In the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas, the spirit of Lysander Spooner lives on. Spooner, the nineteenth century individualist entrepreneur, delivered mail for about half of the Post Office rate until Congress passed a law putting him out of business. Today, a 32-year-old businessman named Robert Black supervises a delivery firm that directly challenges the Postal Service monopoly on first class mail. And the government, to the dismay of his customers, has already hauled him into court.
The new company has grown rapidly since it announced in March that the days of three-cent postage and penny postcards had returned. Black supervises 12 full and part-time employees, who deliver up to 8,000 items a day. His rates for a same-day delivery are only about half those for first-class delivery by the Postal Service, and his rates for second and third class mail go down to as little as a penny per item.
Death threats and conviction on a criminal misdemeanor charge have failed to deter Black, who is winning favorable coverage in papers ranging from the Kansas City Times to the New York Times. "The original plan was to simply compete on a local scale with the government service," Black says. "No longer.…Alternate Systems, Inc. is refuting all the government's arguments against allowing private competition. We are not skimming cream. Pittsburg, Kansas is not a metropolitan area."
The Postal Service is not applauding. The local postmaster in the town of 20,000, William Parker, Jr., says: "It really upsets me, and if nothing is done about it, it'll just be another contribution to the Postal Service going down the drain." Postal Service officials in Washington fear—with good reason—that the success of Alternate Systems, Inc. will encourage other free-market mail deliverers. For this reason, they initiated a legal action to quash the company's operations, claiming it has violated their legal right to deliver all first class mail.
In a motion seeking to dismiss the charges, Black replied that the postal monopoly is an unconstitutional infringement of free enterprise. He noted, in addition, that the monopoly may violate First Amendment rights to free speech, by driving up postal costs to the point where some people can not afford to use the mails. Predictably, on June 28, a U.S. District Court judge threw out the defense objections and found Black guilty.
It is not the first setback for Black, who moved to Kansas at the age of four when his father died. Despite winning numerous honors at the University of Kansas, he left in 1963 before graduating and spent the next three years in the Marine Corps. "I didn't like it," he recalls. "I found no libertarian sentiments there." Two jobs as a computer programmer followed, one terminating when he refused to comply with a dress code, and the other when his boss attempted to influence how his employees should vote in the 1972 election.
Ever since, Black has vowed to work for himself and to set his own rules. He and his wife, Judy, operate a successful carpet cleaning business, which provided the start-up capital for the corporation which has challenged the U.S. Postal Service. Black says he had no intention of entering the mail-delivery business until the latest postage increase. "Within the first week they claimed to need another increase to cover the loss in volume created by the previous increase," he says. "It became obvious that competition was needed."
Whatever sentence he receives for violating the postal laws, Black believes that the end of the postal monopoly is inevitable. "I feel Congress will eventually have to repeal the statutes, but this could take some time—and the proposed 34 cent rates—before it happens," he says. "We are committed to getting the issues of constitutionality and First Amendment rights before the Supreme Court as soon as possible. Our major obstacle is the high cost of justice." When the laws are removed, he foresees vast changes in the postal system. Local rates would be only about five cents; intra-regional rates about ten, and interstate rates about 15. In addition, the private post would probably process billings for utilities, doctors, and other local businesses, delivering them all in one envelope each month. Other savings would accrue to businesses which mailed locally rather than from a distant center, which many do now because of uniform postal rates.
The high cost of lawyers may hurt the prospects of Black's appeal; he would welcome contributions to help pay the legal expenses (112 West Sixth St., Pittsburg, KS). But the low cost of his service has already sold local users on the merits of private mail delivery. Some merchants complain that when advertising circulars are sent to the Post Office two days before a store sale, they do not reach the public until two days after the sale has ended. With that kind of service, the Post Office has few friends in Pittsburg, Kansas. And it may have given rise to one very dangerous adversary.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Robert Black".