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Stamping Our Feet

Tomorrow, the price of a first-class postage stamp in the U.S. rises from 41 cents to 42 cents.  This price hike by a legally protected monopolist (the United States Postal Service) prompts me to reprint the following letter that my friend (and former colleague at GMU) George Selgin and I published in the April 4, 1994 edition of the New York Times:

To the Editor:

It has been suggested that, because the nominal price of first-class postage is about where it was in the late 18th century, Americans who complain about the proposal to increase postal rates are merely whining wimps who are lacking in historical perspective.

However, the real price of transportation (a key input in postal service) has plummeted over the last 200 years. In 1799 it took 53 days for an Army courier to travel from Detroit to Pittsburgh.

Today the same trip can conveniently be made in minutes. Likewise, the productive efficiency of the United States is vastly greater now than it was even a few decades ago.

Given the plunge in transportation costs, joined with other technological improvements and a large increase in the scale of postal activity, the price of postage should have fallen dramatically.

Americans do not oppose postal-rate increases because of their ignorance of history.

Rather, opposition to these increases grows from the correct perception that a legally protected monopolist such as the United States Postal Service can keep prices higher, and service inferior, to what these would be under competition.

Regardless of how today’s postal rates compare with rates in the past, opening the delivery of first-class mail to competition would lower rates still further while improving service.

Clemson, S.C.,
March 24,

The writers are, respectively, an associate professor of legal studies at Clemson University and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia, Athens.


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