Policy Documents

Privatizing the U.S. Postal Service

Tad DeHaven –
November 1, 2010

The U.S. Postal Service is a branch of the federal government. It is headed by a Postmaster General and a Board of Governors, with further oversight provided by the Postal Regulatory Commission. However, ultimate authority over the USPS rests with Congress.

The USPS is structured like a business in that revenues from the sale of postal products generally cover costs, and it receives virtually no federal appropriations. The organization is the second-largest civilian employer in the United States—after Wal-Mart—with about 600,000 workers. If the USPS were a private company, it would rank about 28th on the Fortune 500 list of largest companies.

While the USPS is structured like a business, Congress often prevents it from actually operating like a private company, such as taking actions to reduce costs, improve efficiency, or innovate in other ways. The agency is also obligated by statute to provide mail services to all Americans, irrespective of where they live and the cost of serving them. Furthermore, it is required to deliver first-class mail at a uniform price throughout the nation.

While Congress imposes various costs and obligations on the USPS, it also protects it from competition. The USPS has a legal monopoly over first-class mail and standard mail (formerly called third-class mail). Thus, we have a postal system that encourages high costs and inefficiency, while preventing entrepreneurs from trying to improve postal services for Americans.

The USPS is in deep financial trouble as a result of declining mail volume, bloated operating expenses, a costly and inflexible unionized workforce, and constant congressional meddling. At the same time, electronic communications and other technological advances are making physical mail delivery less relevant.

America’s postal system needs a radical overhaul. This essay discusses the problems of the USPS and looks at some recent postal reforms abroad. It concludes that taxpayers, consumers, and the broader economy would stand to gain with reforms to privatize the USPS and open U.S. mail delivery up to competition.