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The Fate of the Little Post Office

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