Please, Mr. Postman: Waiting on Monopoly
Unsurprisingly, the monopolists at the USPS are currently failing to deliver parcels to my doorstep with care or expedience. It’s times like these that an Austro-libertarian has no choice to reflect on what could have been and envision what could be (hint: Harry Potter fans would probably be able to receive their mail via owls, steampunk fans by pneumatic tubes, and regular people by anyone but Newman… hey, it could happen!).
The problem with postal services in the United States began in 1792 with the passing of the Private Express Statutes, which established a legal monopoly of postal services by the United States Postal Organization, now United States Postal Service, by placing regulations and criminal statutes on the delivery of mail by anyone other than the USPS (for a fun and exciting explanation of the statutes, just head over to the USPS’s action-packed “Publication 542 – Understanding the Private Express Statutes”). You see, the United States Constitution had this in Article I, Section 8:
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
That’s it. Granting this small power to the United States government opened the door to turn anyone into a criminal for delivering a letter at a price lower than what the United States Postal Service would like to charge. In a “Conversation with Casey” on the Constitution, Doug Casey, founder and chairman of Casey Research noted:
[One of my biggest gripes about the Constitution is] the provision to establish post offices and post roads. The post office is a paragon of inefficiency and bad service, was never necessary as a government function, and absolutely should never have been a monopoly. And the first roads in America were private toll roads.
[…] The power to establish post offices and post roads is given, but the authority to crush private competition is not. The first power was later interpreted to include the second, and so it’s been with everything in the Constitution ever since it was written. Things like this and the power to coin money were the camel’s nose under the tent flap; now the state camel has filled the tent, and there’s hardly any room for individual freedom.
It’s nearly obvious that whenever a government is granted a power, it will not only use that power but also every power they can possibly imply with that power. Of course, why they are even granted that small power in the first place is perplexing enough.
Lysander Spooner, the great individualist anarchist and abolitionist of the 19th, was one of the finest critics of the Constitution. His classic treatise, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, untangles the myths of the social contract theory and goes as far as to say that “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain—that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”
It also turns out that Spooner had harsh criticisms for the postal monopoly and even started his own mail company to compete with the United States Postal Service. According to Wikipedia, the American Letter Mail Company, established in 1841, “succeeded in delivering mail for lower prices, but the U.S. Government challenged Spooner with legal measures, eventually forcing him to cease operations in 1851.” The article goes on to detail the nature of the competition and the ultimate shutting down of the company:
Spooner’s intentions were founded on both an ethical perspective, as he considered government monopoly to be an immoral restriction, and an economic analysis, as he believed that five cents was sufficient to send mail throughout the country. From its inception, the Company was a vehicle for legal challenge. “Mr. Spooner, the head of the American Letter Mail Company, has transmitted to the Department at Washington, a written admission of his conveyance of letters, &c., with all the necessary facts in the case, to make it a purely legal question, so that the Postmaster General has nothing to do but take the whole subject to the Supreme Court of the United States, as soon as it can be got there.”  The American Letter Mail Company was able to reduce the price of its stamps significantly and even offered free local delivery, significantly undercutting the 12-cent stamp being sold by the Post Office Department. The federal government treated this as a criminal act:
United States v. John C. Gilmore–This was action instituted by the Government of the United States, to recover the sum of $50 for an alleged violation of the laws regulating the Post Office Department, embodied in the act of Congress of 1825… 
Calvin Case, another of the persons alleged to be in the office, or connected with “Postmaster General Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company,” was arrested and held to bail in the sum of $100, by the United States Marshal, in [Philadelphia], on Friday, on the ground of conveying letters contrary to the laws of Congress. 
Although the business was forced by the U.S. Government to close shop after only a few years, it succeeded in temporarily driving down the cost of government-delivered mail.
Despite such intrusive and overbearing regulations, it is the private businesses that *ahem* push the envelope in the postal industry, even today. Letting FedEx speak for themselves:
The old model is changing, too, with companies moving in with innovative delivery services. Over the past year or so, Amazon has been releasing its Amazon Lockers into the wild. CNET explains:
Amazon Lockers launched last year as part of a strategy to offer a quasi-in-store pickup service, similar to those offered at Best Buy and Wal-Mart. After purchasing a product through Amazon.com, customers can choose to have it delivered to a specified locker at a location where Amazon’s service is available free of additional charge. Once delivered, the customer has three days to pick up the product from the locker before it’s sent back for a full refund.
These lockers have mostly been found in 7-11 stores across the country, but now Staples has signed up to house them, and more retailers are on the way.
Google has also joined in the battle, recently buying the Canadian company BufferBox, which is a similar service. Overstock.com is also looking to jump in on the locker delivery game.
The government hates competition. And it’s no wonder. If they could not use guns to maintain their power instead of relying on their ability to satisfy consumer demand, entrepreneurs like Spooner would put them out of business in any industry. As the market proceeds to take hold of ever greater technology, I’m sure we’ll all begin to feel even more like Kramer:
(Another mail-related Spooner meme, albeit not of my creation.)