Article Published in St. Joseph News-Press (Missouri)
One hundred forty-five years ago, a young man named Johnnie Frye galloped out of St. Joseph carrying with him a copy of the Gazette, this newspaper’s predecessor. It was the beginning of the Pony Express – a private company that revolutionized U.S. mail delivery.
Today, private companies are no longer allowed to deliver the mail because a $69 billion government behemoth – the U.S. Postal Service – maintains a federally enforced monopoly.
Plagued with financial mismanagement, the Postal Service has been in big trouble for decades. Even now, Congress is wrangling over how to save this organization, which has suffered more than $100 billion in real economic losses since 1970. The obvious solution is to end the Postal Service monopoly on letter delivery.
Anyone who thinks a private company can’t deliver the mail more efficiently should take a look at postal history, and particularly the Pony Express.
In 1782, the Continental Congress imposed a federal monopoly on the mail. Over the years, for certain delivery routes, the government granted special monopolies to private companies, which then received subsidies. The holders of these lucrative contracts were often politically influential.
In 1858, the Overland Mail Co. received the contract for West Coast delivery. It took around four weeks to get the mail from Arkansas to California via Texas and the Arizona Territory. Two things favored this 2,800-mile southwestern route: It didn’t traverse snow-bound mountains, and it was preferred by powerful Southern political interests.
Into this scene entered three Missouri businessmen who launched the Pony Express, which used a string of riders who traded off every 100 miles or so. They carried mail along a 1,966-mile route between St. Joseph – then the western end of both telegraph and rail service – and Sacramento, Calif. It could complete the run in 10 days.
The Pony Express proved to skeptics that its central route from Missouri to California was usable year round. It never won the main government contract, but the Overland Mail Co. quickly copied the Pony Express, shifting away from its roundabout southern path.
The Pony Express ended in October, 1861, with the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. But it had taken the innovation of private entrepreneurs to prove that a shorter, faster mail route was possible
Similarly, in recent years, the innovation of private entrepreneurs has shown us thousands of new possibilities for getting information and goods from point A to point B. Private companies have paved the way to online bill payment, fast photo transmission and overnight door-to-door delivery.
But while technology has roared ahead, the ways of Washington haven’t changed. The government refuses to let go of its money-losing letter monopoly. As lawmakers debate how to reform the U.S. Postal Service, they should remember the Pony Express and acknowledge that private companies can deliver the mail more efficiently than government.
Sam Ryan is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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