Against the Post Office
by Wendy McElroy

When mailmen go 'postal' -- that is, when they go on killing sprees that would embarrass most other professions -- they reveal the true face of the United States Postal Service (USPS), a face usually masked by incompetence. Although the USPS is a creature of legislature and not a response to free market demands, it is typically seen as a benign institution that provides a vital service. History frowns on this interpretation. During two centuries of existence, the USPS has been a political machine that censors public morality, provides revenue to the swelling State, suppresses free market competition, and serves wartime agendas. It's also slow.

Throughout its history, the USPS has attempted to control the flow of information and opinion by both subtle and blatant means. An example of subtlety: it was Congress (and, then, postmaster generals) who defined the postal routes. Blatant: the Comstock Act (1873) banned obscenity from the mail for decades, imposing severe penalties on those obscene enough to post private and sealed material on birth control.

Or consider Postal Bulletin 21994 (March, 1999) which targets one of the USPS' major competitors -- private mail box providers who serve millions of people, especially those with small businesses or those who wish preserve their privacy against an increasingly intrusive society. 21994 ordered mailbox providers to have individual customers fill out a new form that requires two types of I.D. and various other personal data. The form for businesses requires the home addresses of officers and directors. Although the USPS pledges confidentiality, it is interesting that mailbox providers routinely advised against using credit cards as I.D. After all, the measure states that, if a business deals "with the public," anyone walking in off the street has a legal right to the business' data.

Moreover, material addressed to a private mailbox must now have the acronym 'PMB' on a separate line preceding the box number itself. If it does not, the USPS will flex the power of its State monopoly on first-class mail and refuse to deliver the item as of October 11, 1999. Ostensibly, the purpose of 21994 is to reduce mail-scams, but the USPS either cannot or refuses to provide any data linking private mailboxes to fraud.

Of course, the two main impacts of this measure are never mentioned by the USPS. The government now has the names and addresses of every private box renter: its grip on the flow of information is one iota tighter. And many people, especially small businesses, will probably shy away from mailboxes labeled 'second class' for those offered by the USPS. Another competitor bites the dust.

To those who argue that the worst sin of the USPS is its rank inefficiency at delivering mail, I would answer that efficient delivery is not the post office's primary function. If it was, the USPS would have relinquished that turf to the private sector long ago. The USPS has been quite efficient in its main function as an invisible fist of the State and of State policy. 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.

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.

The thuggish tactics of the USPS raise intriguing questions: Do individuals have a right to communicate through the mail or is it 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?' And why is the freedom to publish protected in public communication but denied to the private realm?