J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

The Constitution, the Post Office, and the Future

Article One, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution says that “Congress shall have power…To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” In fact, the Continental Congress had taken on that power and responsibility even before declaring independence from Britain, appointing Benjamin Franklin to be postmaster general back in July 1775. (He’d held a similar position under royal rule in the 1750s, administering the system at times from London.)

There’s no question, therefore, that the U.S. of A.’s Founders viewed the transmission of letters and packages as an essential part of the national government even though there were also private carriers. Joseph M. Adelman starts at that point in his Publick Occurrences essays about the long history the U.S. Postal Service.

Until forty years ago, the postmaster general was still part of the President’s Cabinet. In that year, Congress enacted a new law that spun off the service as a quasi-independent organization, meant to work like a profit-seeking business and insulated from politics.

Except, of course, that it’s not. If the Postal Service were truly a business, then it wouldn’t have to deliver first-class mail to almost anyplace in the country for the same small price—the requirement of universal service. Furthermore, the agency’s finances are still under Congress’s control. At the Redtape Chronicles, Bob Sullivan ran the math on the results:
Right now, the Postal Service is being forced to pre-pay health benefits for the next 75 years during a 10-year stretch. In the past four years, those prepayments have totaled $21 billion. The agency's deficit during that time is about $20 billion. Remove these crazy pre-payments — a requirement that no other government agency endures and no private industry would even consider — and the Postal Service would be in the black. . . . the Postal Service starts its year in a hole designed to hide a portion of the federal deficit.
Those costs are also linked to two more of the U.S. of A.’s biggest economic challenges: the Bush-Cheney recession and the rise in health costs.

Of course, everyone recognizes that the volume of first-class mail is dropping tremendously because of the internet. Even if the economy hadn’t taken the worst hit since the Great Depression in 2008, the deficit were smaller, and our health-care system weren’t weighed down by unnecessary costs, the Postal Service’s business model would still be outdated.

But the constitutional principle behind that agency still stands. In fact, our modern economy and way of life depend on speedy, reliable, and widespread communication more than ever. So what is the federal government’s responsibility?

Our judicial and political systems have already concluded that our freedom of the press isn’t limited by the fact we no longer use eighteenth-century printing technology. The First Amendment applies to mimeograph machines and offset printers, radio and television, the internet, and so on. Similarly, people who read the Second Amendment broadly argue that the “arms” it refers to include modern firearms. The U.S. Navy has expanded beyond copper-plated wooden ships.

By the same logic, the clause of the Constitution quoted above empowers Congress to establish the service and infrastructure for Americans to exchange messages in the modern fashion—electronically and digitally. By analogy to the Postal Service, that service should reach nearly everyone and come at a minimal cost. In fact, the U.S. government was in on the ground floor of that service, developing the early internet within the Defense Department.

In recent years those systems and services have been established and expanded mostly by private businesses, often but not always regulated by state and local governments as utilities. But there were also private delivery services in 1775 and 1787, and the Founders didn’t think those were enough.

[Image above courtesy of Northampton, New Hampshire.]


Joseph M. Adelman said...

Thanks for this post; I agree wholeheartedly. The fact of the matter is that the discussion around the post office focuses on the wrong question (i.e., how to make it profitable). As I've been trying to argue over at Publick Occurrences, and as you say here, we should be focusing instead on the public's interest in safeguarding communication in the public sphere. Government has almost entirely excused itself from this area of its responsibilities (see the FCC's view of its own role).

I've been saying this to people for a week now, but one of our duties as historians and one of the primary ways in which we can be of use in public policy debates is to help frame the questions that policy makers ask. I'm a realist, but perhaps we can move the needle just a bit with the post office and the issue of free and open communications.

Pacificus said...

"By the same logic, the clause of the Constitution quoted above empowers Congress to establish the service and infrastructure for Americans to exchange messages in the modern fashion—electronically and digitally. By analogy to the Postal Service, that service should reach nearly everyone and come at a minimal cost."

One way of doing this would be to provide a number of computers with internet and email service within the post offices themselves. Of course, you have to pay for postage now as the system is, so the question is whether or not the postage charge would be "forwarded" over to the use of these computers and email services, so as to pay for the purchase, provision and maintenance of them. When I was in the Narita, Japan airport, they had computers with internet access that you could use for 100 yen per certain period of time (I can't remember the exact period of time though...). You would put a 100 yen coin into a slot, much like a video game, and the computer would allow you access for that certain period of time. This could be one way of paying and collecting the postage charge for use of the computer and internet if such a system was used.

Also, I am one of those who not only believes that the word "arms" in the 2nd Amendment extends to today's modern firearms and other arms, as well the arms of the past, as logic and reason would have it, but I have written an article that seeks to prove such by explicating the word "arms" and giving a historical analysis of the use of the word "arms" through out history. I must note too that I myself possess no firearms, so I am not necessarily a biased individual seeking to defend my possessing of firearms. Rather, I seek to defend the right of others to acquire and possess firearms and my right to possibly acquire and possess firearms in the future if I ever deem it necessary. If any are interested in reading this article, you may do so by consulting the following link to my blog:


J. L. Bell said...

I also believe that fundamental rights aren’t limited by technological development, or national origin for that matter.

I think the Second Amendment expresses the Founders’ faith in the militia system, however, and America gave that up decades back. Grammatically, that calls into question the second half of the clause. But I think an individual right to own firearms is still present under the Tenth Amendment.

Pacificus said...

Mr. Bell, true, the militia clause of the 2nd Amendment clearly shows the importance of the militia system in the minds of the Founders, and true, America "gave that system up" a while ago, but only in practice or in their faith in such a system. Legally though, as provided for in the Constitution, particularly Section 1 Article 8, the militia system still exists and can be called up and into service at any time, lawfully of course, even though we don't necessarily frequently drill in militias or have normally formed militias, and even though many Americans don't even know what a militia is anymore. Thus, if the second part of the 2nd Amendment relating to arms is read solely in the context of the militia system, while the militia system is still provided for in the Constitution and is not amended out of it, even though we don't practice the militia system in modern times, the fed. gov. can't abridge the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Thus, in order for the right to keep and bear arms clause to be null and void, again, if read solely in the context of a militia system, and for Congress to then have the authority to abridge the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the militia system must be legally abandoned by the US and amended out of the Constitution altogether. Abandoning the practice of the militia system, even on the federal level, does not equate to legally abandoning it. As long as the militia system exists within our laws and Constitution, the "right to keep and bear arms" clause remains relevant as well, and the grammaticality of the word "arms" must be considered. Here in the small city I live in in UT, the militia system hasn't been entirely abandoned in practice; we still has a city armory.

I too can see the right to keep and bear arms present in the 10th Amendment as well, particularly if one reads the 2nd Amendment to be solely in the context of the militia system. For there are obviously and historically other uses of arms, including firearms, like hunting and sustenance, protection of property and self, sport, etc. And some of these uses of firearms are enumerated in some of the state constitutions, like in the UT constitution or the Kansas constitution for example, which state the following:

"A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, for lawful hunting and recreational use, and for any other lawful purpose;"

"The individual right of the people to keep and bear arms for security and defense of self, family, others, property, or the state, as well as for other lawful purposes shall not be infringed; but nothing herein shall prevent the Legislature from defining the lawful use of arms."

In terms of whether the militia portion of the 2nd Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms applies only to those actually called into service of the militia or if it applies to every private individual as potential militia members, I tend to agree with the latter side of this debate, laid out persuasively and clearly by Leonard Levy in chapter 6 of his "Origin of the Bill of Rights."