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American Letter Mail Company (wikipedia.org)
75 points by kick on Jan 3, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

The fact that the USPS has a postal mail monopoly has always confused me. Other countries like Sweden have a plethora of competing mail delivery firms (including dedicated "junk mail" firms that only deliver junk mail. Delivering junk mail is a popular job for teens to do on the weekend)

FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and private couriers are all active in the letter and package delivery business. The USPS doesn't have a monopoly, at least not in the strict text-book sense of the word.

USPS just delivers letter mail at much lower rates than the others. And does so at a fixed rate to any address within the US, whether that's a neighbor across the street or a family member in a tiny town in the mountains.

The USPS absolutely has a legally enforced monopoly in the textbook sense of the word. It's just not over the entire market of letter and package delivery.

> The USPS actually has two legally enforced monopolies, as per Title 39 of the US Code. One is over the delivery of anything defined as a “letter,” which is within certain size and weight limits. The second is over the use of your mailbox...there are criminal violations if anyone puts anything in your mail box that is not US government approved “mail.

> ...parcels were never subject to the delivery monopoly. Indeed, UPS was in that business first, and USPS entered afterwards. ...This is why DHL, FedEx, Amazon... and others are free to enter and exit the parcel business. It is defined as a different market.

> FedEx is another fascinating story. There was a need for express document delivery among professional services, such as law firms (this was of course long before e-mail). The USPS was too slow and unreliable. FedEx and Fred Smith threatened to litigate the issue to death...so the USPS allowed an exception in the delivery monopoly for “extremely urgent material.”


Is that law ever enforced? I get packages from Amazon couriers and FedEx in my mailbox all the time and I've never heard of anyone going to jail for that. I can only imagine how much I'd get laughed at if I called the cops about a delivery person dropping a package off in my mailbox. Maybe I'd need to call the USPS Inspector General

The threat of enforcement is enough. Amazon doesn't compete with the USPS, so the government doesn't bother. But you can bet that if Amazon ever tried to get into the regular mail business the government would prevent them from using mailboxes.

The Wikipedia article is literally about the USPS monopoly being enforced.

The company in the Wikipedia article went out of business nearly 200 years ago, so I don't think the legal situation is necessarily the same (backed up by the anecdotal fact that I can send a letter via Fedex). The Wikipedia article also doesn't mention anything about how the government apparently has exclusive access to MY mailbox, which is a big surprise to me.

about how the government apparently has exclusive access to MY mailbox, which is a big surprise to me.

Enforced where I am.

I'm very pro-USPS and anti-privatization, but in fairness, sole use of even private mailboxes is monopolistic.

https://about.usps.com/universal-postal-service/ilo-report.p... (PDF)

Fair enough, though I'm not convinced that's much of an advantage.

Personally, most of the mail I receive from USPS is garbage. And my mailbox is located at the end of the block, clustered for the whole neighborhood. Due to both those facts, I rarely check the mail - it's often overflowing by the time I bother.

The mail I receive at my door (non-USPS) is 99% not junk. I don't have to go out of my way to retrieve it. And it's more likely to be dry (because the screen door never gets overfull of mail like the postbox).

Just an anecdote, not meant as anything more.

> I'm not convinced that's much of an advantage.

Their competitors certainly claim it gives the USPS a significant advantage, if you check the info I provided. They also give reasons for their view. Are there any particular reasons you think they're wrong?

Just my personal experience that the vast majority of "letter mail" is junk that I don't want at all. It's actually a hassle to have USPS deliver junk and have to walk down the block to retrieve it, to turn right around and drop it in the trash. If I could forgo USPS delivery and just get stuff dropped in my front door (like UPS and FedEx do), I'd be better off.

USPS also enjoys federal protection of its product that none of the others have:


I'd wager that "porch pirates" don't go into mailboxes even though there's valuable stuff in them.

Stealing mail is very common. It’s one of the easiest ways to commit identity theft and can be surprisingly efficient. https://www.koaa.com/thieves-use-usps-informed-delivery-to-m...

When there is a monopoly, more densely populated areas cross subsidise more sparsely populated areas. If there isn't a monopoly then companies are incentivised to pick and choose whos mail to carry making it more expensive for everyone else.

