Telecommunications Policy In The Early American Republic

Here’s another slice of What Hath God Wrought:

The United States Post Office constituted the lifeblood of the communication system, and it was an agency of the federal government. The Constitution explicitly bestowed upon Congress the power “to establish post offices and post roads.” Delivering the mail was by far the largest activity of the federal government. The postal service of the 1820s employed more people than the peacetime armed forces and more than all the rest of the civilian bureaucracy put together. Indeed, the U.S. Post Office was one of the largest and most geographically far-flung organizations in the world at the time. Between 1815 and 1830, the number of post offices grew from three thousand to eight thousand, most of them located in tiny villages and managed by part-time postmasters. This increase came about in response to thousands of petitions to Congress from small communities demanding post offices. Since mail was not delivered to homes and had to be picked up at the post office, it was a matter of concern that the office not be too distant. Authorities in the United States were far more accommodating in providing post offices to rural and remote areas than their counterparts in Western Europe, where the postal systems served only communities large enough to generate a profitable revenue. In 1831, the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville called the American Post Office a “great link between minds” that penetrated into “the heart of the wilderness”; in 1832, the German political theorist Francis Lieber called it “one of the most effective elements of civilization.”


A reminder that when big government is made to work well, the gains are gigantic. Nowadays it seems to me that publicly owned and operated post offices are basically anachronistic, but this was a crucial public service in geographically expanding and overwhelmingly rural country at a time when letters in the mail represented state of the art communications technology. And the underlying idea of the USPS, that the government should be facilitating the creation of high-quality communication, remains true today. That’s why the question of the AT&T;/TMobile merger seems so important. The fact that the Computer & Communications Industry Association (Google, Microsoft, EBay, Yahoo, Facebook) is vehemently opposed to the deal strikes me as a credible indication that letting it go through would be a mistake.