Tuesday, July 11, 2017

An English Entrepreneur Revolutionized Mail Delivery; Government Gets the Credit

Stuart K. Hayashi

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The other day I blogged of how it was private entrepreneurs who started the first effective firefighting departments in London.  Today I want to address another "public good" that too many people assume can only be handled by government agencies:  postal delivery.

In our times of e-mail and text messaging, we seem not to think so much about the postal service; indeed, its functions are denigrated as "snail mail."  But prior to the 1990s, snail mail was a big deal, and most people assumed that this was always something for the government to handle.  That was even the assumption of Benjamin Franklin, himself not a stranger to privatization, as he co-founded both a privately owned firefighting service and a consensually financed, privately-owned public lending library.

Many free-marketers are aware that that postal services need not be controlled by a government monopoly.  In yesterday's blog post I mentioned William C.Wooldridge's classic book Uncle Sam the Monopoly Man.  This work has a chapter  now online for free (yes, this is legal; not a bootleg) detailing how, during the nineteenth century, the anti-government theorist Lysander Spooner started his own for-profit mail delivery service to compete -- illegally! -- against the U.S. Postal Service monopoly.  That, predictably, drew the ire of the U.S. postmaster general, especially because he customers praised Spoonser's service as superior to the government's.

Yet today I am going to present a historical case study of which even many free-marketers fond of the Lysander Spooner story seem to be unaware.

Herbert Spencer; courtesy
Wikimedia Commons.
In most history books published during the twentieth century, the invention of the postage stamp is credited to social and political activist Rowland Hill.  It is said that, during the 1800s, as a consequence of his frequent urging and nagging, the government-controlled British postal service finally adopted usage of his invention: the postage stamp. To this day, Rowland Hill is hailed for this, and the government postal service monopoly is praised for heeding his wisdom at last. This is not to diminish Hill's efforts, but he was anticipated in this basic idea by a private entrepreneur named William Dockwra, who also anticipated Lysander Spooner by over a century in challenging a government-enforced postal monopoly.  I learned of this from an essay by Herbert Spencer titled "Specialized Administration" (that whole essay is available free online here), wherein he cites the excellent historian Thomas Babington Macaulay about this episode in history.

John Patridge's painting of Thomas Babington
Macaulay; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 1600s, the Duke of York held a local government-enforced monopoly on postal delivery. In those times, government agencies had a special reason for wanting to maintain a monopoly on mail delivery. Media full of information and potentially society-changing philosophic ideas -- such as magazines and catalogs -- were transmitted across long distances through the post. By controlling the delivery of mail, the government maximized its own access to the contents of what was to be delivered.  Government agencies could thereby exercise, through fiat, their own influence over which ideas were transmitted and which were not. That is why, centuries later, postal inspector Anthony Comstock snooped on the mail to enforce bans on erotica and even on medical literature from Margaret Sanger about contraception. It is also why FBI director J. Edgar Hoover snooped through private citizens' mail -- a felony when a private citizen does it but a privilege for someone in Hoover's position (That tradition continues in the form of mass surveillance of our digital communications.)

 An entrepreneur named William Dockwra set up his own postal service to compete against the Duke of York's, anticipating Rowland Hill in the system of using stamps to pay for the service. Thomas Babington Macaulay writes of him in The History of England,
To facilitate correspondence between one part of London and another was not originally one of the objects of the Post Office. But, in the reign of Charles the Second, an enterprising citizen of London, William Dockwray [sic; it is Dockwra], set up, at great expense, a penny post, which delivered letters and parcels six or eight times a day in the busy and crowded streets near the Exchange, and four times a day in the outskirts of the capital. This improvement was, as usual, strenuously resisted. The porters complained that their interests were attacked, and tore down the placards in which the scheme was announced to the public. . . . The utility of the enterprise was, however, so great and obvious that all oppositions proved fruitless. As soon as it became clear that the speculation would be lucrative, the Duke of York complained of it as an infraction of his monopoly, and the courts of law decided in his favour.

Subsequent to the destruction of this business, though, the government adopted Dockwra's methods. There is also an article about this episode on The Victorian Web over here.

Dockwra's postmarks; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And yet if you talk to most people today, they will assume that there would be no postal delivery if not for government agencies.