Private Mail Companies Deliver

by | Apr 13, 2012

We are often told that government must provide certain vital services, such as education, roads, and mail delivery. History provides a very different lesson.

We are often told that government must provide certain vital services, such as education, roads, and mail delivery. If such services were left in the hands of private companies, service would be poor or nonexistent. But history provides a very different lesson.

Prior to the Civil War private letter carriers flourished throughout the United States. In sparsely settled areas of the country about 300 “western expresses” provided mail delivery. The best known of these companies was the Pony Express. In the more densely populated northeast, two types of delivery companies emerged—“locals” and “eastern expresses”.

The locals were based in the major eastern cities and primarily served local businesses. One of the largest of the locals was Boyd’s City Post in Philadelphia, which employed 45 carriers and delivered up to 15,000 letters a day.[2] The eastern expresses mostly operated between the larger eastern cities, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Both the locals and the expresses offered their service for considerably lower rates than the postal service.

As one example, in 1844 Lysander Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company. Spooner believed that he could deliver mail anywhere in the country for five cents per letter, versus the 12 cents charged by the postal service. Not surprisingly, the public loved Spooner’s company and the revenues of the postal service plummeted. Congressmen, who often rewarded political supporters with an appointment as the local postmaster, were incensed and responded by lowering postal rates. Spooner was not to be outdone, and lowered his rates further. Finally, in 1851 Congress strengthened the postal service’s monopoly and forced Spooner out of business.[3]

It wasn’t poor service or outrageous prices that closed Spooner’s business, but literally an act of Congress.

The lesson from the private letter carriers goes far beyond mail delivery. The same arguments used to justify the postal monopoly–universal service, affordable rates, etc.–are used to justify government monopolies in roads, education, water and sanitation, and now health care. In each instance the private sector is either prohibited from offering such services, or severely restricted by government regulations, i.e., coercion. And in each instance the results are the same as with the postal service–poor service, fewer choices, and higher costs.

While the primary argument in favor of abolishing the postal service is moral–the moral right of each individual to act according to his own rational judgment–there is abundant evidence that private mail delivery is also practical. When individuals are free to pursue their own values without interference from others, they will find ways to attain those values. It was true of private mail delivery, and it is true of every other value as well.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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