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Australia: the social cost of a cashless economy

by: Sarah Jenkins
Thursday December 8, 2016 - 18:25

Australia is inching close to the big leap: getting rid of paper and metal currency and going all virtual money. But beware the opening of Pandora’s box.

One could imagine that the disappearance of cash would only affect those who rely exclusively on it: homeless people. This category is estimated at 105 000 in Australia, plus all those which are left unaccounted for. And if that were the case, then that problem could be addressed with increased social care of the destitute. But this perspective is short-sighted. Many more would suffer from such a decision.

The main danger lies in the rashness of the move. Economies do not react well to sudden and hardline modifications, such as massive population transfers, unexpected political shifts, or currency tampering. Such changes to the economy scare the public and deplete the most essential ingredient of prospering market places: trust.

Nowadays, people trust the smartphone screen on which they consult their bank balances, because that isn’t very different from when they checked their online accounts on their computers. And that wasn’t very different from when they checked their available funds at the ATM. And that was the same thing, but quicker, than going to the bank teller and asking for the balance. In short, we slowly and gradually came to modern times, in terms of money management.

But killing the only form of palpable wealth isn’t slow and gradual: it is rash. And it is therefore dangerous. This principle is valid in all forms of societal management. Western superstates, such as Scandinavian ones, France, England, Germany (and slowly coming to it, the United States), and to some extent Australia, gradually increased their influence over the public’s lives in the latter half of the 20th century.

Nowadays, in these countries, states handle the people’s retirement plans, road safety, health, unemployment, business licenses, social conflicts, and a gazillion other things. And the state absorbs a great majority of the wealth, with tax levels sometimes ranging close to 100%. In other words, these states have almost succeeded in reaching what communist Russia aimed for: absolute control. Why did they succeed where Russia failed? Because these states went slow and easy, when the Soviets smashed the economy with overnight extreme measures of dispossession and government intrusion, and again a few years later with oversteering free-market measures. If Australia gives in to the utopian but orwellian temptation of destroying cash, it will send long-term harmful ripple marks into its economy.

The arguments in favor of suppressing currency have been around for a long time and are well known : reduced economic costs, fight against petty crime and criminal organizations, reduced money laundering, facilitated investigations, digital scale performance levels, etc.

But why now? Why is this topic, which was (dis)regarded as somewhat outlandish until recently, suddenly coming to the front of the stage now? That’s the whole point.

Here, banks are probably the main pushers. Because interest rates are at record lows in the world and in Australia, banks are afraid that their customers will withdraw their funds from banks which no longer profit them. That perspective being unsavory for banks, they figure that killing cash will forbid clients from doing so and will retain them captive of their no-good accounts. Not to mention that banks in Australia and everywhere else in the world have long been complaining about the burden of managing cash.

And finally, there is the civil liberties cost. The idea is being sold as additional security for the public, as it will enable police forces to better track and tackle criminal and terrorist organizations. But by restraining the financial freedom of criminals and terrorists, the government will do so also to every single citizen above all. Look for example at the sulfurous debate on the introduction of a cashless “welfare card” in Ceduna, South Australia, that cannot be used for alcohol or gambling.

And finally, the most vulnerable people in the Australian society will clearly be left out of this reform. The older generations are known to prefer cash for their transactions, as much by traditional choice as by lack of command of new technologies. Those who don’t have available and tech-savvy grandchildren around will be at a loss to manage their finances under their new form. As for the poor and homeless, they also will lose the little access to funds they have now.

It is urgent, in many ways, that the public cease to regard this matter as stratospheric and a technical matter best left to the hands of suited-up experts. Their livelihood, their finances and their civil liberties are at stake, with the suppression of cash. There is a high risk that Australians, if they do perceive the danger, will only do so too late. While the move may not be irreversible, it will be a long hard and difficult road to go back on. Even if the Australian government, in a few years, does accept to relinquish its then-total control of the economy (something governments in history aren’t known to do easily) under public pressure, designing and distributing cash takes years. Years of probable political change… for better or for worse.



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