Gone Postal

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by Gene Callahan

The U.S. Postal Service is running a televised campaign using the familiar refrain, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Stirring, patriotic music plays in the background while smiling postal workers on camera go about those appointed rounds.

It is probably just a coincidence that the USPS is currently before Congress with its hat out, asking for, oh, $5 billion or so, just to get it through a little crunch it’s experiencing.

In any case, the business about snow, rain, heat, and so on may be true. But don’t try getting your mail delivered if your mailbox is more than two feet or so from the curb. I speak from personal experience.

One of my towns (my property is in two) decided to run sewage and water lines down my road for a new assisted-living development nearby. Now, we weren’t allowed to hook into these lines or anything – we were told by the town that it would “encourage development” if they permitted us to do so. This seemed a little strange – after all, the lines were being put in specifically for a new development, while my street is fully developed, with no more lots for new houses. But never mind.

After laying the lines, the town repaved the road, raising it several inches in the process. They said they would be back to put an apron down that would make the drop from the road to my property less precipitous.

In the meantime, the postman was sorely troubled by the new height difference. It was difficult, it seemed, for him to get his truck back on the road after he had pulled over to put the mail in our box. A couple of weeks after the road had been repaved, we received a call from the town postmaster. He told us we’d have to move our mailbox.

The problem was that the town was supposed to be coming back to put in that apron. If I dug up the post supporting the box and moved it closer to the road, there was a good chance I’d have to dig it up again and move it back. My wife explained our problem to the postmaster.

He asked us if we could put gravel down to lessen the drop. Sure, why not? I went out and bought a dozen bags of gravel and made a gentle slope from the road surface down to our yard.

This worked for about a week. But the postman was not too careful about how he pulled out from in front of our box, and it took him only that week to throw enough gravel out of my incline to ruin the effect.

Another call came. Delivery stopped again. My wife called the town to find out when the apron would go in. Soon, soon – they were busy with a number of other jobs as well. In the meantime, she made a weekly pilgrimage to the post office to pick up the mail.

And she still does. It’s now about 18 months since the road was paved, and 16 since we’ve had home mail delivery. But I’m proud to say that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays her from the swift completion of her appointed rounds.

That isn’t our only postal difficulty. When we bought the house, we thought our postal address was the same as our address for our land records. But after moving in, several weeks passed without our receiving a single piece of mail. What was going on?

Well, it turns out that our mailbox sits just over the town A line, in the tiny slice of our yard that is in town B. The town A postmaster informed us that our address in town A did not exist, and that his crew could not possibly drive the 20 feet into town B that delivering our mail would require. We had to change our address to one in town B. But since all of the land records show us as living in A, there is still mail sent to that address and returned to the sender. And, of course, one of the entities that keeps using that address is the taxing authority of town A, since their system uses the land records to determine our address.

Is it possible that a private firm could be so difficult to deal with? Can you imagine a FedEx driver who would not walk two feet from his truck to put a letter in a box? Can you picture FedEx refusing to drive the extra 20 feet into “foreign territory” to deliver mail to us?

When you see those smiling postal workers on TV, remember that their organization continues to exist for one reason: anyone who tries to compete with them in carrying ordinary mail is subject to arrest. When the Mafia or drug lords operate in that fashion, we recognize that they are not ordinary business organizations but violent criminals.

This is particularly relevant now, because with the post office teetering on the brink of insolvency and requesting a massive bailout, we have a real opportunity. Libertarians are often accused of being impractical dreamers. But getting rid of the postal monopoly and fully privatizing the postal service are well within the realm of practical possibility in the next year or two. National Review, a mainstream conservative publication, ran an article calling for just such an evolution last week.

It is public opinion that will decide the issue. I’ve found that many people are not even aware that the postal service has a legal monopoly on letter delivery, and are shocked to discover that you could be arrested for delivering a letter. It’s time to get the word out, and end one of the oldest government rackets in America.

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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