Wither the Postal Service
Posted on April 25, 2012
Before Ben Franklin revolutionized the delivery of mail in all Thirteen Colonies in North America, in the Southern colonies, postal duties often fell to slaves, who were responsible for carrying the mail from plantation to plantation. Failure to expedite the delivery of the mail cost the plantation owner a hogs head of tobacco under the local rules of the day.
In the northern colonies, most post offices doubled as taverns. Those taverns also doubled as inns (and who knows what else).
Responsibility for delivering the mail fell to merchants, friends or the kindness of strangers, until the localities decided that a more regular process was needed. And for most of the 1600’s, each colony had its own system to deliver the mail.
When Ben Franklin ran the Post Office for the City of Philadelphia, he set about modernizing the service across state lines. He surveyed land, built buildings, set up postal routes and created the first successful communication system between the states.
It is fair to say that without a Postal system, the American colonies wouldn’t have been so effective in banding together and throwing off Great Britain’s chains of bondage, thanks largely to the work of Ben Franklin.
I suppose that is the reason that the power to create a Postal Service is actually officially spelled out in the United States Constitution. No Postal system, no freedom. And the Founding Fathers never forgot that fact.
The idea of a fully private postal system isn’t really new. In fact, we already tried living without a government-backed Postal Service and it proved to be an ineffective way to deliver the mail. The Postal Service is and has been an improvement on those early days of chaos.
Today, the Postal Service lies uncomfortably betwixt and between the private sector and a government entity. Somehow, it has become accepted wisdom that the Postal Service shouldn’t cost the Treasury any money, so it is expected that it be a for-profit company. But because there is also a general perception that the Postal Service is supported by the government, many private sector competitors lobby fiercely against the Post Office getting involved in other lines of business.
As a result, the Postal Service is expected to make money but is not allowed to compete in areas where it could make that money. It is not allowed to set its own prices, for example. Thus, First Class mail in the United States is priced well below the price in other countries, because, well, that is how the politicians want it.
The Postal Service itself provides a huge public service for the American people beyond just delivering the mail. It employs more people than any other entity, other than Walmart, in the United States, for example. It employs more veterans than any other entity, period. Letter carriers provide intelligence and they monitor criminal situations just by being in the neighborhood, and when necessary, they provide medical attention to people who need it, all because they are present in every community in the country.
Having an interconnected service like the Postal Service is a national resource for the government and for the private sector (and for the average citizen). The Postal Service is all too often taken for granted, as are the employees who sort the mail and deliver it, despite the rain, the snow, the sun, the sleet, the heat and the cold…and the dogs.
It would be a pity to let it collapse on its own weight.
The Senate voted on a bill this week that will tweak the Service around the edges. The bill is well-intentioned, but in my view, it doesn’t answer the fundamental question: Will the politicians allow the USPS to really compete or will it acknowledge that the service is not really a private business but a public service that deserves taxpayer support?
I have been doing some work on behalf of some of the folks who care deeply about the Postal Service and I think their cause is commendable and important. As it now stands, the USPS is on a path that could lead to its extinction. And nothing would be a more chilling sign of America’s decline than the collapse of the Postal Service.
Ben Franklin would not be amused.