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In his seminal pamphlet, The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress, prohibiting Private Mails, Lysander Spooner provides twenty-seven brief arguments countering the veracity of the government-held monopoly on mail services. More specifically arguing from the perspective of Constitutional law. Utilizing the precepts of the U.S. Constitution, Spooner derives numerous thought-provoking arguments that challenged the government prohibition on private mail carriers. One of Spooner’s more novel arguments is presented in argument # 25 (p.12) of his pamphlet.

Spooner writes:

“25. If the exclusive right of carrying letters, has been granted to Congress, then it is unconstitutional for a person even to carry a single letter for a friend. And Congress is bound to punish such an act as an offense against the constitution.”

At first glance, this argument may seem thin or even frivolous. However, the implications of this refutation are much deeper than loose extrapolation. If we were to replace “letter” with any other legal commodity, such sanctions would be absurd. For example, the United States government has the exclusive right to sell, produce, and distribute bread. Making the production, sale, or transfer of bread by any private company Constitutionally barred. Any commentator with a market-oriented position on economic would be quick to decry this as “socialism”. The government attempting to monopolize and control the market for bread. If such a notion of government control of bread production seems inordinate, couldn’t the same be said of letter carrier services? The transaction costs of private companies delivering letters domestically are low. The government’s fixation with keeping private carriers out of the market back in the 1840s was puzzling.

Spooner carries the argument to its logical conclusion by extending it to the potential of congressional restrictions on gifts.  He states that “… then it is unconstitutional for a person even to carry a single letter for a friend. And Congress is bound to punish such an act as an offense against the constitution. “Hand delivering a letter to a friend is only a step away from giving a gift to a friend. The only difference is the intent. Hand delivering a message is intended to disseminate information. Giving a tangible item to a friend with no expectation of direct reciprocity is a gift. As soon as you are trading tangible goods it becomes a form of barter. Does transporting a letter somehow become crass or require the need for state intervention upon exchanging money for this service? Even if we are paying someone to deliver a letter to someone else, this is a form of volunteer exchange. Just as much as giving someone a gift or opting to cut the middleman out and hand-deliver a letter to a friend. If I am not stealing the envelope, ink, and paper to compose a letter.  No laws are being violated while transporting the letter, there shouldn’t be an issue. If a private company (subject to taxation) wants to provide the service of transporting that same letter for a fair price, congress should not obscure this free exchange. Especially if the company is being taxed. However, the legitimacy of taxation is a whole other stand-alone argument. If an organization pays to play and the transaction costs of such a business are low. Any functional counterargument is at best flimsy.

Outside of the Constitutional concerns of congress veering into unjustly regulating trade. Something that happens frequently in modern society as the Commerce Clause has been stretched beyond its original intent. Generating several perverse interpretations of this clause.  There is a strong natural rights perspective implied in Spooner’s twenty-fifth argument. If a person composes a letter, it is their letter. As in the own the physical paper it was written on and the envelope it is sealed in. While the letter is in their possession they can do as they like with the letter. They could burn it in their fireplace. The author of the letter could elect to frame the letter. They could throw it into the recycling bin. Even better yet they could choose to give it to another person. To convey a message to the letter’s intended recipient. Instead of wasting time, energy, and resource on driving across the country to deliver the letter, they can decide to transfer this duty to a third-party. In effect, temporarily consigning possessing of the letter to the third-party carrier. In any developed market system, it would be fair to say that the consumer shouldn’t be restricted to using one carrier. By owning the letter, the consumer should not be restricted by legal barriers when choosing a vendor. It would be one thing if there was a natural monopoly (if such a thing exists) then the only other choice the customer has is to transport the letter by their efforts. When the government skews the interpretation of the Constitution to carrier barriers to entry into the market.  Spooner highlights this point in his earlier arguments.  For instance, argument #1:

“1. The Constitution of the United States (Art. 1. Sec. 8.) declares that II the Congress shall have the power to establish post-offices and post roads.” These words contain the whole grant, and therefore express the extent of the authority granted to Congress. They define the power, and the power is limited by the definition, the power of Congress, then, is simply” to establish post-offices and post roads,” of their own not to interfere with those established by others.” (p.5).

Spooner fully asserts that has written, Congress has the power to establish a postal service along with the parallel infrastructure to support mail delivery. Nothing more. The power is not extended to ensure that no other entrants pursue the same line of work. Nor does it explicitly state that congress is required to distribute sanctions for market entry. Not only does congress acting against private mail carriers inhibit natural property rights, but it is an overextension of the intended duty of creating a postal service. Meaning that any action taken against Spooner’s business The American Letter Mail Company was illegitimate.  Did nothing more than preserve the jobs of bureaucrats and place artificial barriers on the natural cadence of market processes. The antithesis of preserving our natural rights and liberties.   

2 thoughts on “Spooner- Argument #25 Against The U.S. Post Office

  1. Excellent deep dive into the outer limits of the Commerce Clause! Last December, for example, the House approved “The Big Cat Public Safety Act,” which would make it illegal to privately own a tiger or lion or other exotic big cat. If Congress can prohibit the ownership of exotic animals, what limits are there to its powers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would be willing to say that prohibiting exotic animal ownership is misuse of the Commerce Clause. Not the most abstract or creative misuse of it. Nevertheless of it.

      If a private citizen does not have the skills or facilities for properly caring for such animal make them liable for damages that are incurred over the course of ownership. That seems to amend most concerns regarding responsible ownership. I am pretty sure Spooner would agree with that statement.

      Liked by 1 person

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