None So Virtuous

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 Determination

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.