Postal service should be privatized

November 27, 2011


— The Jacksonian-era movement to keep the Sabbath pure deplored Sunday mail delivery. Said one evangelical: “We have always viewed it as a national evil of great magnitude, and one which calls for national repentance and reformation, that the mails are carried, and the post offices kept open, on that holy day in every part of our country.”

Others, however, including Saturday-Sabbath keepers, said ending Sunday mail deliveries would amount to the government deciding what day is holy and therefore would violate the separation of church and state. And Richard M. Johnson, the chairman of the congressional committee with jurisdiction, warned of calamity:

“The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one-seventh of the advancement of our country.”  

Eventually the devout won, with help from organized labor, which considered this an issue of workers’ rights. Sunday delivery ended in 1912, partly because some clergy considered it a desecration of the Sabbath, and partly because people who the clergy thought should be in the pews on Sundays were instead socializing at post offices. Two post offices still open for Sunday delivery are in Angwin, Calif., and Collegedale, Tenn., where many people observe the Sabbath on Saturday.

Today, the U.S. Postal Service, whose financial condition resembles that of the federal government of which the USPS is another ailing appendage, is urging cancellation of Saturday deliveries, perhaps en route to three-days-a-week delivery. The USPS lost $5.1 billion in the latest fiscal year — after serious cost-cutting. Total 2012 losses may exceed $14 billion, a sum larger than the budgets of 35 states.

The fact that delivering the mail is one of the very few things the federal government does that the Constitution specifically authorizes (Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to ... establish post offices and post roads”) does not mean it must do it. Surely the government could cede this function to the private sector, which probably could have a satisfactory substitute system functioning quicker than you can say “FedEx,” “UPS” and “Walmart.”

The first two are good at delivering things; the third, supplemented by other ubiquitous retailers, could house post offices. All three are for-profit enterprises, so they have an incentive to practice bourgeois civility — to be helpful, even polite. These attributes are not always found at post offices.

Unfortunately, privatization collides with a belief sometimes deemed reactionary but nowadays characteristic of progressives. The belief is: In government, whatever is should forever be. So, efforts to prop up and prod along the postal service, which is older than the nation (it was established by the Second Continental Congress in 1775), include the sweet suggestion of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Weary of “gibberish spelling” in text messages from her children, McCaskill’s cri de coeur is: “Gaps in history were filled in with letters ... everything from our Founding Fathers to soldiers in the field. ... I don’t think we should give up on the notion that we’re going to sit down and write a letter.”

But McCaskill’s proposal — an advertising campaign to revive the epistolary culture — is no match for the main culprit responsible for the USPS’ woes: progress. This includes email (even electronic Christmas and other greeting cards are gaining popularity), the digital delivery of movies (as by Netflix, one of the USPS’ biggest customers, but perhaps not for long) and those pesky private-sector delivery companies.

The USPS may shed as much as a third of its 653,000 employees — the nation’s second-largest civilian workforce (second to Wal-Mart). This would require Congress to overturn no-layoff provisions in labor contracts, which should make conservatives queasy. Labor costs are 80 percent of the USPS’ costs (53 percent of UPS’, 32 percent of FedEx’s), in part because it has negotiated very friendly union contracts. The postal service did that because it is free from the tiresome need to make a profit and its competition is limited by law, which forbids anyone else to deliver a letter that is not “urgent.”

Mail volume has declined 20 percent in five years, and the decline probably will accelerate, in spite of the odd USPS ads seeking customers by saying letters “don’t get lost in thin air,” and “a refrigerator has never been hacked. An online virus has never attacked a corkboard.” Surely privatization beats depending on the USPS for delivering the intellectual light that irradiates the republic.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is


classclown 2 years, 4 months ago

From the "For what it's worth" department.

A few years ago I got hurt and went through physical therapy. While there, I met an 80 something year old man. He told me how he was retired from USPS and the kicker is that he had actually been retired twice as long as he had worked there.

Maybe they have a new policy now, but I sometimes wonder how many people who work there only need to work for 20 some odd years and get a full retirement - whatever that entails.


Flap Doodle 2 years, 4 months ago

Well, I'll be a dirty bird. The existence of the FedEx SmartPost program had escaped my notice until now. I stand corrected with a wild blueberry muffin in my hand.


jafs 2 years, 4 months ago

As far as I know, the Post Office doesn't get any taxpayer dollars any more, and is required to operate from fees only.

In addition, it's been required to fund future pensions for quite some time.

The combination of those two things results in a problematic financial situation for them.

