Republicans are gutting the Post Office for parts right now, and there may come a time when the USPS is just … poof, gone, replaced by a system of private carriers that’s as pleasant, affordable, and trustworthy as our private healthcare system.
I won’t particularly miss the grocery store flyers, or the newsletter that I get every few months from, for some reason, a crematorium. But paychecks and stimulus checks, postcards, tax docs, credit card replacements, voter forms, census docs, passport applications — some stuff you just can’t obtain online, or you could only pick up in person if you have time to run a billion errands.
What would the country look like without the Post Office? Well, let’s speculate by looking back a few hundred years, to when the Pony Express sought orphans with a death wish to carry letters cross-country.
Couriers have been used to convey correspondence throughout history. There’s evidence of these systems in the Persian empire and in China over 2000 years ago, with the Incas in Peru, and in India in the 1600s. Ancient Egypt used homing pigeons, but most systems involved a mixture of government-run couriers and private traders.
In the US, mail has been a function of government since before America even existed, with English monarchs establishing postmasters and routes in the colonies. Mail was carried between a few dozen post offices on horseback, and also across the ocean on several-months-long journeys. There was no formal system of mailboxes, so letters were often deposited at taverns to be distributed by whoever happened to be there. A federal mail system was among the innovations established for the burgeoning United States by Benjamin Franklin.
Though we’ve all heard a lot of romantic lore about the Pony Express, it only existed for a few months in the 1800s, and was a huge flop — only about 250 letters are known to have been sent, and the whole thing was privately owned, super expensive, and extremely dangerous. The help-wanted ads for it read, “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Today, of course, we have trucks and planes to carry our mail (or at least, we do as long as fossil fuel is available). And we have a mix of public and private carriers, though the private ones aren’t exactly affordable — to send a letter from Seattle to Boston via FedEx can cost from $11 to $115.
So if the Post Office goes away, what then? Well, setting aside the fact that that would mean half a million people out of work, we’d probably be looking at a return to the past: Letters and packages carried by private entities at great cost and minimal convenience. You might have to wander down to your local bar to pick up the mail, or hope that the Wal-Mart Mail Service doesn’t decide to close up shop in your neighborhood. And if it does, hey, maybe some skinny, wiry orphans will be looking for work?
Like so many things about the United States right now, the outlook if things continue the way they are is bad, bad, very very bad. America has never gone without some form of government-managed mail — most modern countries have never gone without such a system.
Distressingly, we seem to be veering close to the 1997 movie The Postman, in which American society collapsed due to a wave of racist violence and a plague and Kevin Costner was the last man delivering messages on horseback across the United States in the year 2013. So... at least it isn't Mad Max?