Remember Snail Mail? What Was That All About?

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The Postal Service is an expensive way of holding on to bad practices that were overtaken by technology years ago, the author writes. Luke MacGregor/Reuters

The postal service—yes, it still exists—lost another $1.5 billion in the first quarter of this year, mostly due to paying out its astounding liability to pre-fund the legions of people who will, in the future, no longer work there.

(Yes, it's a strange system, but, hey, it's government.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, today I received a letter from the government saying I owe them a few extra dollars. So far as I could tell, they wanted me to send a check in the mail, using the postal service, so this is what I set out to do.

In the course of doing this, I recalled a technique for mailing letters that was once widely in use. I'm going to march through the steps on this process so that today's readers will know what to do should the occasion ever arise in which you have to send a letter with a check to the government.

I found the checkbook, blew the dust off the thing and scrawled with a pen the payee and the amount. Then I did the same with the envelope, writing the address on a small folder that is constructed to carry a small document.

The goal in this process is to place the check inside the envelope, put the proper government documentation on the outside (a "stamp"), and get it into the hands of a government postal employee, who then travels with it via truck to deliver it to the proper government office. It is more than likely to get there.

Do not attempt to send a letter without a stamp. It will not be delivered.

Where do you buy a stamp? I tried several convenience stores, but had no luck. Nor did the cashiers know where to get them. Finally I asked an older man on the street where to obtain a stamp. He knew exactly what I meant, surely recalling his childhood. He speculated that the grocery store down the street might have them.

He was exactly right! You can buy stamps in grocery stores. Of course, I only needed one stamp, but it is not possible to buy one. You must buy 10, which is pretty much a 10-year supply. I found a spot to keep them for future use, next to the envelopes and the checkbook and pen.

Whereas once stamps had prices on them, they are now called the "Forever" stamp. When the postal service introduced the "Forever" stamp, the idea was to incentivize people to buy many of them to avoid letter-sending price increases in the future.

But actually there's a subtext to the "Forever" stamp. It could be about how long it takes to deliver a letter. But really, it is the government's way of telling you that this incredible anachronism called the postal service will last forever.

It will never let go of its monopolistic control over first-class mail.

It will never get rid of its stamps.

It will never stop carrying around physical paper from place to place.

It will never stop losing money and it will never innovate.

Much like a diamond, this system is forever.

This is what the stamp tells us, and it might indeed be true. Government cannot and therefore does not find new ways of doing things. Instead, it uses the law to bludgeon any alternative provider of the same service (mail, courts, security, police and as much else as it can plausibly monopolize) and defaults back to doing things the way it has always done them.

Government stops the forward motion of time because it believes that it has found the one correct way of doing something. It believes its infallibility is beyond dispute, and you can see why: once you threaten people with legal violence for refusing to go along, you must stick to your claim that you are right no matter what.

That is why once the power of government force is employed, there can be no new technology, no true rethinking, no reassessment. The only way forward is to double down and escalate.

That's a short history of the postal service over the last quarter century.

In any case, back to my tutorial. The next step is to stick the "Forever" stamp on the envelope with the address and with the proper contents insight and find a big blue steel box somewhere to put it in.

For my own part, I found one of these steel blue boxes in a strip mall, just sitting there. I opened the steel flap and put my letter in. No, I have no idea when or even if it will be picked up and no idea what happens after that point. But under this system, I have to trust the government. And, as I said above, it is more than likely to be the case that the letter will get there.

You say that this sounds old fashioned? That you pay all kinds of institutions every day with cards, cryptocurrency, ApplePay, PayPal, Square Cash and online banking? That you never really need to touch physical paper except in rare instances, and, even then, you scan the thing and send it to your bank with your smartphone? Yes, that's all true.

But think about the government and its ways. It is forever drawing us back in time. The greatest lie ever told is that the state will bring us progress that we would otherwise never experience.

The truth is the reverse. It forces us to experience things again and again that would have long ago vanished from the planet had society been permitted to drive history forward.

Jeffrey A. Tucker is a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. This article first appeared on the FEE website.​

Remember Snail Mail? What Was That All About? | Opinion