The sentence seemed a bit outsized for the crime. Federal Judge David O. Carter sentenced Harold David Goldstein on Wednesday to more than 12 years in prison for fraud and perjury charges for running a legal firm without a license.
“I lied about being a lawyer, but other than the lie, everything else was totally legit,” Goldstein told the judge. “I won 25 cases; these are real winners.”
Indeed, most of us would rather win a case using a phony lawyer than lose a case with a real lawyer.
We’re not downplaying fraud and perjury, and news reports suggest that Goldstein has a long and illustrious past as a scammer. Nevertheless, the case does raise the obvious question about whether professional, government-backed licensing does anyone much of a service.
Libertarians have long complained that licensing is a relic of the past, a counterproductive mechanism for ensuring that only skilled lawyers, doctors, hairbraiders and whatnot practice their trades. Instead of government licensing, in which the government punishes those who practice without one, they argue for voluntary certification.
Under that system, one would be free to hire a lawyer, such as Goldstein, even if he didn’t have a law degree. Fraud would still be punished, such as if a non-certified attorney pretended to have proper education and certification. But private organizations would decide standards, not government. In many areas, such as hairbraiding, it’s hard to understand why anything other than proven skills in the market determines entry to a trade.
There are many problems with licensing. For starters, the license serves as a cartel by which established professionals continue to up the standards, not to improve skill levels, but to keep out competition.
Libertarian author Mary Ruwart noted on a Libertarian Party Web site that “states with the most rigorous licensing laws for electricians, dentists and optometrists have the greatest incidence of accidental electrocutions, poor dental hygiene and blindness.”
The reason? License laws drive up costs of those services, thus tempting citizens to do electrical work on their own, or skip dental and optometric help. We also know that licensing can stop progress, as FDA controls — as opposed to voluntary American Medical Association certifications — have delayed the entry of necessary drugs onto the market, Ruwart said.
Often there is no connection between one’s skill level and whether one has a license. Think about the many non-licensed contractors operating in the area.
There’s no reason the state should set the standards for attorneys. Private attorney organizations can do that without the coercion. People like Goldstein would be free to offer their services — provided they do not fraudulently claim that they have the proper credentials.
Surely that has to be fairer than a system so punitive that a phony attorney can get more jail time than violent offenders.