There was a time long ago when few people in the general population could read or write. In many parts of the ancient world, religious teachings and other historical information was transferred to younger generations through the spoken word. The few members of the younger generation who were entrusted with such information were required to be able to repeat it almost word-for-word to members of the older generation, to provide proof that the information had been accurately recorded.
The advent of trade involved the movement of goods by water transport or over land assisted by animals. Trade required some knowledge of symbols that represented numbers and quantities of goods, and symbols that denoted specific objects. When traders were unable to be physically present at multiple distant locations within a short duration of time, agents would represent them. While a trader could send an agent on an extended journey, it cost far less to send some form of communication recorded on a piece of cloth and eventually on paper.
The early form of airmail involved trading boats carrying homing pigeons to distant locations. At a distant location, a written message on paper could be attached to a pigeon that was then set free. Within a few days or a few weeks, the pigeon returned to the home of its owner with the message. The development of the printing press created a demand for instructors who could teach the skills of reading and writing to a large population, while the industrial revolution greatly increased the demand for people who could read, write and understand numbers.
As the ability to read and write increased among various populations, people at distant locations sought low-cost methods by which to communicate, by sending written messages on pieces of paper. Private entrepreneurs initially attracted large numbers of customers by offering to carry their written messages at much lower cost than the cost of a ticket to travel aboard a boat or a stagecoach. Colonial governments nationalized such services by establishing post offices that owned, operated or rented a variety of transportation vehicles to carry letter mail across vast distances at relatively low prices. There were mail ships and post office carriages on railway trains.
Then private entrepreneurs connected to the evolving world of electricity and developed a method by which to transmit messages over vast distances using electric cables. Several private companies, including the railways that installed electric cables on poles along their railway lines, began to offer telegraph services. They employed telegraph delivery personnel in most main cities, who carried telegrams to recipients either on foot or by bicycle. In some countries, governments nationalized both the railways and the telegraph services and transferred telegraph operations to post offices.
The advent of new telecommunications technology in the form of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and Skype has challenged the supremacy of government post offices that are now operating at a deficit. The Internet has become a ‘disruptive technology’ that has prompted governments in many nations to now seek methods by which to feasibly offer services that involve the delivery of letter mail. While numerous private companies such as Purolater and Fedex offer viable parcel carrying services, state regulation protects the government monopoly on letter delivery.
The US Post Office earns a large percentage of its revenue from delivering ‘junk mail’ flyers that may also be included in traditional newspapers and also in advertiser-paid community newspapers that are distributed free of charge. In many cities, traditional newspapers have stopped printing as a result of declining readership and competition from the fact of news being readily available on many Internet sites. In Canada, the management of Canada Post has announced plans to review their ‘business’ to seek ways by which to more feasibly offer their services.
Governments are reluctant to privatize letter-delivery postal services, mainly for political reasons. Over a period of many decades, the Government of Canada was reluctant to privatize railway freight and reluctant to end the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board. Advances in the world of electronic telecommunications have presented government post office services with a decentralized competition that “they never saw coming.” Government regulation that forbade parcel courier companies from carrying letter mail has not assured the viability of government-owned post office operations.
Private courier and parcel delivery companies could carry letter mail aboard their airplanes and trucks. They already deliver parcels to the premises of the recipients, paid for by the sender, and could deliver pre-sorted containers of letter mail to a variety of decentralized distribution centers located in large and small towns. Many paid-subscription newspapers and advertiser-paid community newspapers provide home delivery and they often include flyers with their delivery. With some minor modifications, it might be feasible to combine home delivery of newspapers and some forms of letter mail.
It is very unlikely that a government-owned postal service could develop a business plan that involves the viable delivery of letter mail at low cost. Over the short term, the post office may incur cost savings by reducing the frequency of mail delivery and make greater use of community postal delivery boxes or postal boxes at retail outlets. Over the longer term, post office services can be expected to decline and languish for several years, perhaps eventually delivering letter mail once or twice per week as politicians oppose any suggestion of private delivery of letter mail.
* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.