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Reposting On the Postal Service

In my on-going effort to archive here at Cafe Hayek as many of my published writings as I can, I repost here my first-ever letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times.  Co-authored with my dear friend and former colleague George Selgin, this letter appeared in the Monday April 4th, 1994, edition of the Gray Lady.  It’s below the fold.

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, 1994

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.