The paradox of a cashless society

To be successful, the push for cashless society must accommodate the anonymity of cash

There is no doubt that moving towards a cashless society has immense benefits: from making transactions convenient and highly efficient to bringing most of the economy under accountability. From where India stands at 2016, a concerted push towards reducing the use of cash makes a lot of sense.

In an editorial last week, Mint enumerated some important steps to ease the path towards a cashless society: availability of telecom connectivity, investment in technology that improves security and simplicity, and government incentives that favour cashless transactions. In an earlier interview with the same newspaper, Nandan Nilekani argues that since much of the necessary infrastructure — Aadhaar, IndiaStack and Unified Payments Interface — is already in place, the Modi governments currency reform (‘demonetisation’) will act as a shot in the arm for India’s move towards a cashless economy. [Disclosure: Mr Nilekani is a donor to the Takshashila Institution.]

The Mint editorial, however, misses one crucial aspect. Apart from cash being a wireless technology with near-infinite battery life, and one that needs no telecom connectivity, it is its inherent anonymity that makes it a very valuable instrument. Yet, most advocates of a cashless society advocate it precisely because it gets rid of anonymity. Ergo, the extent of cashlessness might well be defined by the extent that people value anonymity and privacy. What this means in practice is that unless the demand for anonymous transactions is satisfied, India might not cross what the editorial correctly describes as “the threshold level after which the network effect will take over.” The question is whether the desire for anonymity prevent a forming a critical mass of Indians that rely on electronic payments. This, more than technical considerations, might dictate the pace at which cash is displaced from its throne.

It is understandable, not least at times of moral panic, that ordinary people will fall in line with the arguments of moral puritans and self-righteous advocates and assert that law-abiding citizens need not fear lack of anonymity. Such views ignore the the reality that families and societies are often held together by harmless lies. For instance, one family member will to put away some money from the rest, without any illegal purpose in mind. Some people like to give anonymously to charity, without any malice or illegality involved. These kinds of innocuous, quotidian acts are a glue that binds society.

Then there are perfectly legal acts that people wish to hide from their families, society or government in order not to attract criticism or punishment. Many people have food habits they’d rather not admit to their family, others might want their alcohol and cigarette purchases to remain hidden. People might give money to NGOs and political parties that are heterodox, dissenting or championing unpopular causes. Such acts characterise and sustain liberal societies. Indeed, even some illegal activities — say prostitution or consumption of certain narcotics — that take place regardless of the letter of the law might have a stabilising influence on our societies. The fact that puritans are disgusted and outraged by this is beside the point. Indeed the story of post-Enlightenment social change around the world is one of legitimising a number of acts previously considered immoral, after weighing them in the court of Reason.

For this reason, some jurisprudence has equated anonymity of cash with free speech. I usually avoid turning policy arguments into a question of rights, as it forestalls further discussion. In this case, though, I think it is justified. It would be hard to sustain free speech if there is an audit trail exposed to the market, society or government. The chilling effect this would have would impinge on the foundations of a liberal society.

Therefore, there are good reasons, both practical and of principle, to retain anonymity in financial transactions. To succeed, initiatives to promote a cashless society must, er, account and accommodate them. Good policy ought to be able to balance many valid considerations and arrive at an optimum approach. Allowing cashless transactions to be anonymous below a certain limit might offer a reasonable compromise. For instance, a stored-value “cash” card, available without requiring proof of identity, limited to payments of Rs 10,000 per month, with an six-month expiry date is one type of solution. This will achieve the transactional benefits of electronic payments, the anonymity of cash and limit the risk of use in large-scale criminality. Of course, even these cards can be abused, but I’d argue that the social benefits outweigh the costs.

If the government takes such a route, it will create enough room for innovation that can, paradoxically hasten the march towards the cashless society. Otherwise, we might take a very long time to cross the threshold that will unleash those network effects.

Tailpiece: It’s not as if a cashless society will lead to greater honesty. Dan Ariely’s experiments suggest otherwise.

“From all the research I have done over the years, the idea that worries me the most is that the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips. If being just one step removed from money can increase cheating to such a degree, just imagine what can happen as we become an increasingly cashless society. Could it be that stealing a credit card number is much less difficult from a moral perspective than stealing cash from someone’s wallet? Of course, digital money (such as a debit or credit card) has many advantages, but it might also separate us from the reality of our actions to some degree. If being one step removed from money liberates people from their moral shackles, what will happen as more and more banking is done online? What will happen to our personal and social morality as financial products become more obscure and less recognizably related to money (think, for example, about stock options, derivatives, and credit default swaps)?” [Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.]