Sometimes in life there are genuine conspiracies afoot, not mere theories. One of these is the plan to abolish cash. This is happening in plain sight, and governments show little intention of grappling with the problem. Indeed, the U.K. Government’s vapid response is indicative of a broader malaise at the heart of modern governance, in that it indicates both a lack of willingness to make clear rules and a lack of openness about what it is doing. This, as we shall see, centres around a dereliction of duty with respect to the state’s most important task of all: the making and enforcement of law.
The fact that cash is disappearing will be clear to all readers. It is sometimes believed that this happening through market forces alone – as though people are simply spontaneously giving up the habit of using physical money. This may to a certain extent be happening (and it was certainly the case that people, entirely irrationally, gave up using cash during the lockdown era). But anyone who thinks this is the only reason it is taking place simply isn’t paying attention. A concerted effort is in fact being made to stamp cash out of usage entirely (see authoritative overviews here and here), and it is happening, as is often the case, through a bootleggers-and-baptists pincer movement.
On the one hand, the bootleggers. These are the fintech companies and payment processors such as Visa, which, since at least 2017, has had the stated aim of “putting cash out of business” and has been giving large bribes to restaurants and other retail outlets to go cash free. These organisations have been aided and abetted by intensive lobbying by management consultants such as McKinsey, who have been beating the drum for the “war on cash” for a decade. Here, the motives are as clear as mountain stream water: cash is a competitor for cards and digital payments, and therefore the fewer cash transactions there are, the better.
On the other hand, the baptists. These are the central bankers and government advisers – like Daniel Korski, former adviser to then-U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron – bumptious and breathless (and, it goes without saying, unelected), who extol the virtues of a cashless society. These include ‘increasing productivity’, giving central banks more power to set negative interest rates (the use of cash as an alternative to digital money being a break on this), and combating crime. The motives of such people are probably pure; I think in most cases they genuinely believe they are striving to make the world a better place. They just have a lionised sense of their own wisdom and an incomplete understanding of the foundation of political legitimacy – common failings in ‘men of system’ throughout history.
Governments are of course aware that even while the general public across the world is using cash less, people want to have the option of using it. So very few politicians will come out and say openly that they are in favour of the abolition of cash. What we see instead is a general nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach to those forces who are perpetrating the anti-cash war, combined wih mealy-mouthed commitments to vague principles surrounding continued cash ‘access’, as can be found, for example, in the U.K. Government’s own Cash Access Policy Statement.
This document is a classic in the genre of contemptuous disingenuity. It begins with a lengthy declaration of context. And this context is not “We are committed to continuing to make cash available for use by the general public in perpetuity”. Instead, we get, straight out of the gate, an extended paean to the virtues of digital payments that is worth restating in full with key phrases highlighted:
The adoption of digital payments that has been taking place across our economy and society over the past decade continues to provide opportunities for people and businesses across the U.K. The proportion of the number of payments that do not involve cash in the U.K. has risen from around 45% a decade ago, to 85% as of 2021.
Digital payments can offer people and businesses convenient, tailored and flexible ways of making and managing payments safely and securely. They have the potential to help facilitate enhanced competition in payment services in the form of new entrants and more choice for consumers, as well as innovations that can further improve access to financial services. Increasingly, digital payments can enable and may be accompanied by additional services, such as ways to help budget or keep a record of transactions. Digital payments may also reduce opportunities for the criminal minority who seek to exploit the characteristics of cash for physical theft, evading tax or laundering money. The Government believes that it would be wrong for its approach to cash access policy to impede these many benefits and opportunities, and encourages steps to ensure that digital payment products and services are inclusive and accessible.
Got that? Digital payments are better for a whole host of reasons and, if you are in favour of using cash, then definitionally you are “imped[ing]” these “many benefits and opportunities” and should hang your head in shame. But just in case you are one of the poor benighted fools who still wishes to use cash – perhaps a little old lady, who will soon ideally expire and cease standing in the way of progress – then we will do what little we can to help:
[T]he Government recognises that digital payments may not yet be a suitable option for many people who still rely on notes and coins, for example to manage their finances, do their shopping, or to help out friends and relatives.
The condescension is palpable, and the message clear. There are some people who are not yet ready, and are still wedded to their petty notes and coins and their grubby, proletarian concerns (shopping, budgeting, ‘helping out’). They are not like us in Government, who buy everything we need online, have so much money we don’t even know whether we have dipped into our overdraft this month, and whose friends and relatives are just as well-off as we are, thankyouverymuch. But sadly we still have to act as though we care about those people. So we suppose with reluctance we will have to make sure that these deplorables still have access to their precious tenners.
What ‘access to cash’ means, though, has been carefully circumscribed. It most certainly should not be taken to mean “the ability to pay for things in cash”. Rather, it very strictly means cash deposit and cash withdrawal services – i.e., the ability to pay into and withdraw from one’s bank account in cash. This in itself, of course, makes Government policy in this area (undoubtedly deliberately) sound radical, while actually in practical terms achieving very little. Whoever is responsible for the Cash Access Policy Statement knows perfectly well that the ability to make withdrawals and deposits in cash means nothing if there is nowhere to spend it because all the retailers in one’s local area are being bribed by Visa to refuse non-digital payments. This, in other words, has all the hallmarks of a wheeze designed to sound good as an announcement (“We are taking practical steps to maintain access to cash”) while making no movement whatsoever to change the direction of travel.