News Release

The Post Office Was Designed to be a Pillar of the Republic, Not a Business

RICHARD JOHN, rrj2115 at columbia.edu
John is author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Harvard University Press) and recently wrote the piece “The Founders never intended the U.S. Postal Service to be managed like a business” for the Washington Post.

John writes that since the start of the pandemic, “Congress has seemingly tried to bail out everyone: Millions of individuals, airlines, restaurants, retail businesses and even golf courses are among the beneficiaries of the government’s largesse. But so far, one struggling institution has come up empty: the U.S. Postal Service. …

“The Founders intended the Postal Service to be a pillar of the republic, binding together millions of Americans, urban and rural, for the common good. It therefore always had congressional oversight limiting what management can do to make a profit. Rather than being mismanaged, the Postal Service is — and has long been — one of America’s great successes. Instead of privatizing it, we should take inspiration from the Founders and re-envision its mission for the 21st century. …

“Most critically, the [Postal Service Act of 1792] subsidized the circulation of newspapers throughout the country on a nonpreferential basis and at extremely low cost. Not only pro-government ideas but also anti-government ideas could circulate throughout the length and breadth of the republic. Before 1792, newspapers had been officially excluded from the mail; after 1792, they circulated in numbers unmatched by any other country in the world. …

“Rather than pushing for privatization — a move that might well oblige online behemoths such as Amazon or Walmart to consider buying up postal assets at bargain basement prices — public officials mindful of the wisdom of the Founders might well consider expanding the ambit of the Postal Service to include high-tech ‘last mile’ capabilities. [This could include] the reestablishment of a low-cost consumer banking system, a popular service the Postal Service maintained for much of the 20th century, or even the rollout of low-cost municipal broadband. Rural electrification transformed vast swaths of the hinterland; might not rural Postal Services be configured as hubs for the digital economy of tomorrow? The Postal Service also will play a crucial role in ensuring trustworthy mail balloting, a major issue in the age of COVID-19.”