Acton Institute Powerblog

Privilege: The Real Postal Problem

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Regarding the USPS decision Wednesday to stop Saturday mail delivery, Ron Nixon at the New York Times writes,

The post office said a five-day mail delivery schedule would begin in August and shave about $2 billion a year from its losses, which were $15.9 billion last year. The Postal Service would continue to deliver packages six days a week, and post offices would still be open on Saturdays. Reducing Saturday delivery is in line with mail services in several other industrialized countries like Australia, Canada and Sweden, which deliver five days a week.

This move has not come without opposition, however. Nixon continues,

Whether it will succeed is difficult to predict. Many lawmakers view the Postal Service as the quintessential government service that touches constituents almost every day, and rigidly oppose any changes. Also, postal worker unions hold sway over some lawmakers who are influential in writing legislation that governs the agency.

Again, he reports,

Most Americans support ending Saturday mail delivery. A New York Times/CBS News poll last year found that about 7 in 10 Americans said they would favor the change as a way to help the post office deal with billions of dollars in debt. The Obama administration also supports a five-day mail delivery schedule.

But three postal unions and some businesses on Wednesday called the move to five-day delivery misguided.

He goes on to note, “Many companies said ending Saturday delivery would have a devastating effect on their businesses.”

This sounds like a dire situation. Faced with “a requirement that it pay nearly $5.5 billion a year for health benefits to future retirees” and a 37% decline in first class mail since 2007, the postal service has ceased to be profitable as it stands, despite consistent yearly increases in the price of stamps. Small businesses may be threatened; Nixon reports that Ricardo Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, has additionally claimed that stopping Saturday mail “would be be particularly harmful” to “rural communities, the elderly, the disabled and others”; shouldn’t something be done to fix this problem?

Well, that depends. While repealing the healthcare mandate might help the USPS continue mail service on Saturday, or while other legislation may be able to prevent the postal service from doing what it thinks needs to be done to secure its financial stability, there is a bigger problem beneath the surface.

As Matthew Mitchel of the Mercatus Center notes in his thorough report last summer on the negative economic and social effects of government privilege,

The United States Postal Service is a case in point [of monopoly privilege]. While the U.S. Constitution grants Congress “the power to establish post offices and post roads,” it does not, like the Articles of Confederation before it, grant Congress the “sole and exclusive right” to provide these services. By the 1840s, a number of private firms had begun to challenge the postal service monopoly. Up and down the East Coast, these carriers offered faster service and safer delivery at lower cost. While the competition forced the postal service to lower its rates, it also encouraged the postal service to harass its private competitors: within a few years, government legal challenges and fines had driven the private carriers out of business. More than a century later, in 1971, the postal service was finally converted into a semi-independent agency called the United States Postal Service (USPS). Its monopoly privileges, however, remain. No other carriers are allowed to deliver nonurgent letters and no other carriers are allowed to use the inside of your mailbox.

Why is the plight of small business, the disabled, the elderly, et al.—if such a plight is as bad as union leaders and others make it out to be—entirely in the hands of one institution with government granted monopoly power? If they had not pushed out the competition in the nineteenth century through government privilege, and if they did not retain many such monopoly rights today, no small businesses, elderly, disabled folks or anyone else would have been pushed into a position of dependency.

In a free market, businesses would be able to compete with one another to be the most efficient and effective mail delivery service, and if one business failed, others would be there—or others would be started—to fill in the gap in the market. Human beings, endowed by God with creativity in accordance with his image and made to cultivate the resources of the earth for his glory, ought to be free to creatively meet the needs of others, such as mail delivery, but that is not the situation today.

The deeper postal problem in the United States is not that the postal service cannot afford to continue delivering mail on Saturdays. Rather, the problem is the privilege that granted them exclusive right to do so. Nevertheless, as Mitchell notes, the USPS only has exclusive rights over “nonurgent letters,” so perhaps the private sector can still pick up the slack for small business, the elderly, the disabled, and others who have urgent deliveries that must be received on Saturdays.

Just don’t expect them in your mailbox, because that’s still illegal.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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