The United States Post Office, when first formed in 1775, did not only deliver messages. It helped bind the loose confederation of American colonies together. Today, instant, worldwide electronic communication, stronger direct competition, and its own cumbersome, union-clad bureaucracy threaten its livelihood.
To address the problem, President Bush named a commission yesterday to look into the idea of privatizing part of the postal service.
The need for an overhaul is clear - the post office has lost some $6 billion since 1971, and owes a big debt to the government. But privatizing this very public institution creates a new set of issues, and the commission should proceed carefully.
The essence of the postal service - universal service at universal rates - runs counter to privatization. Such a move likely would emphasize profit as king.
Would the native American living on the vast expanse of the Navajo reservation wind up paying more than a downtown Washington, D.C. resident? Would a McDonald's in every post office be far behind? And what of that hometown feel the federal post office brings to smaller communities?
Of course, the postal service should generate reasonable returns. But the new commission's recommendations should include a mandate for lower prices achieved through cost-saving measures. And reducing delivery days where practical is one idea that wouldn't alter the integrity of this vital public institution.