Jeff Jacoby

This "fairness" argument is echoed by the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, which lobbies against what it calls the "online sales tax loophole." The Alliance argues that "a sale is a sale is a sale," and that whether it takes place in cyberspace or in the shop around the corner, the sales tax should be collected. On its website, the alliance posts videos from business owners like Mark Jeannette, a Pennsylvania tobacconist who complains that "if someone purchases a box of cigars over the Internet at a discount, and on top of that doesn't have to pay the 6 percent sales tax, they are at an advantage that I certainly don't have."

But it's a hollow argument. All other things being equal, consumers no doubt prefer a tax-free shopping experience. But all other things are rarely equal. E-retailers (or mail-order catalogs) may have a price advantage, but well-run "Main Street" businesses have competitive advantages of their own. They attract customers with eye-catching window displays. They play up local ties and neighborhood loyalty. They give shoppers the chance to see, feel, or try on items before buying them. They enable the serendipitous joys of browsing. They don't charge for shipping. And they offer potential customers a degree of personal service and warmth that no website can match.

The current system is far fairer than the one Durbin wants. Brick-and-mortar merchants charge sales taxes based on their physical location. The exact same rule applies to online merchants. A Pennsylvania tobacco shop doesn't collect Ohio sales taxes whenever it sells a humidor to a visitor from Ohio. Amazon shouldn't have to either.

"Out-of-state companies that aren't paying their fair share of taxes," Durbin argues, "are sticking Illinois residents and businesses with the tab." With what tab? Taxes paid should bear some relation to services received, and merchants with no "substantial nexus" to a state receive little or no services from it. They don't use its firefighters or sewers, don't send their kids to its schools, and don't expect it to plow their streets after a blizzard. To force them nevertheless to collect and remit that state's taxes would be grossly unreasonable.

Durbin's bill would only hurt the consumers he claims to be "looking out for." The existing arrangement has worked well for 40 years. The only thing it needs from Congress is a good leaving-alone.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for