That Great Public Service

Via Cafe Hayek:

American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus complains that "It is deeply troubling that Journal editors advocate ending the Postal Service's exclusive right to sort and deliver mail.  The Postal Service must remain a public service if we are to honor our nation's commitment to serve every American community "“ large or small, rich or poor, urban or rural "“ at affordable, uniform rates"

My family has  a ranch that is absolutely in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming - it is 30 minutes by dirt road from a town of 2,000.  The USPS delivers mail to a box 3 miles away from the ranch, and does it 3 days a week.  The USPS will not deliver overnight mail.   UPS delivers 6 days a week right to our door, including overnight mail.

The word "uniform" is the key -- what the USPS government protected monopoly buys us is a massive cross-subsidy, where city dwellers subsidize rural communities, Alaska, and Hawaii.   Further, because the USPS knows that these subsidized routes are cost black holes, they tend to cut back on service to try to save money.  The result is that no one is served well, as is often the case when a large cross-subsidy exists -- cities pay more for their mail, and everyone gets worse service.


  1. Evil Red Scandi:

    I think you underestimate the value of being able to place the blame on things being "lost in the mail."

  2. nicole:

    Also, what's with the assumption that "public service" equals "monopoly"? That seems sketchy at best.

  3. CoderInCrisis:


    It is a monopoly, protected by law. Only the USPS can deliver first-class mail. A "public service" need not be a monopoly, but this one sure is.

  4. DrTorch:

    I think it's reasonable for the USPS to provide this service. It's part of the cost of our society.

    The societal costs for improved "efficiency" as defined by delivery times/rates, would be higher if we adopted a purely commercial model.

  5. Tom G:

    DrTorch - There is no definite evidence that the total costs (not only $$) would be higher - the only time the USPS had any competition was way back in 1844 (the American Letter Mail Company) and that got shut down a few years later by the Post Office using legal means, not honest competition. Apparently, the PO rates went down for awhile anyway, even though they had been able to enforce their monopoly.

  6. ilovebenefits:

    Does this sound like what our Government is trying to do with health care? Cross subsidize, reduce services, etc.? Follow the health care debate and health care delivery issues at

  7. Les:

    The USPS is a sort of weird mutant hybrid of a fee-based (stamps) funding corporation and a public service, and it's lagging behind as it tries to serve two masters (Those who pay fees and use it's service, and the government bureaucracies it is beholden to.)

    The legal matters protecting the USPS probably did make sense in 1844, it was prohibitively expensive for a for-profit corporation to ensure service to ALL people who need mail given those conditions and in a day and age when people were still spreading out faster than infrastructure could keep up. But today aggregate wealth and power is such that it's much cheaper and easier relatively speaking to transport and deliver mail and packages to even the remotest regions of human habitation in this country.

    That and we've evolved socially as a culture beyond 'robber-baron' attitudes of abusing workers and taking customers for granted, yet so many seem to believe we're always a hair's breadth from corporate America going back to maiming pre-pubescent child laborers and selling sausage filled with rat meat all in the name of a few cent's more profit.

  8. epobirs:

    The USPS is losing the argument as it slowly but surely withdraws services increasingly from areas of denser population. I live in Castaic, just a few miles north of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles County. Twenty years ago this place was little more than a truck stop before heading up the Grapevine. But Castaic had its own small post office and mailboxes in strategic locations around the town. In that time many new homes have been built and the population tripled. Yet today we no longer have a post office in the center of town and the mail boxes have all been removed. If I want to mail a letter I must drive a minimum of seven miles to the sorting station on the edge of town in an industrial/office park or go further into Valencia.

    As far as I can tell, the USPS is actively encouraging me to do as much of my business as possible online. As it is, I need to send perhaps a dozen first class mail items a year. Almost all rebates submission that require a proof of purchase from the product package. If not for those, the USPS could cease to exist and it wouldn't change my life much.

  9. Ron Berkland:

    The same arguements were advanced in the 1970s before deregulation of the motor carrier (trucking) industry in 1980. Seems that twenty nine years later the rural areas of the country continue to be served quite well thank you.

  10. feeblemind:

    I live in rural Nebraska and the situation is just the opposite of what you describe in Wyo. UPS only comes this way when they have enough packages to make it worth while. USPS still delivers everyday, though going to three day delivery would be a good way to save money. BTW, I would speculate that rural areas are not a money maker for UPS either and that it is subsidized by their urban business. If you ran UPS would you just 'black out' much of the USA map and refuse to pick up and deliver there?

  11. Allen:

    I get a kick out of the "service" the post office provides me. On average once a week I have mail from one of my neighbors in my box (I live in an 80-85 unit building). And it's not something that was intended for the box just above mine or to it's right; it's way off. And then there's other things. I used to almost always get 2 weekly magazines I subscribe to every Friday. If not then on Saturday for sure. Over the last few years that's shifted to getting them on Saturday or Monday and twice this summer, on Tuesday. I have a hard time believing both publishers are being that inconsistent with how they print and get them into the mail. Especially when my rental dvds so often arrive right when they're supposed to but about 1 in 12 never arrive.