Smash the Post Office!

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Bulletin 21994 (March 1999) used statist muscle to cripple one of
the United States Postal Service's (USPS) major competitors – private
mail box (PMB) providers who serve millions of Americans. Private
post boxes appeal especially to small business owners and to those
who wish preserve privacy in an increasingly nosy world. Under 21994,
even existing customers had to fill out a new form that required
two types of ID and considerable personal data, such as the home
addresses of a business's officers and directors. The USPS publicly
pledged confidentiality: mailbox providers privately advised against
using credit cards as ID because 21994 allowed anyone off the street
to access the forms of businesses that dealt "with the public."

a further move toward enforced market monopoly, as of October 11,
1999, the USPS refused to deliver first-class mail to a private
box unless the address contained the designation "PMB."
Ostensibly, the purpose was to reduce mail-scams, but the USPS either
could not or would not provide any data linking private mailboxes
to fraud. The pro-privacy organization PostalWatch
offered a more plausible explanation: 21994 was part of the USPS's
ongoing crusade to govern "the nation's 10,000 Commercial Mail
Receiving Agencies (CMRAs)."

USPS never mentioned the main political implications of 21994. The
government acquired the names and addresses of every private box
renter: and, its grip on the flow of information became an iota
tighter. For example, the regulations allows local post offices
to deny mail delivery to all customers of a private provider due
to the non-compliance of one box holder. And many people, especially
small businesses, undoubtedly shied away from mailboxes labeled
PMB – or "second class" – in preference for those offered
by the USPS. Another competitor bites the dust.

to tireless protest against 21994, the USPS has backed down. Those
who use private mailboxes now have the option of using the pound
(#) sign designator in lieu of the previously required "PMB."
This means that those who use CMRAs will not be stigmatized in the
process of receiving first-class mail. But CMRA regulation issues
are not resolved. The USPS still imposes huge costs on CMRA operators
who compete with its monopoly. The USPS can still release personal
information on private box holders, although organizations such
as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence have loudly
objected. The USPS still does not provide the forwarding or return
mail services that other postal users enjoy. Two IDs are still necessary.

USPS is hoping that the # concession will smooth the ruffled feathers
of private box holders and CMRAs so that they do not need to make
more substantive changes to 21994. The USPS is losing its war against
private mailbox companies. It is losing the pretense of authority
to discriminate against the private communications of an entire
class of customers, against millions of people who have committed
no crime. The USPS is not reinstating the # designation out of fairness.
This is a political maneuver.

PostalWatch observes, "if the Postal Service can convince everyone
that they have reached an acceptable compromise" then they
will be able to cease the long process of granting concessions to
CMRAs. The # designation is a sop the USPS has thrown to the hounds
that are at its heels.

USPS is relying on the fact that the Post Office is the one government
agency over which people rarely become outraged. Annoyed, irritated…yes.
Enraged…no. The USPS is usually viewed as an innocuous institution
that provides a vital service: criticism of it generally revolves
around issues of cost and efficiency.

frowns upon this benign interpretation of the USPS. During two centuries
of existence, the post office has functioned as a political machine
in control of a crucial means of communication. It has used that
control to censor public morality, provide revenue to the swelling
State, suppress free market competition, and serve specific political – especially
wartime – agendas. To the extent it has provided anything akin to
a vital service, that service is slow, inefficient, and an impediment
to the development of free market alternatives. The only solution
is to destroy the post office by stripping it of all government
privileges, including tax support.

do so, it is necessary to hold the post office's primary function
up to public display. The primary function is not to deliver mail
efficiently. If it were, the USPS would have relinquished its turf
to the private sector long ago. Its main purpose is to control the
flow of information by defining what is "unmailable,"
usually under the guise of protecting the public in some manner.
Whether or not this is the conscious intention of the individuals
who work within the structure is irrelevant to the fact that this
is what the institution accomplishes.

the 1770s, Sam Adams urged the 13 colonies to create an independent
postal system. The existing post office, established by the British,
acted as a censor and barrier against the spread of rebellious sentiment.
Dorothy Ganfield Fowler in her book "Unmailable: Congress and
the Post Office" observed that Adams "claimed the colonial
post office was made use of for the purpose of stopping the u2018Channels
of publick Intelligence and so in Effect of aiding the measures
of Tyranny.'" Thus, "'…the necessity of substituting
another office in its Stead must be obvious.'"

more government changes, the more things stay the same. Soon, the
Continental Congress itself wanted to declare certain types of matter
"unmailable" because their content was deemed too dangerous.
One of the first types of dangerous mail to become de facto unmailable
was Anti-Federalist letters and periodicals. During the debates
over ratifying the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists – who basically
rejected a Constitution unless it had a Bill of Rights – simply
could not circulate their material through the Federalist-controlled
post office. Their periodicals and letters mysteriously disappeared
while information from the Federalists seemed unimpeded.

like Adams, many of those who founded the Post Office seemed to
want communication to flow freely. The first official restrictions
placed on "mailability" were strictly utilitarian, not
political. For example, the first law (1797) by which Congress limited
what could be mailed banned newspapers with wet print because they
damaged accompanying material. But politics won. Prior to and during
the Civil War, governments of both the North and South banned just
about anything they deemed to be "seditious." Private
communication in America has never recovered.

periods of war, this vile purpose rears its head openly. For example,
during the Civil War, northern post offices destroyed newspapers
they deemed unsympathetic to the cause by refusing to convey them
through the mail. Similarly, "Un-American Political Doctrines"
were declared unmailable during World War I. Broadly defined "Subversive
Propaganda" received similar treatment during World War II.
Of course, enforcing these prohibitions required widespread interception,
monitoring, and censorship of private correspondence. Recent history
is rife with purely political postal measures such as the "Cunningham
Amendment" (1962) which restricted the circulation of communist
literature that originated in a foreign country.

thuggish tactics of the USPS raise intriguing questions: Do individuals
have a freedom of speech right to communicate through the mail?
Or is free speech in private writing a privilege to be conferred
or withheld at the discretion of Congress or a Postmaster General?
Is personal correspondence exempt from "unreasonable search
and seizure"? Why is the freedom to publish protected in public
communications like newspapers but denied to the private realm of
correspondence? Can the government rightfully discriminate against
a class of law-abiding people?

are questions that the USPS does not wish people to raise. It hopes
that offering to reinstate the # designation will be viewed as a
total victory rather than a step toward the ultimate: the destruction
of the USPS.

22, 2000

McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
. See more of her work at
and at her personal website.

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