Let’s grant this: What Arthur Goldman (allegedly) did was dumb. It was, if proven, certainly illegal. And if convicted, he’ll likely pay a steep price for his sins.
But was it wrong?
Goldman, you’ll remember, is the Chester County attorney who this week found himself in the headlines after being accused of wine smuggling by that county’s district attorney. Apparently, Goldman bought lots of rare wine through unapproved channels — that is, without including state-owned liquor stores in the transaction, and then sold lots of rare wine through unapproved channels … that is, without including state-owned liquor stores in the transaction. Now he’s in big trouble.
The wines in question? Not technically illegal, except that they weren’t actually available through state-owned liquor stores.
And yet we get this press release from the Chester County prosecutor’s office, trembling with all the righteous outrage one imagines is possible to summon over a rare bottle of chablis, using his full middle name — Arthur David Goldman! — like he was a serial killer or something.
“This was a brazen violation of the law by someone who clearly knew better,” thundered First Assistant District Attorney Michael Noone. “He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he continued to systematically break the law.”
Again: Goldman probably did know better. “How do I know you’re not an agent for the PLCB?” he reportedly asked the undercover agents who brought him down.
But again: Was he wrong?
To buy that idea, you may have to accept that Pennsylvania’s odd setup — where the state sells every bit of wine and spirits allowed inside its borders — makes sense. You may have to accept that, in our more-or-less free-market society, socialism of a very real sort is allowed when it comes to alcohol sales.
There are reasons for all of this, some of them better than others: I get that legislators might want not to lose the revenue generated by alcohol sales; I’m less sympathetic to the idea that it’s the state’s mission to safeguard the apparently cushy jobs staffing liquor stores. In the end, though, the state’s decision to elbow aside the market and go into business for itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It makes even less sense to me now that it’s turning Goldman into a criminal. He faces up to $200,000 in fines for the array of misdemeanor charges brought against him — and as a lawyer friend of mine suggested, may face some professional sanctions as well if he’s found guilty of violating the law.
Certainly, it seems likely Goldman could’ve purchased his wine through legal means. But it would’ve been a huge pain. He would’ve had to have had the wine shipped to a state-owned liquor store. He would’ve had to pay that store a handling fee — on top of the hefty state and local taxes he already would’ve paid. (Eighteen percent for liquor, 6 percent for state sales tax, and 2 percent in Philadelphia for a city sales tax.)
Hey: Products are regulated and taxed all the time. You sell unstamped cigarettes out of a trunk, you’re probably going to get in trouble.
If the regulations and taxes on a product are so stringent, however, that they help create a black market for an otherwise-legal product — and that’s what happened here — then it’s likely those regulations and taxes are just a bit too burdensome to be considered, strictly speaking, fair.
Ever buy a bottle of, well, anything, in Delaware or New Jersey, then bring it home to Philly? If so, you know the experience was cheaper, more customer-friendly, better than the same experience here. But that also means you’ve violated the same laws that Arthur Goldman allegedly did.
That doesn’t make Goldman right. In fact, given his status as a lawyer, his apparent decision to flout the law on such a scale probably does make him wrong. In this case, though, the system itself creates a powerful temptation to sin. Arthur Goldman being wrong doesn’t make Pennsylvania’s liquor laws right — it just means that the state’s only liquor store can use police and prosecutors to put its competitors out of business.
Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.