The Fate of the Little Post Office

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One
of the most famous criticism of public institutions, one for which
some people got the Nobel Prize, is that no one can determine for
sure if they should exist, grow or remain small. There is no way
to tell. A majority's decision isn't going to work since sometimes
majorities pursue trivia. Nor will wise people help because they
are just as much seduced by power as anyone. Collective choices
are always somewhat crazy, in short.

Consider
PBS and NPR. Hardly anyone pays attention to these elitist, non-democratic
public institutions, yet many defenders of liberal democracy are
loyal to them to a fault. AMTRAK is another one of these incredibly
costly ventures that isn't supported widely enough to warrant its
existence. Yet, probably because of the influence of many intellectual
dreamers who love anything that is public, that White Elephant hasn't
yet gone away either.

And
there is, of course, the US Postal Service. It is an anomaly in
a free society, a government business that has coercive monopoly
status – that is, no one may compete with it – in first
class mail services and hardly ever manages to be solvent but is
kept on the dole nevertheless. Why? Well, everyone has a natural
right to get mail, no? It is the same refrain one hears from nearly
all sectors of society that want government to rob Peter in order
to help them with their pet project.

Accordingly,
whenever one of these outfits want to make changes, it is impossible
to tell whether these changes are warranted or not. It is like changing
the driver of a get-away car in a robbery – is it justified? Well,
never mind, since the robbery shouldn't be going on in the first
place.

Where
I live we have one of the most user-friendly little post offices
I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. I have lived in five
different countries and traveled to at least 30 more and have never
met with anything like the folks who handle our mail. We have no
delivery here, so everyone goes to drop off and pick up mail at
the small station, which makes for some nice chats among neighbors,
occasional barbs at people who write controversial columns for local
papers, and so forth.

Now,
however, the central office in Orange County has decided that there
should be no Saturday service at this little station. Never mind
it is the one day that people who work weekdays can do their postal
business. This is because from here to drive anywhere requires leaving
much earlier than usual, and getting back is comparably delayed,
as well. So the weekday postal services are inaccessible to most
folks.

But
the wise folks at whatever bureaucratic headquarters have now decided.
And it is difficult to argue with them. Who knows what to do? How
much does it cost to keep the office open Saturdays? Is it worth
it? Who should pay? Maybe the stamps should cost more here – or
less? Or perhaps the place should close on Wednesday afternoons
and be open Saturday to noon?

In
the market place these matters are decided in the bases of supply
and demand. But the USPS is a monumental government monopoly that
has some of the classic irrational features of such institutions.
For example, why does one pay one price for getting the same size
letter delivered across the street as across the country? Just compare
the cost of driving to these different places. Huge difference.
Now perhaps that isn't what matters, but surely a difference of
pricing might reflect, in some measure, a difference of distance.
Nothing like that can be found at the USPS.

This
is the problem: no one can really tell what should or should not
be done about the US Postal Service and similar government monopolies – like airports – be it in small or large matters. The right answer
is in fact to get rid of these altogether, to privatize them completely.

Just
now, in my neighborhood, a nice lady sits near the little Post Office
collecting signatures for a petition to keep the place open on Saturdays.
Nearby there is a regular little private grocery store. Whether
it stays open, when, what it carries and such are decided by reference
to the price system of supply and demand. That pretty much takes
care of it. It tells the proprietor most everything needed to make
the crucial decisions.

Is
it not about time that USPS join up with the free world and abandon
its ties to the federal government? I certainly think it is. Until
then, well I'll sign the petition to keep the place open Saturdays – not because I think there is anything ultimately right or just
about that but because I and many others I know and like would like
it to be open then, period.

There
is, in other words, no right and wrong about this and pretending
there is should fool no one. Only establishments that operate on
the basis of mutual consent can decided rationally whether to expand,
contract or remain as is. The rest it by fiat, imposed by power.
Which shouldn't be our way.

January
16, 2002

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] is
Distinguished Fellow and Professor, Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship
& Business Ethics, Argyros School of Business & Economics,
Chapman University, and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution,
Stanford University.

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