The Post Office and Private Mail Service

Excerpted from the book;
Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.


The Winsted Press makes a long leader to ridicule the Anarchists for favoring private enterprise in the letter-carrying business. It grounds its ridicule on two claims, - first, that private enterprise would charge high rates of postage, and, second, that it would not furnish transportation to out-of-the-way points. An indisputable fact has frequently been cited in Liberty which instantly and utterly overthrows both of these claims. Its frequent citation, however, has had no effect upon the believers in a government postal monopoly. I do not expect another repetition to produce any effect upon the Winsted Press; still I shall try it.

Some half-dozen years ago, when letter postage was still three cents, Wells, Fargo & Co. were doing a large business in carrying letters throughout the Pacific States and Territories. Their rate was five cents, more than three of which they expended, as the legal monopoly required, in purchasing of the United States a stamped envelope in which to carry the letter entrusted to their care. That is to say, on every letter which they carried they had to pay a tax of more than three cents. Exclusive of this tax, Wells, Fargo & Co. got less than two cents for each letter which they carried, while the government got three cents for each letter which it carried itself, and more than three cents for each letter which Wells, Fargo & Co. carried. On the other hand, it cost every individual five cents to send by Wells, Fargo & Co., and only three to send by the government. Moreover, the area covered was one in which immensity of distance, sparseness of population, and irregularities of surface made out-of-the-way points unusually difficult of access. Still, in spite of all these advantages on the side of the government, its patronage steadily dwindled, while that of Wells, Fargo & Co. as steadily grew. Pecuniarily this, of course, was a benefit to the government. But for this very reason such a condition of affairs was all the more mortifying. Hence the postmaster-general sent a special commissioner to investigate the matter. He fulfilled his duty and reported to his superior that Wells, Fargo & Co. were complying with the law in every particular, and were taking away the business of the government by furnishing a prompter and securer mail service, not alone to principal points, but to more points and remoter points than were included in the government fist of post-offices.

Whether this state of things still continues I do not know. I presume, however, that it does, though the adoption of two cent postage may have changed it. In either case the fact is one that triumphs over all possible sarcasms. In view of it, what becomes of Editor Pinney's fear of ruinous rates of postage and his philanthropic anxiety on account of the dwellers in Wayback and Hunkertown?

Appreciating the necessity of at least seeming to meet the indisputable fact which I opposed to its championship of government postal monopoly, the Winsted Press presents the following ghost of an answer, which may be as convincing to the victims of political superstition as most materializations are to the victims of religious superstition, but which, like those materializations, is so imperceptible to the touch of the hard-headed investigator that, when he puts his hand upon it, he does not find it there.

"The single instance of Wells, Fargo & Co., cited by B. R. Tucker to prove the advantage of private enterprise as a mail carrier, needs fuller explanation of correlated circumstances to show its true significance. As stated by Mr. Tucker, this company half a dozen years ago did a large business carrying letters throughout the Pacific States and Territories to distant and sparsely populated places for five cents per letter, paying more than three to the government in compliance with postal law and getting less than two for the trouble, and, though it cost the senders more, the service was enough better than government's to secure the greater part of the business."

This restatement of my statement is fair enough, except that it but dimly conveys the idea that Wells, Fargo & Co. were carrying, not only to distant and sparsely populated places, but to places thickly settled and easy of access, and were beating the government there also, - a fact of no little importance.

"Several facts may explain this: 1. Undeveloped government service in a new country, distant from the seat of government."

Here the ghost appears, all form and no substance. "John Jones is a better messenger than John Smith," declares the Winsted Press, "because Jones can run over stony ground, while Smith cannot." "Indeed!" I answer; "Why, then, did Smith outrun Jones the other day in going from San Francisco to Wayback?" "Oh! That may be explained," the Press rejoins, "by the fact that the ground was stony." The Press had complained against the Anarchistic theory of free competition in postal service that private enterprise would not reach remote points, while government does reach them. I proved by facts that private enterprise was more successful than government in reaching remote points. What sense, then, is there in answering that these points are distant from the governments headquarters and that it had not developed its service? The whole point lies in the fact that private enterprise was the first to develop its service and the most successful in maintaining it at a high degree of efficiency.

"2. Government competition which kept Wells, Fargo from charging monopoly prices."

If the object of a government postal service is to keep private enterprise from charging high prices, no more striking illustration of the stupid way in which government works to achieve its objects could be cited than its imposition of a tax of two (then three) cents a letter upon private postal companies. It is obvious that this tax was all that kept Wells, Fargo & Co. from reducing their letter-rate to three or even two cents, in which case the government probably would have lost the remnant of business which it still commanded. This is guarding against monopoly prices with a vengeance! The competitor, whether government or individual, who must tax his rival in order to live is no competitor at all, but a monopolist himself. It is not government competition that Anarchists are fighting, but government monopoly. It should be added, however, that, pending the transformation of governments into voluntary associations, even government competition is unfair, because an association supported by compulsory taxation could always, if it chose, carry the mails at less than cost and tax the deficit out of the people.

"3. Other paying business which brought the company into contact with remote districts and warranted greater safeguards to conveyance than government then offered to its mail carriers."

Exactly. What does it prove? Why,that postal service and express service can be most advantageously run in conjunction, and that private enterprise was the first to find it out. This is one of the arguments which the Anarchists use.

"4. A difference of two cents was not appreciated in a country where pennies were unknown."