That's a mildly persuasive theoretical argument.

I don't think empirical data are especially kind to it.

It also ignores the fact that monopolies have no incentive to produce high quality and ever improving product. They tend to get focused on maximize staff comfort over customer satisfaction.

It happens in the UK, where the private companies won't deliver to remote islands and parts of the mountains in Scotland, or charge an additional fee.

I would think there are ways to achieve the same thing without having a monopoly.

You don't need a monopoly. But if the government/quasi-government entity is effectively letter delivery of last resort while private companies pick off the more lucrative routes, they're going to either need subsidies or price delivery at a level that it may be untenable.

ADDED: IOW, you could have an external taxpayer-supported "rural mail delivery" department that has a charter to deliver a letter for a quarter anywhere in the country rather than providing a subsidy within the system.

It's mostly academic at this point. (And the reality is most private package delivery is fairly universal because there are business advantages to having a fairly complete delivery network even if it's not necessarily the most efficient decision at the micro level.)

Talking about junk mail has just convinced me that the postal monopoly is totally worth it.

I would hate to have multiple companies completing to efficiently deliver ever larger piles of junk mail.

At least in Sweden there's an industry consensus to not deliver junk mail to anyone with a "no advertising please" sticker on their mailbox.

Sweden had a "letter monopoly" up until 1993 - https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postlagen

Yeah, nearly 30 years ago, around the same time they allowed commercial, non-state-controlled television

The post office is in the US Constitution in Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 saying "To establish Post Offices and Post Roads". This has lead to rulings and decisions that give some monopoly situations.

Not just "rulings and decisions"that interpreted the Constitution – Congress passed a law to ban certain kinds of competition, like Spooner's.

True, but you would hope that when unconstitutional laws are brought to court they would be struck down (results vary).

For one of the odd cases which details the weird world of USPS laws passed by Congress, check out Postal Service v. Flamingo Industries which starts with claims of attempts to create a mail sack production monopoly and goes interaction complicated from there. I was not aware the USPS has the powers of eminent domain and to conclude international postal agreements.

It makes me wonder, if the Second Amendment can be expanded to include modern weaponry, could the Eighth be expanded to include modern forms of communication, eg. make access to internet a Constitutional issue.

Uhm, I'm not sure how Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. would do that. If you mean this article, then it is rather specific where the 1st and 2nd amendments are general principles and rights that are regarded as timeless.

Maybe GP meant Article I section 8 (the section quoted in their parent)?

If you mean this article, then it is rather specific where the 1st and 2nd amendments are general principles and rights that are regarded as timeless.

Sorry my bad.

I think the courts have been pretty consistent in saying that the 1st Amendment applies to speech and press on the internet (although there is some interesting crossover with the 2nd Amendment, a la https://codeisfreespeech.com) Some things are a bit muddled when you have things like cloud providers and crossing borders, but the 4th Amendment certainly covers at least a subset of digital communications.

Why was postage so expensive at the time?

According to an inflation calculator I looked up, the $0.18 postage mentioned in the article is equivalent to about $6.00 in today’s dollars.

Horses are still just as expensive as they were. Railroads are faster now, and more efficient through diesel-electric engines.

The past was extremely poor.

Early disruptors. Pretty amazing story. Wonder what the pitch looked like back in 1844.

Today's first class postage costs 55 cents. And almost 180 years ago the cost to send a letter from NYC to Boston was basically half that at 26 cents. Feels like today's price hasn't kept with inflation.

Can we conclude that this disruptor company affected prices for over a century and a half by simply introducing a little competition?

I think we can conclude advances in transportation technology made it cheaper to deliver the mail. Trains, trucks, planes.

Sure - thats certainly one reason. But why would a near monopolistic business (USPS) cut their prices?

Because they aren’t a business and most years they don’t turn a profit. They were effectively government subsidized for most of their existence.

Prices have always been regulated by the U.S. government; in the mid-1800s the price of postage was flattened to be independent of distance, which I infer addressed most of the complaints that led to the creation of the American Letter Mail Company.


