Commentary

To Resolve Junk Mail, Junk Monopoly

Hoping for a package or a letter, we go to the mailbox and find only junk mail. We sort through it to make sure there’s no real mail mixed up in it. Then we carry the junk to a trashcan. Angry about junk mail, many people blame the businesses that generate it. But the problem really stems from the monopolization of postal services.

Opting out of nationwide marketing systems can provide some relief. For instance, you can go to the Direct Marketing Association Web site for instructions on how to reduce junk mail and phone calls. But even if you opt out, junk mail still comes from local businesses that use local records. There is also some business-to-business information sharing. However, junk mail is really a mailbox issue. As Anne Wells Branscomb, a writer on information sharing, reports: “When I asked the post office employees to stop stuffing the post office box with unsolicited mail addressed to `occupant,’ duplication of the same occupant mail overstuffing my mailbox at home, I was informed that they could not legally comply with my request.”

Officially, your mailbox isn’t yours. It belongs to the feds. Only the Postal Service has legal access to your mailbox. So even if the feds were to allow delivery competition, under the current mailbox law the homeowner would have to get a second mailbox.

In a free market, private delivery services would spare their customers unwanted material. They would offer them an option to refuse unsolicited commercial mail. Many recipients would choose to accept such mail and feel less resentment about it all. Some would refuse such mail, relieving them of the annoyance, saving money for the sender, and reducing delivery costs.

We see this happening with the Internet. Internet service providers have to compete. To win customers, they strive to screen out e-junk or “spam.” It might seem like spam is invincible, but the entrepreneurs are developing several neat methods that promise to beat back spam.

Monopoly privileges in mailbox use and mail delivery are not the whole of it. The Postal Service enjoys an exemption from taxation and the power of eminent domain. It has enjoyed privileged acquisition to real estate, some of it prime.

Junk mail is just one symptom of bureaucratic monopoly. Lackluster performance is also evident in securing recipients’ mailboxes, forwarding mail, coordinating with recipients for delivery or pickup, tracking mail, delivering on time, delivering to the home (as opposed to “cluster boxes”), and servicing customers at the post office (we are all familiar with long lines and short hours).

Defenders hail the USPS as a “public institution.” Kevin Costner even made a movie The Postman about the USPS restoring civilization. But sober examination shows that the subsidies and privileges simply create a vast employment - low skilled and highly paid - in the delivery of Sears catalogs and the like.

So let’s junk monopoly. Let’s junk the U.S. postal monopoly. Several countries including Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, and the U.K have opened their postal markets to greater competition. Let’s open the field to free competition. Who knows what innovations would come? Maybe a system would evolve whereby senders paid recipients to receive advertising materials.

And if Kevin Costner and the rest of them won’t let us be free, how about getting the USPS to let consumers opt out of junk mail? Let’s give the citizens full ownership of their mailboxes - “Our Mailboxes, Ourselves.” The postal workers union would resist, especially since the mail stream continually moves away from personal letters and toward advertising matter.

And to resolve telemarketing, again the solution is to junk monopoly. Government doesn’t allow competition in local phone service. A lazy monopoly - your local phone company - doesn’t have to do much to keep your business. Junk monopoly and red-blooded entrepreneurs will find better ways to serve us.

Daniel Klein (dklein [at] scu [dot] edu) is an economics professor at Santa Clara University and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.