New York’s James A. Farley Post Office has a famous inscription that readers should immediately recognize: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
This translation of a passage from Herodotus’ “Histories,” describing the Persian “men and horses” who delivered the mail during Xerxes I’s reign, is often mistaken for the U.S. Postal Service’s official motto. The service has none, but considering how slow mail delivery can often be, I’m sure many people wish it actually was.
The postal service, an independent agency of the federal government, has been around since the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Benjamin Franklin was the nation’s first postmaster general. According to the agency’s website, there are now 522,144 total career employees (as of Jan. 16) and 212,530 vehicles used to deliver roughly 160 billion pieces of mail. Annual revenue in 2012 was listed at $65.2 billion. I’m certain the amount is accurate, but when an organization is operating as a monopoly, annual revenue is obviously going to be high. Profit margin is another matter, however.
The postal service says it hasn’t used taxpayer dollars (for the most part) since the 1980s. That’s great, but it doesn’t justify the lack of competition in the marketplace. If there were a number of privately owned mail services, I’m not convinced that the post office wouldn’t be regularly holding out its hand and asking Congress for money and attention.
It’s hard to understand why the U.S. government is still involved in mail delivery and services. More to the point, why isn’t the Republican Party — the so-called champions of the free-market economy and privatization — even talking about it?
Interestingly, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron is in the process of privatizing the United Kingdom’s mail service. The government is planning to sell its 52 percent stake in Royal Mail, which has been around since 1516, and hopes to earn an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion. Ten percent of the company will be controlled by mail staff, and the general public will have the option to purchase shares.
In Tory Minister of State for Business and Enterprise Michael Fallon’s view, this move will help “untie the hands” of Royal Mail and increase competition in his country.
There has been some vocal opposition to privatizing the United Kingdom’s mail service. The Communication Workers Union, which represents about two-thirds of the 150,000 Royal Mail employees, screamed bloody murder and calling for strikes. Even the opposition Labor Party, which has favored some partial mail-privatization schemes, has changed its tune.
Regardless, most right-thinking people in the United Kingdom have started to realize there will be a real benefit in having private companies manage their mail. As mentioned in the July 13 issue of The Economist, “a freed-up Royal Mail will compete with dozens of nifty competitors for its parcels business, as well as with a new breed of ‘lifestyle couriers,’ who trundle around goods ordered on the Web.”
Other European countries, including Germany, Austria and The Netherlands, have already privatized their mail services and opened up the pearly gates of competition. This decision has had an important economic impact for residents and consumers. According to an April 2011 report issued by the Montreal Economic Institute, the cost of letter mail stamps went down 11 percent in Austria, 15 percent in The Netherlands, and 17 percent in Germany after privatization was instituted.
Sadly, there has been no move in North America toward this trend to date. The United States would, therefore, be wise to follow the United Kingdom’s lead with Royal Mail and privatize the post office.
Opening up the free market to private enterprise would ensure that real competition exists for mail delivery and postage rates. More businesses and jobs would be created in a thriving marketplace. Americans would have more choice and options when it came to sending letters and packages to family, friends and colleagues. This would be a huge boon for the U.S. economy and, in particular, for consumers.
It’s highly unlikely that President Obama and his merry band of liberal Democrats would ever support privatizing the U.S. Postal Service. Hence, it’s the perfect opportunity for the GOP to defend private enterprise, fiscal conservatism, consumerism and economic liberty by setting the mail free.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a contributor to The Washington Times.