At one time, people in India had to get on a waiting list to buy Hindustan Motors' Ambassador automobile, even though it was an obvious copy of Britain's Morris Oxford of some decades earlier. The reason was simple: the Indian government would not allow cars to be imported to compete with it.
That the Ambassador was a copy is hardly an automatic reason for condemnation. The first Nikon camera was an obvious copy of a German camera called the Contax, and the first Canon was an obvious copy of the Leica. The difference is that, over the years, Nikons and Canons rose to become state-of-the-art, during both in the film and digital age.
Not so the Ambassador. It was notorious for poor finish and poor handling. But, since it was the only game in town -- and "town" was all of India -- people were on waiting lists for it for months, sometimes even years.
By contrast, Nikon and Canons were good cameras from day one and they just got better as the companies that produced them gained more experience. With a highly competitive international market for cameras, they had no choice, if they wanted to survive.
But the Hindustan Ambassador had no such problem. Only those who bought them had problems.
Toward the end of the 20th century, India began to loosen some of its jungle of rules and regulations that were strangling its businesses. Though India is still a long way from a free market, just relaxing some of its economic restrictions was enough to promote a higher rate of growth and a substantial reduction in poverty.
They even allowed a Japanese carmaker to build cars in India. This resulted in a car called the Maruti, which quickly shot to the top as the most popular car in India. Even more remarkable, it led to some improvements in the Ambassador. Perhaps the last chapter in the story of the Ambassador has now been written. Hindustan Motors recently announced that it was closing -- indefinitely -- the factory where the Ambassador was built.
According to The Wall Street Journal, "The company cited low productivity, 'a critical shortage of funds' and a lack of demand for its core product, the Ambassador."
Doesn't that sound a little like our post office?
Our post office, like the Hindustan Ambassador, has had a long run as a government-protected monopoly. But just a partial erosion of that monopoly, with the appearance of United Parcel Service and Federal Express, has threatened the viability of the post office.
As for "a critical shortage of funds," that has truly gotten critical as the post office has seen its $15 billion line of credit at the U.S. Treasury shrink to the vanishing point. For years that line of credit allowed the post office's defenders to tell the big lie that it got no subsidy and was costing the taxpayers nothing.
I don't know who they thought put that money in the Treasury that the post office has been "borrowing" all these years, with no one foolish enough to think that they would ever be either willing or able to pay it back.
We could all from time to time use a line of credit from which we could get a few billion dollars to cover our losses. But we are not all the post office.
Ironically, India has partially privatized its post office by letting private companies deliver mail. The government post office's deliveries of mail dropped from 16 billion to less than 8 billion in just six years, even though the population of India was growing.
You can always keep anything old, clunky and inefficient still in business, if you are willing to pour unlimited taxpayer money down a bottomless pit.
Hindustan Motors had to close when it ran out of money. How long will we continue to keep our own version of the Hindustan Ambassador on life support at the expense of the taxpayers and captive customers?
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.