Government should leave the telegraph alone -- State Journal editorial from 150 years ago

February 10, 2019

This State Journal editorial ran on Jan. 26, 1869:

The proposition that the government shall take the whole business of the telegraph into its hands is, we are pleased to observe, meeting with formidable opposition.

We can see no good reason why the government should assume control of the telegraph any more than of the business of the express companies. With the same propriety it might go into a general retail business, and establish shops throughout the country for the sale of groceries and dry goods.

A proposition has already been made for the government to purchase all the cotton grown in the country and retail it. It might equally well buy all the wheat, tobacco and corn.

The proper function of government, however, as defined by the highest authorities, is to refrain as far as possible from any interference with trade and industry, and confine itself to the protection of every citizen in the enjoyment of all his natural rights which do not interfere with the equal rights of his fellows.

We hope the government will let the telegraph alone, and leave private enterprise to build all the telegraphic lines it pleases and control them as it pleases.

It has been claimed that in some countries in Europe where the government owns and manages all telegraphic lines that dispatches are sent more cheaply and with more promptness and accuracy. These assertions, however, are challenged in an able article by The New York Times. ...

That paper publishes statistics showing that in continental Europe, where the telegraph lines are built and operated by government, there are but 4,347 offices for a population of over 250 million, while in Great Britain, the United States and Canada, where telegraphy has been left to private enterprise and has been untrammeled by governmental interference, by monopoly or restriction, there are 6,659 offices to a population of 64 million.

While the number of telegrams transmitted in Continental Europe was only 12.5 million in one year, there were sent in three countries where telegraphy is free from government intermeddling and repression, 18.7 million.

While the average cost of telegrams in Europe was 81 cents, in the three countries where the people were let alone and suffered to manage the business themselves, it averages only 51 cents. ...

The press, which is the greatest of all the patrons of the telegraph by reason of the amount of their business, are enabled to make contracts for news at a much lower rate than those at which dispatches are sent to individuals. The average cost of press telegrams in the United States is only 3 1/2 cents against 81 cents, the average cost of telegrams in continental Europe under the paternal system. The average cost of private telegrams in the United States is 57 cents, or 24 cents less than in Europe.

The present system is in harmony with the spirit of American institutions, and we are not in favor of changing it to conform to European models.

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