It’s time to start thinking of the Postal Service as a government-provided service, not a capitalist company

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the Postal Clause in Article I, Section 8 gave Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” and “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing this task.

To me, that’s pretty simple to understand: the US government oversees the postal system. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist agreed, according to this part of an article by the Constitution Center:

Before analyzing the challenge, then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote for a unanimous court, said the case was a good example of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s aphorism that “a page of history is worth a volume of logic.” Rehnquist then proceeded to recount the history of the postal system:

“By the early 18th century, the posts were made a sovereign function in almost all nations because they were considered a sovereign necessity. Government without communication is impossible, and until the invention of the telephone and telegraph, the mails were the principal means of communication.

Posts were made a sovereign function because they were considered a sovereign necessity.

Today’s debate revolves around the Postal Service’s profitability. The USPS bleeds money every year, critics claim, and something must be done to make the postal service profitable.

Here’s the problem: There is no law that says the postal service must be profitable. A law that does exist is one that states the Postal Service has an obligation to provide universal service—that is, to deliver mail to “as nearly as practicable the entire population of the United States.” And it takes money, personnel, and resources to do that, especially to rural and remote areas. But that is the law, and the postal service does so for the betterment of the common good.

So why don’t we treat it as such? We don’t expect other government service providers to be profitable because that would be silly. Even the State Department, which has a moneymaking role through its acceptance of fees for visa applications, isn’t profitable. But we don’t expect it to be. The role of federal agencies is to provide services and not generate profits. Why is the postal service not the same?

It’s time we stop looking at the balance sheet of the Postal Service and chastising it if it takes a loss each year. Yes, it should be run efficiently and effectively, reducing waste where necessary but treated and funded as any other government provided service.

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