Alcohol occupies a peculiar position in the culture of the United States. Like so much else besides, it is subject to the ongoing brawl between puritanism and libertarianism, two philosophies that have long jockeyed for dominance here. Americans have made many contributions to the bar — including the perfection and popularization of the cocktail. But puritanism has survived, enjoying a rich history of its own. Benjamin Rush’s inquiries into alcoholism spawned a variety of anti-alcohol movements at the outset of the new republic; in the 1850s, “temperance” overlapped uncomfortably with the Know Nothing movement’s distaste for secular principles; and in the 1920s the 18th Amendment was passed, in part on the back of widespread mistrust of immigrants and the drinks they brought with them. The role of alcohol in society, remember, is the only such question ever to have been placed within the U.S. Constitution. Nowadays, the folly of Prohibition is widely known. But in practice it still obtains for some, as a deviant exception to the rule of adulthood.
In the United States, we treat 18-year-olds as full citizens. At this age, a man may vote and he may serve as a juror — or he may search for excuses as to why he should do neither. He may smoke cigarettes and fly an airplane. He may get married, or he may eschew that road in favor of pornography and promiscuity. He may enter into contracts, max out his credit cards, and run a business into the ground. He may join the military, putting his life in danger. In some jurisdictions, he may run for public office. Less welcome but no less real are the opportunities to be executed by the state for capital crimes and to sign up for the Selective Service. But what he may not do — in any of the fifty states — is walk to a bar and buy an alcoholic drink. This is nonsense — an aberration from the usual rules. What sense does it make to deprive an adult of just one feature of adulthood, and why are the arguments in favor of doing so taken seriously?
Lobbying the federal government in the 1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving claimed that there was a connection between young-adult drinkers and the worrying number of deaths caused by drunk driving. Their evidence is by no means indisputable. Traffic fatalities in the 1980s decreased considerably less after the drinking was raised than they did during the same period in Europe, where drinking is common at 18 and below; and, as the research of Harvard’s Jeffrey Miron shows, the “drinking age does not produce its main claimed benefit.” But, arguendo, let’s presume that MADD was correct. A bigger question would still remain: If practicality wins out in that arena, why is it alone? Why is William Pitt’s “Necessity” justifiable as the “plea for every infringement” in this domain but not in others?
Should we perhaps raise the marriage age or age of consent to 21? And if not, why not? After all, young people often think they are in love when they are not, and young lust can lead to inordinately bad decisions. (Just ask Romeo and Juliet.) Should we make home ownership illegal until one has 20 years and 12 months under one’s belt? Again: If not, why not? Perhaps our young people need a little time to rehearse in the marketplace before they make the biggest financial decisions of their lives? In fact, given that purchasing a house is top of almost all common stressors, one might classify being forced to navigate the mortgage market while sober as cruel and unusual punishment.
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.