Dr. Fruin is a physician and surgeon in the Armed Forces.
Messenger of sympathy and love
Servant of parted friends
Consoler of the lonely
Bond of the scattered family
Enlarger of the common life
Carrier of news and knowledge
Instrument of trade and industry
Promoter of mutual acquaintance
of peace and of good will
among men and nations
You ponder these lines. A litany of the church, perhaps? A paean of Greek antiquity, rhapsody to a god, recitation of an ancient epic, salaam to an Oriental potentate? Surely no reference to any earthly being or business, you judge.
But you would be wrong; for these extravagant phrases refer to that earthly business, the United States postal system — carved in marble on the facade of "your" post office in Washington, D. C.
Who phrased or carved these lines is unimportant now, though his acquaintance with the facts about the government postal monopoly must have been quite superficial.
The Post Office Department has reported a deficit in all but eight of the past 130 years — recently approaching a billion dollars annually. And what the cumulative deficit might have totaled, under an accurate system of accounting, is anybody’s guess.
Living Americans have witnessed no exception to this monopolistic "enlarger of the common life," but a study of history reveals that there have been various alternative methods of handling the mail.
Men have sent messages to one another from the dawn of civilization, and out of it have evolved mailmen and postal systems. The word post, from the Latin, refers to the stations along the roads of the Roman Empire where messengers were kept ready to relay dispatches. But the post office as known today did not exist in the ancient world.
The beginnings of the modern postal system go back to the time of Charles V (1500-1558) , Emperor of Spain, Netherlands, Austria, parts of Germany, Lombardy, and other areas. An administrative service was needed to transmit orders to the generals and officials of this far-flung, overextended empire. And as a source of revenue for his ambitious, grandiose schemes, Charles had his dispatch riders carry messages for the rising class of businessmen. This was an important first step toward the development of state monopoly in European post offices. Such a monopoly also afforded a convenient means of spying, information seeking, and the reading of letters by the minions of the rulers.
Early Postal Service
Formal postal services on a private enterprise basis began in the American colonies as far back as 1639. In 1706, the British government took over the privately owned intercolonial postal service and made it a branch of the general post office in London.
Benjamin Franklin served as Deputy Postmaster General of the British Colonies in America from 1753 to 1774. The Continental Congress at the outset of the Revolution in 1775 appointed Franklin Postmaster General. When our Constitution was adopted in 1789, it gave Congress the power to establish post offices and post roads. A law of the same year created the office of the Postmaster General of the United States.
How did it happen that our hardheaded Founding Fathers (who created the freest country the world had ever seen) saddled us with this deficit-ridden, socialized, governmental monopoly? They didn’t! In those days, the postal service was a fertile source of revenue for the infant Republic. In fact, our early government was essentially operated on the revenue from Customs and the Postal Service. Private postal systems were not prohibited and in some places they flourished.
Adam Smith in his monumental Wealth of Nations published in 1776 had this to say of the post office: "The post office, an institution to facilitate commerce, over and above defraying its own expense, affords in almost all countries a very considerable revenue to the sovereign…. perhaps the only mercantile project which has been successfully managed by every sort of government. There is no mystery in the business. The returns are not only certain but immediate."
"Progress," it appears, has been made since the days of Adam Smith and our Founding Fathers. Competition with private enterprise kept the government’s postal service fairly modest, effective, and efficient until 1860, when that logic of officialdom — force — was invoked to establish a political monopoly in postal affairs. But in the entire history of the U.S. Postal Department, the improvements have come only as a result of private initiative and enterprise.
An interesting example of such an improvement was afforded by the efforts of an ingenious New England Yankee more than a century ago.
In 1844, discontent with the postal service was rampant. Rates were sky-high, delivery at a snail’s pace. It cost 181/4 cents to send a letter from Boston to New York, 25 cents to Washington.
Lysander Spooner decided to enter the business in competition with the U.S. government. His American Letter Mail Service offered delivery between New York and Boston at 5 cents a letter, regardless of weight. The public response encouraged him to extend his operations to Philadelphia and Baltimore. His cheaper and faster service threatened to put the post office out of business.
Washington was outraged, insisting that the Constitution authorized Congress to establish post offices. But Spooner’s rejoinder was that the Constitution doesn’t say a private citizen can’t. Eventually, federal harassment and threats of jail forced him to discontinue operations, but not before he’d proved that a cheaper postal rate was possible. The government lowered its rate in 1845 to 5 cents, and in 1851 to 3 cents.
Political considerations determine postal rates. That’s why it costs as much to send a letter across the street in your home town as to send it three thousand miles across the continent and have it delivered to an isolated farm. It is said that all Americans should have this opportunity for cultural and educational purposes. Should we also bring New Mexico ranchers to the New York Metropolitan Opera and art museums for fifteen cents, which is the rate New Yorkers pay?
Defenders of the postal deficit contend that the post office is "not for money-making but for public service." But profit is the only real proof of service rendered. "Public service" is simply a misnomer for wasteful political activities that are charged off to the taxpayers.
The kind of "public service" exemplified by the postal monopoly is costing the typical American citizen a third of his earnings today. It may be too much to hope that postal services be opened to competitive private enterprise. But at least we should learn to resist carving in marble the idea that there is anything divine about the way government operates a business. Edward Everett (1794-1865) may be forgiven for regarding "the Post Office, next to Christianity, as the right arm of our modern civilization." But there is no longer any excuse for such illusions.