Here the phantom attains the last degree of attenuation. If Mr. Pinney will call at the Winsted post-office, his postmaster will tell - what common sense ought to have taught him - that of all the stamps used not over five per cent. are purchased singly, the rest being taken two, three, five, ten, a hundred, or a thousand at a time. Californians are said to be very reckless in the matter of petty expenditures, but I doubt if any large portion of them would carry their prodigality so far as to pay five dollars a hundred for stamps when they could get them at three dollars a hundred on the next corner.

"These conditions do not exist elsewhere in this country at present. Therefore the illustration proves nothing."

Proves nothing! Does it not prove that private enterprise outstripped the government under the conditions that then and there existed, which were difficult enough for both, but extraordinarily embarrassing for the former?

"We know that private enterprise does not afford express facilities to sparsely settled districts throughout the country."

I know nothing of the kind. The express companies cover practically the whole country. They charge high rates to points difficult of access; but this is only just. The government postal rates, on the contrary, are unjust. It certainly is not fair that my neighbor, who sends a hundred letters to New York every year, should have to pay two cents each on them, though the cost of carriage is but one cent, simply because the government spends a dollar in carrying for me one letter a year to Wayback, for which I also pay two cents. It may be said, however, that where each individual charge is so small, a schedule of rates would cause more trouble and expense than saving; in other words, that to keep books would be poor economy. Very likely; and in that case no one would find it out sooner than the private mail companies. This, however, is not the case in the express business, where parcels of all sizes and weights are carried.

"No more would it mail facilities. A remarkable exception only proves the rule. But, if private enterprise can and will do so much, why doesn't it do it now? The law stands no more in the way of Adams Express than it did in the way of the Wells & Fargo express."

This reminds me of the question with which Mr. Pinney closed his discussion with me regarding free money. He desired to know why the Anarchists did not start a free money system, saying that they ought to be shrewd enough to devise some way of evading the law. As if any competing business could be expected to succeed if it had to spend a fortune in contesting lawsuits or in paying a heavy tax to which its rival was not subject. So handicapped, it could not possibly succeed unless its work was of such a nature as to admit the widest range of variation in point of excellence. This was the case in the competition between Wells, Fargo & Co. and the government. The territory covered was so ill-adapted to postal facilities that it afforded a wide margin for the display of superiority, and Wells, Fargo & Co. took advantage of this to such an extent that they beat the government in spite of their handicap. But in the territory covered by Adams Express it is essentially different. There the postal service is so simple a matter that the possible margin of superiority would not warrant an extra charge of even one cent a letter. But I am told that Adams Express would be only too glad of the chance to carry letters at one cent each, if there were no tax to be paid on the business. If the governmentalists think that the United States can beat Adams Express, why do they not dare to place the two on equal terms? That is a fair question. But when a man's hands are tied, to ask him why he doesn't fight is a coward's question.


Yes, as The Anti-Monopolist says, Uncle Sam carries one hundred pounds of newspapers two thousand miles, not for two dollars, but for one dollar, pays the railroad more than its services are worth, and loses about five dollars a trip.

Yes, an express company would charge twenty dollars for the same service, because it knows it would be folly to attempt to compete with the one-dollar rate, and therefore charges for its necessarily limited business such rates as those who desire a guarantee of promptness and security are willing to pay.

Uncle Sam nevertheless continues to carry at the one-dollar rate, knowing that this is a good way to induce the newspapers to wink at his villainies, and that he can and does make up in two ways his loss of five dollars a trip, - 1, by carrying one hundred pounds of letters two thousand miles for thirty two dollars and forbidding anybody else to carry them for less, although the express companies would be glad of the chance to do the same service for sixteen dollars; and,- 2, by taking toll from all purchasers of whiskey and tobacco at home, and of various other articles from foreign countries.

And yet some people don't know why the thousands of officeholders who are pulling away at the public teats are getting fat while the people are getting poorer. In fact, some people don't know anything at all except, as Josh Billings said, "a grate menny things that ain't so." It is very unfortunate that such people are entrusted with the editing of newspapers.

In 1907 a Chicago millionaire came forward with an offer to take over the postal service of the country, reduce rates on first and second-class matter one-half, and pay over to the government all surplus earnings above seven per cent. On the capital invested. This announcement led the Springfield (Mass.) Republican to ask whether his company would also agree to preserve to the employees of the service the hours and wages now accorded by the government; and it then facetiously added: "We shall next have syndicates offering to do the policing of the country on 2 private monopoly basis, and then taking charge of public education." Mr. Tucker made clear the position of Anarchism on this point:

I understand that there was some doubt in Chicago whether the millionaire referred to "meant business" and was entitled to serious consideration. But suppose a like offer to be made by a known and entirely competent and responsible or corporation; would congress and Teddy [President Roosevelt] entertain it for a moment? Would the intelligent and earnest Republican urge them to accept it? If not, why not? The hint in regard to the employees As rather unfortunate. The government has not been a good employer in the postal service, as everybody knows. It pays low wages, requires hard work, and forbids the clerks and mail-carriers to bother congress or to agitate politically against unfriendly individuals in that body. A private corporation could not in these days do much worse.

But suppose further that the aforesaid responsible bidder should agree to raise the wages and shorten the hours of the employees, and to refer disputes to arbitrators named by Teddy himself; would the Republican then favor acceptance of the offer? I doubt it. But why not? What would be its objection? As to the remark about the private police and private education it is not the paradox, the reductio ad absurdum, our friend imagines it to be. Under healthy economic and political conditions private enterprise in those spheres would be not only "possible," but eminently desirable. And Anarchists contemplate even a private police without the least consciousness of particular audacity.


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