By Jay Stanley
I went to a counter-serve restaurant recently, and when the time came to pay for my order, took out my wallet, presented a $20 bill, and was told, “Sorry, we don’t accept cash.” I was flabbergasted. What happened to “legal tender for all debts public and private,” as it says right there on the bill?
This has now happened to me at three separate establishments in recent months. The rise of cashless establishments is happening amid continuing hype over the supposed dawn of a “cashless future” and agitation by some very powerful interests that would love to see cash disappear. The credit card companies love it, naturally, and tech industry associations have also pushed for the concept.
Meanwhile, a backlash has prompted several cities and states including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Jersey to ban cashless stores (they’ve also been banned in Massachusetts since 1978). One salad chain, Sweetgreen, reversed its decision to go cashless amid criticism, and Amazon, which had reportedly been opposing legislative bans, has since announced that it will accept cash at its automated, cashier-less convenience stores. (As for the “legal tender” statement, that does not actually mandate the acceptance of cash for payment.)
It is great to see this pushback against the supposed cashless future because this is a trend that should very much be nipped in the bud. There are several reasons why cashless stores, and a cashless society more broadly, are a bad idea. Such stores are:
- Bad for privacy. When you pay cash, there is no middleman; you pay, you receive goods or services — end of story. When a middleman becomes part of the transaction, that middleman often gets to learn about the transaction — and under our weak privacy laws, has a lot of leeway to use that information as it sees fit. (Cash transactions of more than $10,000 must be reported to the government, however.) More on privacy and payment systems in a follow-up post.
- Bad for low-income communities.