My wonderful and talented wife related a story to me about two queues she recently waited in. The first was at the local supermarket. When the cashier realized that there were 4-5 people waiting in the checkout line, she asked for all available cashiers to come up to the front. Presently a new checkout opened and my wife was able to pay for the few items she had in her cart.

The second queue was at the local post office. Normally my wife makes use of the automated postal center, but this time she had a first-class package and needed assistance from an employee. There are five stations in the post office branch, but only two were staffed by people. One of the post office employees was busy with one customer and the dozens of packages she had brought in, so there was only one postal worker free to help the dozen waiting in line.

At no time did anyone call out for additional postal workers to come to the front and help people out with their postal needs. And thinking about it, I don’t ever recall hearing that request in any of my wait times in the post office, but I’ve certainly heard it many times when I’m in supermarkets. So what is the difference?

It’s quite simple: a supermarket wants your business, but the post office doesn’t really care. The post office has a government-approved monopoly on first-class mail, and government-approved monopolies do not foster the kind of hustle that comes from a competitive, free-market business. The people at the supermarket know that you can go to any of the other supermarkets in the town, so they will work hard to keep you happy as their customer. But how hard does the post office work to keep you happy?

Unlike its first-class mail monopoly, the post office has competition when it comes to packages. I wonder what the postal workers would have done if my wife had said quite loudly, “Screw this action, I’m going to FedEx!” and walked out. OK, I really don’t wonder. I know exactly what would happen: nothing. They get paid regardless of how many people they help. And there is one other way these two businesses are different. A private enterprise is able to respond quickly to a changing situation, but government is neither quick nor nimble.

The next time I’m stuck in a post office line, I think I might rhetorically and loudly ask if people enjoy the wait–because just as we wait at the post office for shoddy service, we’ll soon be waiting for shoddy service under a government-run health care system.

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