Nine times out of ten, when I wind up writing an article about San Francisco it winds up dealing with something really awful. But today, you might in for a pleasant surprise because they’re doing something which just might be not only the right thing to do from a legal standpoint but also just the right thing in terms of treating everyone decently. The subject at hand is new legislation currently making its way through City Council that would ban the practice of businesses refusing to accept cash for purchases in most cases. It’s a growing trend among the digital, early adopting crowd, but San Francisco is looking to put a stop to it.
San Francisco is about to require brick-and-mortar retailers to take cash as payment, joining Philadelphia and New Jersey in banning a growing paperless practice that critics say discriminates against low-income people who may not have access to credit cards.
The Board of Supervisors will take up the issue at a meeting Tuesday, and it’s likely to pass because nearly all 11 members are listed as sponsors or co-sponsors.
“I just felt it wasn’t fair that if someone wanted to buy a sandwich in a store, and they had cash, that they would be turned away,” said Supervisor Vallie Brown, who introduced the legislation. “We also have our homeless population. They’re not banked.”
Despite the fact that I agree with almost all of the reasons they are giving from a personal and emotional perspective, there is a libertarian argument to be made here against the legislation that deserves a mention. These are private businesses, not government offices. For the most part, they should be able to make their own decisions as to how they operate and the public can vote with their wallets (or in this case, their smartphones) as to whether or not they thrive or go out of business. If most consumers don’t like the cashless model, they’ll be gone soon enough.
But there is another angle to be considered here. If you are operating a business you are required to be open to the entire public if they wish to shop at your establishment. I just checked several notes of different denominations in my wallet and they all still contain the same message they always have. “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” So that means they have to accept your money, right? Sadly… not so much. Legal tender laws for the most part only apply to creditors and debts to the government. They don’t apply to retail sales.
But in this one case, just because they can do something doesn’t necessarily mean they should do it. The City Council is correct when they say that these cashless stores are unfair to those without access to credit, the homeless, and the very poor who may not be able to sustain a bank account. It’s also unsavory for anyone who has the money but prefers to not leave a digital trail of everywhere they go and everything they buy. Digital privacy is a thing, folks.
Thus far it doesn’t sound like anyone is going to challenge this law. They make exceptions for certain business where cash is impractical (many things from ride-sharing to food trucks) and focus the law on standard brick and mortar outlets. If it does draw a court challenge, I have zero clues how that one would play out. I’ll leave that question to the actual lawyers in the audience.