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A cash wager - what 17th century French philosophy can tell us about cash today

 

​If I remember one thing from university it is Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician & writer. One of Pascal’s most famous works was the Pensées (Thoughts), which was published posthumously in 1670. His best known “thought” is often called Pascal’s wager and it goes like this:

You start by asking a question to yourself: Should I believe in God?  And then you start answering:

Well, let’s say God exists and I believe in him, live a good life, doing good for others where I can. When I die I’ll go to heaven and all is well.

If I don’t believe in God, or don’t do good things, when I die I’ll go to hell. Not such a good result.

But what if God doesn’t exist and I live my life as a believer, doing good things, helping others etc.? When I die nothing happens but I have brought happiness to others.

If I don’t believe in him, I die. Nothing happens.

The wager tries to show that for a rationale person, whether God exists or not, the risks of an eternity in hell should be enough incentive to motivate us to believe and do good things. Seventeenth century philosophy lesson over.

So how does this relate to cash handling in the twenty-first century? In a meeting today with a soon to be customer, we reached the final stages of discussion with the CEO and he asked me why should his organisation bother investing in cash automation technology when surely soon, cash would be dead?

Having first assured him that cash remains a major payment system around the world - not least here in Singapore which has alternatives a-plenty - and that to not accept cash would be to turn away a good part of his business, he asked again but what if cash were abolished tomorrow?

So here is the Pascal-like wager. What happens if cash doesn’t disappear and it continues to be around? What if cash continues to stubbornly hold on despite the rise of credit cards (50 years young and going strong), the death of cheques (announced at least 20 years ago but still refusing to die) and the expected take up of Apple pay (so far 3 out of 4 users have failed to use a second time)?

Even if cash remains the exception to the payment rule – and we are a long, long way from that yet with cash being 80% of transactions less than Euro 10 across the 300 m people Eurozone – how are you going to manage the exception? Won’t this just become more expensive and more disruptive to manage? So if that is the case, as Pascal said, isn’t it worth believing and in this case, looking at the business case?

 

Pacal, wagers and cash
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