
Indeed, cashless transaction are analogous to the privacy-robbing economics of social media: people now know there is a data problem with these technologies, but they emphasise the immediate gratifications and convenience over the important long-term consequences.
 
Cashless transactions are no different. The companies behind these technologies are diametrically opposed to consumer privacy. Data, that is, information about citizens, clients, and spending behaviours, are valuable figures worth acquiring and leveraging for profits and control.
 
"To eliminate cash is to say to hell with financial privacy," writes  Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic: "An end to cash would mean that every financial transaction is exposed to a third party."
 
Unless massive change takes place, which seems unlikely at this point, these operators will sadly always stress profit and power over all else. And any attempt to preserve privacy by such organisations is largely done in the name of long-term public approval and profit, not for privacy’s sake. As such, individual privacy will always come in second place on their list of priorities.



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The cashless society from an ethical point of view

The debate about the move towards a cashless society has been at the center of the scene for several years, now. Various angles have been taken by economists, politicians, banking institutions and sociologists. Beyond the technicalities of the debate, lies the question of freedom, of inter-citizen solidarity and of governmental responsibility. The debate cannot remain in the hands of financial specialists, it is first and foremost an ethical, political and societal issue.










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