3-Minute Civics: Why the postal service is an important democratic institution

  • A person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mail box in Omaha, Neb., on Tuesday. AP

  • Postal workers load packages in their mail delivery vehicles at the Panorama City Post Office on Thursday in the Panorama City section of Los Angeles. AP

  • In August 1923, pilot Johnson C. Eugene delivers a package in New York that was mailed from San Francisco the day before, marking a new era for the U.S. Postal Service. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/23/2020 7:00:42 AM

The Congress shall have Power … To establish Post Offices and post Roads. – Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8, Clause 7.

There’s a clause of the Constitution I didn’t expect to get to anytime soon.

We address a letter or a package. We put it in the mail. Sometimes we wait on line at the post office first. We pay the postage, the letter or package gets delivered. We go on with our day. Next.


Apparently not.

As the quotation above demonstrates, the need for a national postal service is actually included in the U.S. Constitution. The Framers considered it essential to the functioning of a democratic republic, which is what our nation is supposed to be.

Now that a pandemic has moved the critical act of voting in part away from the polling place and to the United States Postal Service (USPS from here), and deliberate efforts are being made to restrict the operations of the USPS in turn, let’s examine why the USPS is so important as a function of democracy in the first place.

The USPS binds the country together

When this country was formed, it was a loose confederation of newborn states, each possessing a character as unique as the people who lived in them. The postal service was meant to link every part of every state together with every other part of every other state.

As the nation solidified and grew, the USPS brought word from distant relatives, carried the annual Sears catalog to remote farms and outposts, and carried news informing citizens of national and international events.

Even today, the USPS travels to the most isolated regions of our nation to deliver the mail, in the worst weather, under difficult circumstances if that is what’s required, and all for an accessible price.

Post offices in rural areas often serve a social function, too, acting as community gathering places, because so many residents need to travel there to conduct their business.

The USPS is a service, not a business

Let’s talk about that accessible price. Why, if the USPS is not making a profit, does it not raise its prices? Because the USPS is not a business; it is a government service.

This is an important distinction. The point of a business is to make a profit for its owners/shareholders. The point of a government is to look out for the welfare of all of its people.

Yes, there are details that can operate around the margins of these points: businesses can incorporate social values into their goals, and governments can and should build efficiencies into their operations. But their primary purposes – their reasons for existence – remain different.

This is one of the main reasons the USPS can’t operate like FedEx or UPS, which are both private corporations. The latter must focus primarily on their bottom lines; their overarching goal is to maximize profits.

If a service they provide is losing money, they can drop it or perhaps determine that it’s bringing in enough customers who then buy other, more profitable services so that the initial service in question is worth keeping. If FedEx or UPS suffers a negative quarter, it conducts an analysis to determine what must change, based on the numbers.

But although the USPS also considers its numbers, it can’t simply stop delivering the mail if that service isn’t bringing in enough money, or drop a sector of customers from its routes. Why? Because profit is not the USPS’s point.

USPS is a public service for the common good

Here are a couple of phrases that have become stiff from underuse. Let’s take them out for a little exercise: “public service” and “common good.”

A public service is an act that someone or some entity performs for the benefit of all or some of the people. The USPS provides a public service to approximately 330 million Americans. And in this time of national crisis, when people are hurting economically, unemployed, sick, and scared, and with a critical election coming up in about 70 days, a service that will timely deliver prescriptions, paychecks, ballots, packages from distant loved ones, learning materials to students with poor or no internet service, and more is more important than it’s ever been.

This country prizes individualism, as well it should. But a democracy cannot stand without the democratic institutions that hold it aloft, and these supports exist for the common good. They do not exist to put profits into anyone’s pockets; rather, they are there to serve the whole of us – whether we’re wealthy or not, live in a blue, red or purple state, agree with the ruling party or never will.

They perform a public service, and our country cannot sustain without them.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)

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