The pending default of the United States Postal Service is our national fiscal crisis in miniature: a collection of self-interested government employees working desperately to save their salaries and benefits, with the actual service provided by the agency — if, indeed, “service” is the right word — a distant second, if it is considered at all.
We ought to close down the USPS. It was a government agency created to solve a problem, and today that problem is solved, and we no longer need a centralized federal monopoly to facilitate intercity communication, the delivering of parcels, etc. News stories reporting the travails of the USPS invariably note that the agency has been ravaged by e-mail, but this gets things precisely wrong: E-mail has relieved us, nationally, of the burden of maintaining a postal service for delivering letters. The emergence of private couriers, FedEx, UPS, et al., have likewise rendered USPS’s delivery services obsolete. Letters and other “household to household” mail accounts for less than 10 percent of USPS’s volume, most of which is junk mail.
Funny thing about junk mail: The average American household receives more than 40 pounds of it a year (and God help you if you ever give Restoration Hardware your mailing address!), and more than a third of that goes directly into the trash, unread. At Chez Williamson, I’d estimate, the junk:mail ratio runs at least 50:1 by weight or volume. Whereas my frontier ancestors no doubt looked forward to the arrival of the mail, for me it is a chore: sort through five pounds of rubbish for the odd freelance paycheck or wedding invitation. Since Social Security deposits went electronic, even the aged have lost their main reason for looking forward to the mail delivery. Which is to say, the United States Postal Service is now the opposite of a service — it’s a nuisance. If we are forced to bail it out, at the very least we should force it to change its name to U.S. Department of Distributing Worthless Woodpulp, Filling Up Landfills, Destroying Untold Acres of Woodland, and Keeping Surly Postal Clerks Fat.
Like our public-school systems, and other government enterprises such as General Motors, the USPS is not so much being crushed by the expenses of its current personnel as by its retirees. It has a $5.5 billion retiree payment due, it’s running up against its $15 billion debt limit, and it doesn’t expect that it will even make payroll next year. It has cut costs significantly, reduced its headcount, etc., but it is still in the business of selling a product that nobody wants. It has a monopoly on a now-worthless service: Call it the curse of Lysander Spooner!
All of which is excellent news, really: We, as a society, have solved a problem, and no longer need (if we ever needed it) the government monopoly to provide this service for us. Hurray for us!
But the USPS doesn’t see it that way. It’s an “independent” (ho, ho!) federal agency, but the regular ol’ federal agencies, you can be sure, would act exactly the same way. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that some ingenious scientist suddenly cooked up a cheap, plentiful, inexhaustible source of energy that could be easily mass produced and impose no externalities on the environment. The world would celebrate — except at the Department of Energy, where they’d be working around-the-clock to figure out how to save their jobs. Likewise, vast swathes of the government exist either to solve problems that already have been solved or that will be solved shortly, one way or the other. USDA programs created to save the family farm have long outlived the era of the family farm and merrily make payments to gigantic agribusiness consortiums. The Rural Electrification Administration was created by FDR, who could always picture himself saying, “Let there be light!” But the lights have been on in the sticks for a long, long time, and still the agency’s offspring, the Rural Utility Service, chugs on and on, never to pass away. Until quite recently, we were still paying the emergency tax to fund the Spanish-American War of 1898. We haven’t sent a blimp into battle in God knows how long, but the nation maintains the National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, presumably for the strategic imperative of making our enemies talk like Mickey Mouse.
And that brings us back to the Mickey Mouse outfit in question, the United States Postal Service. USPS had a good run, neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night and all that. Job well done! But the job is over, and it is time to move on. It is time to either shutter the USPS or fully privatize it and let nature run its course.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.