The Jacksonian-era movement to keep the Sabbath pure deplored Sunday mail delivery. Said one evangelical: “We have always viewed it as a national evil of great magnitude, and one which calls for national repentance and reformation, that the mails are carried, and the post offices kept open, on that holy day in every part of our country.”
Others, however, including Saturday-Sabbath keepers, said ending Sunday mail deliveries would amount to the government deciding what day is holy and therefore would violate the separation of church and state. And Richard M. Johnson, the chairman of the congressional committee with jurisdiction, warned of calamity:
“The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one-seventh of the advancement of our country.”
Eventually the devout won, with help from organized labor, which considered this an issue of workers’ rights. Sunday delivery ended in 1912, partly because some clergy considered it a desecration of the Sabbath and partly because people who the clergy thought should be in the pews on Sundays were instead socializing at post offices. Two post offices still open for Sunday delivery are in Angwin, Calif., and Collegedale, Tenn., where many people observe the Sabbath on Saturday.
Today, the U.S. Postal Service, whose financial condition resembles that of the federal government of which the USPS is another ailing appendage, is urging cancellation of Saturday deliveries, perhaps en route to three-days-a-week delivery. The USPS lost $5.1 billion in the latest fiscal year — after serious cost-cutting. Total 2012 losses may exceed $14 billion, a sum larger than the budgets of 35 states.
The fact that delivering the mail is one of the very few things the federal government does that the Constitution specifically authorizes (Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to … establish post offices and post roads”) does not mean it must do it. Surely the government could cede this function to the private sector, which probably could have a satisfactory substitute system functioning quicker than you can say “FedEx,” “UPS” and “Wal-Mart.”
The first two are good at delivering things; the third, supplemented by other ubiquitous retailers, could house post offices. All three are for-profit enterprises, so they have an incentive to practice bourgeois civility — to be helpful, even polite. These attributes are not always found at post offices.
Unfortunately, privatization collides with a belief sometimes deemed reactionary, but nowadays is characteristic of progressives. The belief is: In government, whatever is should forever be. So, efforts to prop up and prod along the postal service, which is older than the nation (it was established by the Second Continental Congress in 1775), include the sweet suggestion of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Weary of “gibberish spelling” in text messages from her children, McCaskill’s cri de coeur is: “Gaps in history were filled in with letters … everything from our Founding Fathers to soldiers in the field. … I don’t think we should give up on the notion that we’re going to sit down and write a letter.”
But McCaskill’s proposal — an advertising campaign to revive the epistolary culture — is no match for the main culprit responsible for the USPS’ woes: progress. This includes email (even electronic Christmas and other greeting cards are gaining popularity), the digital delivery of movies (as by Netflix, one of the USPS’ biggest customers, but perhaps not for long) and those pesky private-sector delivery companies.
The USPS may shed as much as a third of its 653,000 employees — the nation’s second-largest civilian work force (second to Wal-Mart). This would require Congress to overturn no-layoff provisions in labor contracts, which should make conservatives queasy. Labor costs are 80 percent of the USPS’ costs (53 percent of UPS’, 32 percent of FedEx’s), in part because it has negotiated very friendly union contracts. The postal service did that because it is free from the tiresome need to make a profit and its competition is limited by law, which forbids anyone else to deliver a letter that is not “urgent.”
Mail volume has declined 20 percent in five years and the decline probably will accelerate, in spite of the odd USPS ads seeking customers by saying letters “don’t get lost in thin air,” and “a refrigerator has never been hacked. An online virus has never attacked a corkboard.” Surely privatization beats depending on the USPS for delivering the intellectual light that irradiates the republic.
George Will’s email address is georgewill@ washpost.com.