- - Monday, September 23, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Hard work and innovation have always been the key to success in America. Entrepreneurs stay up all night working on their better mousetraps, looking to get the edge over the competition. The government stays up all night, too, always on the scout for ways to get a bigger piece of the pie it had nothing to do with baking.

Virginians shopping online encountered this in September when, thanks to a deal Gov. Bob McDonnell, the Republican tax man, made with Amazon to begin collecting the Virginia state sales tax on online purchases. This idea is not new, and its time may have come. Another Republican, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, is pushing the federal online tax in the House of Representatives. The legislation has already been approved by the Senate. We can assume that President Obama will sign it with his usual enthusiasm for taxes if it makes it to his desk.

Mr. Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, couches the Internet tax in terms of fairness, equality and tax relief, and at first look it does have a certain appeal to fairness. Why should a brick-and-mortar store be required to collect a 6 percent sales tax if an Internet merchant doesn’t? There are persuasive arguments on both sides, but governments are less interested in fairness than in finding new sources of tax revenue. The government, after all, is an enormous mouth, and its breath is usually bad.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a coalition of 200 major retailers, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote taxes, and worse, regulations, on online commerce. These merchants have built their businesses on the convenience of selling all manner of goods, from groceries to furniture, with the click of the customer’s mouse. Many consumers relish the convenience of not having to drive to a store.

But the brick-and-mortar stores enjoy certain advantages in the law that Internet merchants don’t. The neighborhood supermarket, haberdasher or hardware store pays sales taxes, and in return enjoys police, fire and other protections that Internet merchants have no call on.

Brick-and-mortar stores can appeal to the five senses. Their customers can see, touch, feel and smell products before buying them. Sometimes they can even taste a sample of a new wine or an old cheese. The neighborhood grocer can get to know his customers in a way no electronic merchant can match. A clerk who knows his products offers one-on-one advice not available to an Internet browser. Local retailers focus on these strengths to succeed.

The Internet merchant who cultivates and enjoys different advantages should not be required to pay a penalty for enjoying his advantages. The House should reject the online tax to help the economy to succeed, which benefits everyone.