We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Why do we need a postal service?

18th May 2011

Jeff Jarvis isn’t afraid to ask hard questions.

The answer to this question is probably yes. But I don’t think it should be answered until we reconsider the delivery industry from the ground up, seeing what is no longer needed and what the market can provide in the digital age.

The traditional argument for a government-run postal service is a standard one for non-essential government services in general: It’s a good thing, people ought to have it, private companies won’t provide it where there’s no money to be made, so the government has to be the ‘provider of last resort’. (If anything reminds you of the ‘health care debate’, you’re not alone.) On this basis, one might deduce that government-provided postal service will be a money-losing proposition, and that’s certainly the case in the modern world. (How much of that is due to the traditional corruption and inefficiency that the government brings to anything it touches, and how much is just a reflection of market forces, is an exercise left to the reader.)

Do we still need the Postal Service’s guarantee of universal delivery? Likely yes, but it’s worth asking whether that obligation to get deliveries to remote outposts should be carried out with offices and trucks owned by the government or through subsidies to private industry. Does the Postal Service have a role to play in and identity (could it be a guarantor?) and security (our mail is protected from warrantless spying but our email so far is not). What are the principles and rights to privacy and security that should govern even private and electronic delivery? What impact does all this have on broadband policy?

Good questions all. Nobody in the government is asking them, of course, because government employees don’t have any incentive to reduce the services provided by government (and hence the number of government employees). So those of us who are paying for all this need to start asking them, and ought to be pressing our elected representatives (when they can take some time from fund-raising in order to get re-elected) to ask them as well.

Good luck with that.

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