The man who challenged the government’s postal monopoly

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Link here. The story is interesting indeed, and is especially relevant in the context of what SpaceX and Elon Musk have done to force prices down in rocketry. This quote, about the government’s eventual response to the challenge to its postal monopoly, struck a nerve with me.

Constitutional or not, the government defended its monopoly. Six days after Spooner’s company began, Congress introduced a resolution to investigate the establishment of private post offices. Meanwhile, Spooner’s company was booming. As the US postal revenue went down, the government threatened those who were caught serving private mail carriers. In his book, Spooner noted that by March 30, he and his agents were arrested while using a railroad in Maryland to transport letters. Spooner, busy with multiple legal challenges, was released on bail by mid-June ( “Mr. Spooner’s Case.” Newport Mercury, June 15, 1844.)

People had become accustomed to inexpensive mail, and Congress reluctantly acknowledged the need to lower postal rates. Still, officials stressed that “it was not by competition, but by penal enactment, that the private competition was to be put down” (The Congressional Globe, 14. Washington: The Globe Office, 1845, page 206). In March 1845, Congress fixed the rate of postage at five cents within a radius of 500 miles. The post office adopted tactics that private carriers used to increase efficiency, such as requiring prepayment via stamps. These changes turned the post office’s budgetary deficit into a surplus within three years.

It seems that as much as things change, they remain the same.


One comment

  • Dick Eagleson

    Back in the 80’s another libertarian also essayed an effort at a private postal service in a single metro area – I no longer recall in which city it was centered. He issued stamps at about half the USPS 1st-class rate and had a network of collection boxes installed. At that time, a lot of individual 1st-class mail usage was for monthly bill payments. This guy just bundled up all the payments collected each day for a given utility, insurance company, credit card issuer, bank, etc. and sent them to the addressee in bulk as a package. Anything else had a USPS 1st-class stamp affixed and was passed along to the USPS. In our current age of pervasive on-line auto-payment systems, this approach wouldn’t be profitable but it apparently was at the time. As with Spooner, the feds came down on him with hobnailed boots.

    Given that current USPS mail volume consists most heavily of 4th-class junk mail, with almost the entirety of 1st-class volume being bills or auto-payment confirmations (less of the former and more of the latter all the time), with most of the minority remainder being greeting cards, one wonders just how long the USPS will be able to justify its continued expensive existence and 800,000-strong unionized federal workforce.

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