Added: this PDF goes into gory details on the turmoil in the 1840s:


It's getting ever cheaper to deliver mail from Boston to New York, but it's getting more and more expensive to deliver mail to remote exurbs that the USPS is constitutionally mandated to serve. So the cross-subsidy of routes grows.

This page is probably a good place for someone who wants to practice their editing skills. The article has the facts, but the style is lacking (it has awkward phrasing, unnecessary passive voice, and sentence fragments).

Spooner is also the author of 'No Treason'/'The Consitution of No Authority', essays refuting the legitimacy of the U.S. Constitution:


This reminds me of IPSA (Independent Postal System of America) which I have vague memories of. I think they lasted until some time into the 1970s.

According to wikipedia, ALMC founder Lysander Spooner "considered government monopoly to be an immoral restriction". Also according to wikipedia, he was a socialist and a member of First International.

Can anyone more familiar with US history and/or political science explain this to me? How can you be both a socialist and against government regulation of business?

There is a long history of anti-government socialist movements. Spooner was of the opinion that governments themselves are illegitimate in how they come to be and that in particular the US Constitution was a charade. I had to look up the First International, I found this bit of trivia interesting: "In 1872, it split in two over conflicts between statist and anarchist factions and dissolved in 1876." I don't know when Spooner joined, but he was 68 when it dissolved.

If you want to read about him, his works, and read his works. Punch his name into google with the word Mises tacked on the end. You will find that Libertarians(the Anarcho-Capitalist ones) tend to hold him in high regard for his actions and his writings.

Lysander was a Libertarian, and Anarchist, and a Socialist.

His polital opinions were (and are today) very rare in that he was Left libertarian, where most people that label themselves libertarian are Right Libertarians.

Also most people that label themselves Socialist, are Authoritarians Socialists (meaning socialism via government violence)

Lysander Spooner is one of my favorite philosophers, his work No Treason the constitution of no authority was one of the first things of his I read, and still find it fascinating

It should be noted that the word "libertarian" was originally invented by left libertarians of the most extreme variety (anarcho-communists, who deny private property altogether) to describe themselves. From there, it quickly became a catch-all self-identification for pretty much everybody on the anarchist and minarchist left, covering anarcho-socialists, mutualists etc. There was no "right libertarian" as a commonly understood term until the 1950s.

His opinions were not that rare. The socialist mainstream of his time was libertarian and "Anarchism" was just the name of this current. In fact, leading up to his coup d'etat Lenin himself published quasi-anarchist pamphlets. The Bolshevik's rallying cry was "All power to the soviets!" - "soviets" were (libertarian, socialist) workers' councils.

You can also be an anarcho-socialist. It’s just authoritarian socialism that’s most often described as socialism.

Socialism just describes the idea that the means of production is owned in common (by the government for authoritarian socialism, or by the workers themselves for libertarian socialism) rather than capital investors, and distributing the profits of labour among the workers who produced it rather than to the capital owners.

I don't think that early american socialists like spooner and tucker held that the means of production is owned in common by the laborers, that, in particular is an outcome of marxist theory, which is a late 19th century socialist development.

The idea of MoP in common is not an originally Marxist idea; both socialsits who predated Marx and his contemporaries held the idea in various forms - some forms which Marx opposed (such as in his criticism of the Gotha program).

When Marx came into contact with secret Prussian communist groups, they already had this idea, but it was Marx who gave it a proper basis. In general, socialism is, if nothing else, about the distribution of productive capacity in society, and the results that flow from that. SEP has a good article[0] on it.

Tucker et al. fit much more neatly into the individualist anarchist spectrum than they do into socialism, in a similar way to both Proudhon and Stirner. But in contrast to Stirner, market socialism was proposed[1]. Thus, it has more in common with Proudhon than Stirner. However, Marx's criticism of the ideas which prefigured Tucker in Proudhon laid the groundwork for the socialists who reject both the legitimacy of the state and markets - in general, modern left-anarchists and "libertarian Marxists".

[0] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socialism/

[1] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/gary-elkin-benjamin-...

If you look at Tucker he proudly called himself a socialist in the Prouhdon tradition. The socialist community, however, diverged from the Tuckerite path, even during his lifetime (by the end Tucker was vehemently criticizing socialism, which was by then understood to mean implicitly state socialism)

First of all, government monopoly is not the same thing as government regulation.

