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Friday, December 20, 2013

Organizing Communities around the Post Office

In the book "The Kings Best Highway" the subtext is that the Post Office was the organizing principle around which the initial British Colonies organized themselves. The mission of the Post office was originally to provide communication between all the outposts of the British Empire and it's relations. As a result when one hears "post office" one should think about more than mail delivery, because the post office is - and should be - also an "outpost", "branch", "office" of the Government. The key here is to remember that it shouldn't be a branch of a bureaucracy but of our democracy as well. The make or break moment for settlements in the Americas has always been when they could finally get mail service. In Colonial times, when the British accused Benjamin Franklin of being "the evil genius" behind the colonial revolt, the accusers were probably thinking of the time when he was Post-Master and the post office was allowing Postmasters to open up private newspapers to supplement their income. The Post office is the source for a free press, as well as the catalyst for most of our modern transportation: Rails, Airlines, Telegraph, Highways, Telephone, even canals. The movie The Postman (and David Brin's book that it was based on), follow the logic premised here and illustrates how important it is that we have a functional post office to our countries survival.

Semi Privatized Post Office gets it backwards

This country created the "Committees of Correspondence" during the 1770's largely because they couldn't trust the bureaucratic and Royally controlled British Post office. When Paul Revere's crew road to let folks know the "Regulars are Coming" they were working as an alternative post office because The Royal Post office was spying on the mail being sent officially. Later we'd establish a national post office, and still later the constitution would establish a National Post office, unfortunately we seem to have used the British Model instead of Benjamin Franklin's. When Jefferson fretted about the National Post Office that:

"You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest. We have thought, hitherto, that the roads of a State could not be so well administered even by the State legislature as by the magistracy of the county, on the spot. What will it be when a member of N H is to mark out a road for Georgia? Does the power to establish post roads, given you by Congress, mean that you shall make the roads, or only select from those already made, those on which there shall be a post?"[Src]

Jefferson was right in that the Post Office became a means of patronage by which senators and congressmen would jockey for roads and bridges in their state, and sometimes neglect those in other states. But it also is severe failure of imagination on the part of the founders, most of whom were trying to get in on the patronage that Jefferson alludes to. Privatizing the Post Office into just a mail delivery service is missing all the opportunities for how a Post Office can be a democratic institution. Indeed the Post Office has made private fortunes at public expense for most of it's history -- world-wide.

Privatizing postal functions dates all the way back to when the Post Office sponsored Stage Coach traffic, and Toll Roads, for bulk mail delivery in order to sponsor better personnel transportation for private benefit while improving mail delivery. Modern UPS, Federal Express, and similar private carriers wouldn't exist if the Government hadn't let them in on the monopoly. And the Post Office played a role in creating law and order as lawless persons inevitably would steal from the Post Office and thus attract US Marshals who'd come and enforce the law.

In some countries the post office owns the rails, in some it also owns the banks. In some it owns (or owned before they were privatized) both. In Germany the Post Office (before being privatized) owned a giant consumer bank, and all communications. In Japan it still owns the banks (For now). Privatization is often seen as an alternative to bureaucracy. This privatization has made a few well connected business entrepreneurs filthy rich over the past 300 years, mostly by subsidizing startup enterprise by the taxpayers and then letting the business-folks suck the value of out the resulting privatized systems. T-Mobile, was once part of the German Transportation monopoly. I remember visiting Germany in the 80's and being impressed with the Rails, communications and Post Office. Now it is a private company -- but it still has a monopoly position in Germany. This is not totally evil, but it's a transfer of wealth from individual citizens to companies and from the companies to private persons -- who got very rich without doing much.

Bureaucratic Post Office versus Post Office as Democratic Institution

The British model isn't necessarily the best way to go, nor is privatization. Sure they are great ways to make fortunes for a few people. But we still wind up with services that are top down, top heavy, bureaucratic and potential tools for repression and repression, even when privatized. Jefferson alluded to a better way, but he never quite connected when he said that administration would be better by the "magistry on the spot" because we haven't really taken a cooperative "people's" approach to our institutions since the constitution was written. We used to have post masters at every post. The early Post Masters ran free presses which helped "guarantee a republican form of government" replicated down to town and county. We can do better than that if we treat the Post Office as a democratic institution and run it as one.

The Post Office is not just a mail delivery service, it is also an agency of the Government. In prior times it has collected taxes, enabled people to pay bills to the government, and acted as such. The post office is still the heart of governing action if one considers that the basis of most social media is the "email". If the post office is an agency of the people then it would be an agency with democratic attributes and the ability to replicate them to the entire country. It should reflect the people with a direct relationship with local legislatures. It should be integrated with State and local government. That was Jefferson's complaint, but there is no reason one can't have Federalism and still have such cooperation. People should have a right to assembly within their settlements, and a right to representation within all their local governments and that includes the companies and institutions they work in. If the Post Offices themselves are an agency of government -- not any government but all government, and especially an agency of democratic government. Then their job is to uphold rule of law as well as deliver mail, to ensure that no central government terrorizes its citizens, not merely stamp envelops. It's a limited scope but the local postmaster or marshal should have the job of ensuring that elections are fair and that all the people in a locality have a say in the business of that locality.

Privatizing communications, transportation, banking and other such functions makes private fortunes, but it is giving governance over them to private barons. For that reason it takes things the opposite direction. Instead of the Post Office and it's privatized branches acting as agencies and trustees of the people's good, they become buccaneers and freebooters of the people's goods. Folks go from being equal citizens to being subjects. Private rule tends to first milk, and then bleed and loot it's subjects. It may be more efficient to have an accountable executive -- but the keyword there is accountability and to get that there has to be oversight. Someone has to watch the overseers other than the local baron.

What made the old Post Office invented by Franklin so effective is that it also was an agency of legislation and adjudication, oversight and even a free Press. We could have defined the countries government in a way that would have worked for everybody if we'd been as creative in developing our Post Office as in using it as an agency for aggrandizing private fortunes. The Post Office should be an agency that replicates democratic features from the community upwards and from the General Executive to the locality. If the "magistry on the spot" were in charge of the local Post office -- and accountable to the people -- then post masters would be more effective at doing their jobs and these monopolies wouldn't be monopolies but services to the people.

The Post Office should own and manage the buildings that government is done in,should own the "communications system" and this should be organized on a service membership basis replicated down to County, Township and community with citizens having a say at all levels either through local elections. And it's okay to privatize the executive, but that executive should be serving the people and under their watchful eyes. The people should own the tracks, the system, the wires, and the function of the system as a whole. Not private plutocrats.

Individual enterprise that improves everyone's position is a good thing. Enterprise based on looting, privatizing (privateering) and monopolistic practices is not. Instead of complaining about the way the Post Office function was abused, what might have been better is if Madison and Jefferson had organized the Post Office on the principles they liked. A simple "bottom up" rule would have made the Post Office a Democratic Institution and ensured the "locality" that Jefferson talked about, and also a Federal one. "Every community shall have the right to postal service, to petition for and to establish a post office for it's community, and the General Government shall link these post offices and ensure that communications and goods are delivered to their intended recipients in the best possible manner."

Further Reading
http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_7s4.html

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