Getting Big Brother Out of the Mailbox


The U.S. Postal Service's latest announcement of rate increases has been greeted by the usual howls. Time and Reader's Digest have renewed their special pleading for continued subsidy of second class rates. The wire services have provided background stories explaining that the beleaguered U.S.P.S. is now losing money at the rate of $8 million a day, and has a deficit—over and above its nearly $1 billion annual subsidy—of over $800 million. Various Congressmen are demanding that U.S.P.S.'s quasi-corporate structure be abolished, so as to return mail delivery to its former departmental structure, with Congressional control over rates, salaries, and, of course, patronage. Recently Rep. James Hanley introduced a bill to increase the annual subsidy by 20 percent, and to eliminate the mandated goal of achieving breakeven operations by 1984. He was quickly overshadowed by Postmaster General Bailar's own call for doubling the subsidy.

Curiously, in all the criticisms of postal cost and inefficiency, and in nearly all the proposed remedies, there has been silence over what was—until recently—some of the year's biggest news: government tampering with first class mail. Americans have been dimly aware for years that their "first class" mail was not inviolate in the hands of their government mail delivery service. They have heard of "mail covers" (the recording of all return addresses on someone's incoming mail) and of court-ordered mail opening in criminal cases. But this spring many of them were shocked to learn of massive government mail snooping on a regular basis:

• For 20 years the CIA routinely opened over 13,000 letters a year going to and from the U.S.S.R., and later extended this operation to include mail from North Vietnam, Cuba, and other (noncommunist) Latin American countries. Chief Postal Inspector William Cotter systematically lied about the existence of this operation until just this year.

• Military counterintelligence groups routinely opened military mail, both within the U.S. and at overseas bases. The "flap and seal" operation was justified on grounds of detecting spies, but according to columnist Jack Anderson, was used largely to spy on servicemen who had complained about the Vietnam War.

• In just the past two years, Inspector Cotter admits there have been 431 court orders for opening first class mail, and nearly 8600 approved mail covers. The latter have been at the behest of 41 Federal agencies, including the IRS, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, as well as state and local police and prosecutors.

Clearly, a first class stamp is no assurance of privacy in mailed communications. Perhaps prior to Watergate and the recent CIA exposés, one could be excused for assuming that the government's word could be trusted, and that the immense power of interlocking government agencies would never be turned against individual citizens or used for investigative fishing expeditions. Today, however, there is no excuse for such naivete. If the government runs the postal service and some other government agency wants to know who is sending you mail, or what's in it, you can rest assured the two will join forces to find out. The temptation to use governmental machinery that's already there is simply too great to be resisted.

The implication of all this should be pretty clear. If privacy and freedom are to be preserved, mail delivery is far too important to leave in the hands of the government. For too long Americans have listened to the State's beguiling propaganda about the need for subsidized cut-rate mail service to bind the nation together and encourage the exchange of ideas. Perhaps too late, we're waking up to realize that Big Brother Postman has been only too happy to have us swallow that line, so he could continue keeping tabs on those communications—for our own good, of course.

Here is an issue that should unite liberals and conservatives with libertarians. Conservatives can have a field day attacking the Postal Service on economic grounds. It is the archetypical government bureaucracy, a veritable dinosaur vainly attempting to apply modern technology to obsolete operating methods. Despite its quasi-corporate status, it is still a creature of politics, as the current hearings and proposed reform legislation indicate. Moreover, it illustrates yet another instance of the fallacious arguments for government subsidy. Postal rates are too high, people wail, so let's have the government (i.e. the taxpayers) subsidize postal rates. This is ludicrous enough on its face, but is even more absurd when it comes from stamp-licking individuals. For, as Postmaster General Bailar pointed out earlier this year, 65 percent of general tax revenues (out of which U.S.P.S. is subsidized) come from the public, whereas only 20 percent of postal rate income comes from the public; 80 percent comes from business. Thus, subsidizing postal rates with tax money amounts to individual consumers subsidizing business. Let the consumerists sink their teeth into that!

And for liberals, the threat to civil liberties posed by a government monopoly on mail delivery needs to be made clear. It's high time American liberals grew up and stopped identifying with the government. The Big Brother State has grown far beyond the point where anyone but incipient totalitarians can identify with it. ICC mail covers, indeed! The threat to freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of thought posed by a government communications monopoly is far too real to be ignored any longer.

To be sure, some conservatives may argue that government mail snooping is essential to protect "us" from "them." These conservatives should consider the prospect of an FDR, rather than a Richard Nixon, compiling enemies lists and sending the IRS and CIA after them—and realize that totalitarian power is evil, regardless of whose side it is temporarily on. And some liberals will argue that the mail must remain a government monopoly in order to ensure that Aunt Nellie out in Podunk County can be assured of low-priced service. They should pause to reflect that America's private enterprise telephone industry serves Aunt Nellie, as does United Parcel Service (which has been fighting for years to serve all 48 contiguous states, and has finally been granted that permission by the ICC).

No, the arguments for government monopoly on first class mail delivery just won't hold up under scrutiny—not if liberty and economic rationality are applied as criteria. A bill to end this dangerous monopoly—HR 1085—is languishing in the current session of Congress, introduced by Steve Symms and Phil Crane. It deserves the support of everyone who is concerned with the survival of freedom in America.