Smash the Post Office!

Postal 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."

In 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)."

The 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.

Due 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.

The 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.

As 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.

The 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.

History 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.

To 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.

In 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.'"

The 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.

Yet, 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.

During 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.

The 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?

These 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.

August 22, 2000

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

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