Jane Austen on the Post Office and State Capacity

“The post-office is a wonderful establishment!” said she.—”The regularity and dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!”

“It is certainly very well regulated.”

“So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong—and not one in a million, I supposed, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder!

“The clerks grow expert from habit.—They must begin with some quickness of sight and hand, and exercise improves them. If you want any further explanation,” continued he, smiling, “they are paid for it. That is the key to a great deal of capacity. The public pays and must be served well.”

—Jane Fairfax talking with John Knightley in Emma


  1. tom shapiro December 4, 2022 at 12:24 pm | #

    “you want any further explanation,” continued he, smiling, “they are paid for it. That is the key to a great deal of capacity. The public pays and must be served well.”
    The genius of the conservative is to cut government domestic budgets to the bone, then wait a while and enraged, yell “don’t you see, government can do nothing right. All its services which can turn a penny’s profit are best privatized.”

  2. msobel December 4, 2022 at 12:47 pm | #

    Jane is secretly engaged and communicating with her fiancé via the post office. She goes to the post office “for her aunt,” but so she can secretly retrieve letters from Mr. Churchill.
    So this is the equivalent of someone in a secret relationship praising a chat app.

  3. John Maclean December 4, 2022 at 1:00 pm | #

    Just read an article, from a few days ago, about a potential railroad strike. It’s possible that Congress has forced a contract at this point, a few days on. The issues which sometimes went unmentioned had to do with scheduling, always being on call, and paid sick days. Employees were being asked to be on call even on days off, and were being punished for having to go to see a doctor. So, out of the $20-plus billion the operators make yearly, they would have had to cough up a little over $300 million to pay for these sick days. Often these simple numbers went unmentioned and were in this way were relegated to insignificance. Sometimes you didn’t get a clear sense that there were issues between workers and employers. The main frame of national coverage was the damage a strike, which was equated with a shutdown, would have on the “economy”.

    • Jonnybutter December 4, 2022 at 2:53 pm | #

      “ these simple numbers went unmentioned and were in this way were relegated to insignificance”

      Warren Buffet alone, who owns BNSF, just evaded tax on $750 million by giving that to some of his foundations, and I read that that’s approx. ($700 million?) what it would cost the whole industry to give the workers 16 sick days.

      Of course it was framed stupidly, and Biden I think preferred it that way. Irish Joe loves labor so long as he doesn’t have to take any risks for it. But part of the reason, I think, is that these guys are *so* rich that it’s hard to fathom the numbers. One billion is a thousand million, and these guys have multiple billions. It doesn’t seem real. I don’t think it is entirely real.

      • John Maclean December 4, 2022 at 3:33 pm | #

        The article I read was by Dylan Gyauch-Lewis, at the Revolving Door Project of CEPR. In this piece one of the principle demands was for seven paid sick days.

        • Jonnybutter December 4, 2022 at 4:58 pm | #

          Yes indeed.

  4. Jen Halbert December 4, 2022 at 1:01 pm | #

    I’ve always been really impressed by the post office, too. Good company to be in.

    • Donald Freeman January 3, 2023 at 1:37 pm | #

      Yeah, well, *I’m* not. Two examples within the last month: a tax refund check, sent to a large city in this state 50 miles away, took nine days to arrive; replacement credit cards, sent from Chicago, took two weeks to arrive. The postal “service” around here (Western Mass.) has simply collapsed.

  5. glenntwo December 4, 2022 at 5:53 pm | #

    Anyone liking this Jane Austen quotation and interested in how and if it translates into a US context will likely also be interested in this excellent book: David M. Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America (https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo4134270.html).

    Plus there’s a whole lot of emphasis in studies of the early years of the US republic on the fact that Benjamin Franklin was the first US Postmaster General.

  6. Carl Freeman December 4, 2022 at 6:36 pm | #

    The original post offices provided a service to the public. That idea has given way under right-wing governments to the requirement that all public enterprises should show a profit.
    The result in several countries has been the closure of small railway stations, sub-post offices, rural hospitals and libraries – diminishing employment and making life more difficult for those living outside large
    urban centres.

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