Now that I’m on Twitter, I realise that if I want to keep up with the daily polemics I have to be willing to masquerade knee-jerk reactions to some super-topical event as studied expert analysis. I was still unable to keep up, so here are my no-longer-relevant thoughts on Canada Post’s decision to eliminate door-to-door urban service.
One of the more pronounced voices in this “debate” has been the National Post‘s Andrew Coyne, who is pushing for privatization and liberalization (which he more or less conflates) of postal services. Prior to this recent announcement, Coyne already tried to make Canada Post’s “monopoly” a cause célèbre.
The following rhetorical question posed by Coyne reveals much about the assumptions he brings to his position: “By what principle of social justice are city residents, rich or poor, obliged to subsidize the correspondence of gentleman farmers?”
The answer to this question lies in the history of the state-building function of essentially all national postal services (obviously, Coyne has never seen Kevin Costner’s The Postman). The principle is one of social cohesion and political enfranchisement (or more cynically, state control). It is the same principle that guided the construction of a national railway in the early days of Canadian confederation. For there to be a coherent nation-state called Canada, its citizens need to be able to pay taxes, fill out censuses, and communicate with other Canadians. In order to ensure the political enfranchisement of all citizens, regardless of wealth or where they lived, access to communication needed to be ensured (indeed, those in the rural fringes were the most important to ensuring political coherency; just consider the government’s current interest in Arctic populations). Equal access to the post went hand-in-hand with democratic visions.
By the way, Coyne is actually wrong about his rhetorical assumption. City residents do not subsidize the mail of rural-dwellers; the most expensive postal codes to service are urban.
Coyne’s real question is, why is the government involved in the delivery of mail at all? To understand why this is so and whether it makes sense one needs to look at the nature of the service being provided. There are compelling arguments as to why things like transit systems, police forces, and sewer infrastructure are publically controlled. It’s hard to imagine how an open market for subways would work, or how a coherent connected public transportation system would come about in a free-market environment. So, is mail service like public transportation? Is it essentially a public service, or merely a commercial enterprise? Does it make sense for mail to be centrally controlled? Does it make more sense from an efficiency point of view to centralise mail distribution? Does it make sense from a logistical point of view to have only one kind of mail box on the streets of cities and towns? These are questions that Coyne and others who rally against the “monopoly” of Canada Post dismiss out-of-hand. Continue reading