The answer to these questions is that there already exists a cutoff point beyond which your personal choices are deemed to be nobody else’s business. The rapper and producer Dr. Dre had, he said, “a house, a Mercedes, a Corvette and a million dollars in the bank before [he] could buy alcohol legally.” This inconsistency is grotesque. Are we to indulge an arrangement by which a father might say, “I’m really proud of you for joining the military, son. But don’t you dare have a drink”? In Personal Reminiscences, Robert E. Lee quotes Stonewall Jackson as having claimed to be “more afraid of alcohol than of all the bullets of the enemy.” That was certainly Jackson’s prerogative; alcohol, like so many things, can be terribly destructive. But recognition of this is neither basis for wise law nor sufficient reason to deprive young adults of their choices. Guns are destructive, too. Smoking is destructive. Paint thinner is destructive — I would buy a round for the first politician who defended the notion that the state should insist on age limits for the patrons of Home Depot.
The 26th Amendment lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 and, in doing so, corrected the untenable incongruity of 18-year olds’ being drafted into the military and sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam but asked to wait three years before they might cast a ballot. In the wake of the change, with 18 set as the new yardstick, a majority of states saw fit to lower their drinking ages. Between 1970 and 1976, 30 did so. This logical trend was cut short by federal overreach. And what an overreach! Under the provisions of the Federal Underage Drinking Act, any state that holds out and allows its resident adults to enjoy a drink before they reach the age of 21 will be punished with a 10 percent decrease in its annual federal highway funds. This is no less than legalized bribery, one of many means by which the federal government circumvents the restrictions imposed on it by the Constitution and buys off the states. That since 1988 not a single state has told the feds to bugger off and mind their own business is a testament to the craven, upside-down nature of modern American federalism. (Also to the tyranny of self-interested majorities: Whatever demographic changes are visited on the United States in the years to come, we will likely not see an electorate that cares that much that people 18 to 20 years of age are deprived of the opportunity to go drinking.)
The law is an ass, and it is faithfully treated as such. Winston Churchill, who, having “taken more out of alcohol than alcohol [took] out of [him],” would no doubt have opposed the status quo on libationary grounds. But Churchill also wisely counseled against contriving a legal framework that undermines respect for the law. “If you have ten thousand regulations,” he enjoined, “you destroy all respect for the law.” Quite so. With the exception of the equally asinine laws against marijuana, it is difficult to think of another law that has become such an open joke among those at whom it is aimed. It’s not just the drinking bit: We introduce our citizens to the responsibilities of adulthood by encouraging them to get their hands on — and casually and routinely use — false identification documents. This in turn causes the purveyors of fake documents to proliferate and pushes them into the mainstream.
Drinking Reform has few public champions, which is a shame, because the issue presents those who habitually exalt limited government, individual liberty, and the rule of law with a golden opportunity to prove them congruous. Truth be told, it should be a libertarian’s dream issue. Why haven’t prominent figures picked it up? Benjamin Franklin said that beer was “proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”; he also warned that the United States would remain a republic “if you can keep it.” Federalism’s advocates are missing an opportunity to demonstrate what happens to republican principles when the federal government gets too powerful. What better way than a call for the repeal of the Federal Underage Drinking Act to introduce to the young people of America both of Franklin’s principles at the same time?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.