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The Circle Bastiat

The US government's war on cash

By repeatedly refusing to print money in larger bills, the Feds make it harder to make huge financial transactions and can more easily monitor the financial maneuverings of citizens.

By Guest blogger / March 29, 2012

A worker counts U.S. dollar bills at a money changer in Manila in this file photo. Salerno argues that by rendering papoer currency useless for large financial transactions, the government gains more control over our money than it should have.

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters/File

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Under cover of its multiplicity of fabricated wars on drugs, terror, tax evasion, and organized crime, the US government has long been waging a hidden war on cash. One symptom of the war is that the largest denomination of US currency is the $100 note, whose ever-eroding purchasing power is far below the purchasing power of the €500 note. US currency used to be issued in denominations running up to $10,000 (including also $500; $1,000; $5,000 notes). There was even a $100,000 note issued for transactions among Federal Reserve banks. The United States stopped printing large denomination notes in 1945 and officially discontinued their issuance in 1969, when the Fed began removing them from circulation. Since then the largest currency note available to the general public has a face value of $100. But since 1969, the inflationary monetary policy of the Fed has caused the US dollar to depreciate by over 80 percent, so that a $100 note in 2010 possessed a purchasing power of only $16.83 in 1969 dollars. That is less purchasing power than a $20 bill in 1969!

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This is the institutional blog of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and many of its affiliated writers and scholars commenting on economic affairs of the day.

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Despite this enormous depreciation, the Federal Reserve has steadfastly refused to issue notes of larger denomination. This has made large cash transactions extremely inconvenient and has forced the American public to make much greater use than is optimal of electronic-payment methods. Of course, this is precisely the intent of the US government. The purpose of its ongoing breach of long-established laws regarding financial privacy is to make it easier to monitor the economic affairs and abrogate the financial privacy of its citizens, ostensibly to secure their safety from Colombian drug lords, Al Qaeda operatives, and tax cheats and other nefarious white-collar criminals

Now the war on cash has begun to spread to other countries. (Click here to read the whole article.)  As reported a few months ago, Italy lowered the legal maximum on cash transactions from €2,500 to €1,000. The Italian government would have preferred to set a €500 or even €300 maximum limit but reasoned that it should permit Italians time to adjust to the new limit. The rationale for this limit on the size of cash transactions is the fact that the profligate Italian government is trying to reduce its €1.9 trillion debt and views its anticash measures as a means of cracking down on tax evasion, which “costs” the government an estimated €150 billion annually.

The profligacy of the Italian ruling class is in sharp contrast to ordinary Italians who are the least indebted consumers in the eurozone and among its biggest savers. They use their credit cards very infrequently compared to citizens of other eurozone nations. So deeply ingrained is cash in the Italian culture that over 7.5 million Italians do not even have checking accounts. Now most of these “bankless” Italians will be dragooned into the banking system so that the notoriously corrupt Italian government can more easily spy on them and invade their financial privacy. Of course Italian banks, which charge 2 percent on credit-card transactions and assess fees on current accounts, stand to earn an enormous windfall from this law. As controversial former prime minister Berlusconi noted, “There’s a real danger of crossing over into a fiscal police state.” Indeed, one only need look at the United States today to see what lies in store for Italian citizens.

Meanwhile the war on cash in Sweden is accelerating, although the involvement of the state is less overt. In Swedish cities, cash is no longer acceptable on public buses; tickets must be purchased in advance or via a cell-phone text message. Many small businesses refuse cash, and some bank facilities have completely stopped handling cash. Indeed in some Swedish towns it is no longer possible to use cash in a bank at all. Even churches have begun to facilitate electronic donations from their congregations by installing electronic card readers. Cash transactions represent only 3 percent of the Swedish economy, while they account for 9 percent of the eurozone and 7 percent of the US economies.

A leading proponent of the anticash movement is none other than Bjorn Ulvaeus, former member of the pop group ABBA. The dotty pop star, whose son has been robbed three times, believes that a cashless world means greater security for the public! Others, more perceptive than Ulvaeus, point to another alleged advantage of electronic transactions: they leave a digital trail that can be readily followed by the state. Thus, unlike countries with a strong “cash culture” like Greece and Italy, Sweden has a much lower incidence of graft. As one “expert” on underground economies instructs us, “If people use more cards, they are less involved in shadowy economy activities,” in other words, secreting their hard-earned income in places where it cannot be plundered by the state.

The deputy governor of the Swedish central bank, Lars Nyberg, gloated before his retirement last year that cash will survive “like the crocodile, even though it may be forced to see its habitat gradually cut back.” But not everyone in Sweden is celebrating the dethronement of cash. The chairman of Sweden’s National Pensioners’ Organization argues that elderly people in rural areas either do not have credit or debit cards or do not know how to use them to withdraw cash. Oscar Swartz, the founder of Sweden’s first Internet provider, a supporter of the phasing out of cash, argues that without the adoption of anonymous payment methods, people who send money and make donations to various organizations can be “traced every time.” But, of course, what the artless Mr. Swartz does not see is that this is the whole point of a cashless economy — to make even the most intimate economic affairs of private citizens transparent to the state and its fiscal and monetary apparatchiks, who themselves hate and fear transparency like vampires do sunlight. And then there are the benefits that accrue to the government-privileged banking system from the demise of cash. One Swedish small businessman shrewdly noted the connection. While he gets charged 5 kronor (80¢) for every credit-card transaction, he is prevented by law from passing this on to his customers. In his words, “For them (the banks), this is a very good way to earn a lot of money, that’s what it’s all about. They make huge profits.”

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