But, it's not a good example of poor governmental organizations.


pace 2 years, 4 months ago

No, don't privatize it. But congress should repeal the odious 5o year prepayment of pensions. No other agency or department has this burden. Congress is using the money as a slush fund while putting the cost under the labor's. . I also think, raise the bulk mail rates, also make material used in bulk mail to fit within 32 categories of recyclable material. RAISE the bulk mail rates. Don't build super factories to service bulk mail. Smaller more efficient would serve the public use of mail The postal service has been worshiping the bulk mail god for too long. Raise the bulk mail rates. I could live with less junk mail and the junk mail paying it's way. They claim junk mail keeps first class cheap. No, low junk mail makes it cheap to mail junk mail


Kendall Simmons 2 years, 4 months ago

George Will neglected to mention that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) forces the USPS to fund future health care benefit payments to retirees for the next 75 years in a ten year span.

Mandating funding future health care benefit payments for people who aren't even born yet??? How absurd can you get?? And talk about crippling.

I have found that the USPS is actually well as more reasonably priced...than either FedEx or UPS even for delivering packages. Competition from private companies has made them a lot better than they used to be...but it certainly hasn't improved the speed or pricing of those private companies. As a result, I stopped using FedEx and UPS several years ago and went back to the good old USPS.


average 2 years, 4 months ago

We pay less for a domestic letter than do people in Mexico, Ecuador, or Turkey. Honest-to-God truth. We pay half or less the going rate for most European countries.

If the USPS were operated with any kind of independence, they'd have rates in the 65-70 cent range that many other first-world (Canada, Australia, etc) charge for a letter, and they wouldn't be in the red. But, the rates are set by a politically-appointed rate commission who fought against the USPS raising rates from 44 cents (cheapest in the developed world, excepting places of less than 200 sq. miles) to 45 cents (still the cheapest in the world).


ivalueamerica 2 years, 4 months ago

It depends on if you consider the ability to exchange information a national interest or not.

A private company might not be compelled to deliver our mail under any number of circumstances and halt access to communication. The Government of course could do the same thing, but has more checks and balances.

Unless the Government is ready to grant access to the internet to every home and a computer, a letter remains the only reasonable form of information sharing with access to virtually the entire nation.

I think the public underestimates the importance of that concept.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 4 months ago

Ah, yes, the world would be miraculously transformed for the better if only we could substitute corporate bureaucracy for government bureaucracy, fire most of the employees, eliminate most of the services offered, pay the few remaining employees a small fraction of what they currently make and eliminate all their benefits. Good call, George.


vuduchyld 2 years, 4 months ago

What about universal delivery?

In a state like Kansas, that should be a big concern. USPS goes everywhere. The private companies do NOT. With so much rural space in Kansas, it's just not profitable for them to do so. I really worry about what happens to rural America if we privatize.


uglyrumor 2 years, 4 months ago

I don't want my mail going through Mexico or China before it gets to me. Also, privatizing any public service has historically been proven to be a bad idea, except for the people who get hooked up by shady politicians and become richer than they already are. If they give me the contract and I become a billionaire then I'm for it I guess.


Flap Doodle 2 years, 4 months ago

Whatever will junk mailers do if the USPS goes the way of the mammoth?


tange 2 years, 4 months ago

What next? The privatization of publicization?


mloburgio 2 years, 4 months ago

What If the Tea Party Wins? They Have a Plan for the Constitution, and It Isn’t Pretty It is difficult to count how many essential laws would simply cease to exist if the Tea Party won its battle to reshape our founding document, but a short list includes:

Social Security and Medicare Medicaid, children's health insurance, and other health care programs All federal education programs All federal antipoverty programs Federal disaster relief Federal food safety inspections and other food safety programs Child labor laws, the minimum wage, overtime, and other labor protections Federal civil rights laws Indeed, as this paper explains, many state lawmakers even embrace a discredited constitutional doctrine that threatens the union itself.


50YearResident 2 years, 4 months ago

If you want the price of a stamp to go from 44 cents to $5.44 go ahead and privatize the Post Office. Prices will go the same way as Drugs, Trash Services and Gasoline.


Richard Heckler 2 years, 4 months ago

GEORGE Will supports fraud,incompetence,golden parachutes,shareholders,obscene CEO pay packages and corp jets all of which is reckless use of tax dollars.


Jackie Jackasserson 2 years, 4 months ago

Obviously George hasn't been to Walmart or Fedex in my neck of the woods where "bourgeois civility " is as alien as martians.


Gandalf 2 years, 4 months ago

"The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one-seventh of the advancement of our country.”

What drivel! Mail has taken a back seat to both smart phones and the internet.


Liberty_One 2 years, 4 months ago

"the intellectual light that irradiates the republic"

At the time newspapers were delivered through the mail, so that might be what Johnson was actually referring to.

Regardless, I don't see how anyone could be against complete privatization of the Post Office. Clearly private firms are able to deliver packages in a satisfactory manner, why wouldn't they also be able to deliver first class mail as well?


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