Secondly, Lysander Spooner was a libertarian socialist. Libertarian socialism rejects economic control by the state. You’re probably thinking of social democracy when you think of socialism, because social democracy is what you see on the news. Social democracy is only one branch of the socialist movement (or movements).



Socialism does not equal government regulation. It's true that many practical implementations have resulted in a big government, most famously communism relies on centralised control. But to take the opposite site of the spectrum, anarchism rejects the idea of government.

In the same vein, conservatism is not automatically pro small government. For instance in recent years the British tories seems to be in favour of heavy government control/regulation.

socialism used to be opposed to state intervention into social affairs. The US especially had a tradition of anti-state socialists, largely on the grounds that the exploitation of workers in capitalism was believed by them to occur predominantly when Government intervenes on behalf of businesses in favor of the capitalist.

The other major american socialist was benjamin tucker (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Tucker) who wrote about the schism between state socialism and traditional socialism, predicting, in effect, that Stalinism, Maoism, and Chavezism would be the natural consequence of Marxism, a good half century before they happened: https://panarchy.org/tucker/state.socialism.html

Interestingly Spooner and Tucker fought tooth and nail over the issue of IP (Spooner pro- and Tucker anti-) in a series of letters which presage conversations we're still having today.

In very broad strokes, socialism is towards no private property (gained either through use, improvement, or profit-making), and libertarianism is against powerful governments. The two aren't inherently incompatible.

Did the ALMC deliver letters to every single address in the United States? I don't think they did. They weren't trying to "compete" with the USPS so much as skim off the profitable routes.

The USPS does not deliver to every address in the US.

I don’t know what specifically causes the USPS to deliver to a specific area, but there are entire incorporated cities, some with reasonably large population and density, that don’t receive mail at all except to the local post office. Even UPS and FedEx’s low-cost all-but-the-last-mile services regularly lose packages because they hand them off to the USPS.

I was surprised to discover you're correct. Here's a look at that: https://www.serviceobjects.com/blog/service-not-available-us...

>>so much as skim off the profitable routes.

They were not even trying to do that, Lysander formed the company with the expressed purpose that the government would sue him. he wanted to get the monopoly protection law for the USPS ruled unconstitutional

How is that not competition?

Let's say you start a power company in the same area as I, a public power utility.

The board of utilities says that as a regulated monopoly I have to provide power to every parcel within the regulated area.

I charge more than the average cost+ rate so that, on the whole, the denser areas that require less infrastructure can subsidize the less dense rural areas where individuals may require kilometers of dedicated transmission line to service their location.

But you come along and charge less (or give power away), but you only do so in areas where it is either profitable or minimally loss-making.

>but Spooner dropped his rates even lower -- delivering many letters for free.

And you don't do this to run a competing enterprise, but to make a socio-economic/political point.

So all of my customers in the limited areas that you serve, naturally, switch to you.

But the areas you choose to serve, the densely-populated ones, are the areas that I need to fulfill my mission of delivering electricity to everyone.

No longer able to subsidize sparsely-populated areas, I either have to raise rates or give up.

"Well that's just the free market" is baloney. A utility's purpose is to serve its population.

A mail service's purpose is to deliver letters to everyone.

In countries where postal service is "privatized" there is still only one letter delivery service-- it's just run by a board instead of the government.

And those "privatized" postal services still have a universal service mandate, required by the law that privatized the formally nationalized entities.

As an aside, the UK's Royal Mail was privatized a couple of years ago. It was sold off at bargain-basement prices, ripping off the taxpayers, to investors who just happened, coincidentally, to be donors to politicians who were in charge at the time. Its "universal service" mandate expires next year.

We'll see how the FrEe MaRkEt handles universal service when not forced to by law.

The American Letter Mail Company wasn't competition. It was a vanity project launched for political purposes that wasn't even in the same game as the USPO, much less in competition with it.

It's as if in the beginning of a marathon you were to sprint ahead of Eliud Kipchoge - stop - exclaim: "I beat you!"

You're not competing. It's monkey business.

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