Cash Builds Autonomy
Writing for the MIT Technology Review, Lana Swartz, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, points out a key benefit of cash is self-determination. No one’s permission is required to spend it, no one is in a position to control when or how it is used, and it can be used anonymously. It cannot be frozen by a third party or intercepted by a scammer, and its tangibility makes it easy to keep track of to avoid overspending.
Cash is the best transactional tool for increasing community and individual autonomy that we have invented so far.
Swartz also observes cash does not depend upon ‘layers of brittle infrastructure of both hardware and software in order to operate at the point of sale’. This resilience is especially important in uncertain times, when electricity or an internet connection cannot be taken for granted.
Looking to the past—prior to the Civil War, when America lacked a fully consolidated, state-issued currency—Swartz suggests it may offer warnings about a cashless future. Before cash became universal, transactions spanned barter, foreign currencies, private banknotes and scrip produced and controlled by individual companies. Swartz describes this ‘monetary cacophony’ as requiring ‘considerable street smarts’ to navigate even everyday spending. A cashless future could look similar.
Cash is low cost, difficult to censor, and difficult to surveil.
Swartz calls on a phrase often heard within the cryptocurrency community: ‘If cash were invented today, it would be illegal.’ In a digital age where nearly every communication—whether an exchange of value or simply personal information—is channelled through ‘monopolistic and controlling platforms that collect rent in the form of fees, data, or both’, cash is indeed a singular commodity.
Cash is the only payment method that functions independently of the issuer and without third party involvement. As Canadian economist Pierre Lemieux said: “It is an intriguing fact that the availability of government currency provides protection against government intrusion itself.” Actually, against any intrusion by any third party.