Though it is rarely discussed in conservative or Republican circles, the federal drinking age (a product of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984) is one of many examples of the federal government’s overreach in the last several decades. As can be expected, given the courts consistent disregard for the constitution, the Supreme Court declared the law constitutional in a 1987 ruling. The act coerced states to raise their drinking ages to the federal minimum through the threat of withholding federal highway funds, among other punitive measures. As a result all 50 states have effectively bended to the will of the central government in acquiescing to their demands. Now the United States stands proudly as having the highest drinking age in the developed world as well as one of the highest levels of binge drinking among teens and young adults.
One must only look around to see what a miserable failure this law has been in achieving its supposed goals, especially reducing the level of alcohol consumption among teens and young adults. Today an entire black market has developed in the production and distribution of fake IDs in order to bypass this law. The entire binge drinking culture heavily associated with college campuses across this country was only born and conceived in the aftermath of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.
Beyond failing to solve its supposed goals, and arguably exacerbating the problems surrounding alcohol, the federal drinking age has created many other disturbing consequences and inconsistencies, sure to offend any conservative.
How can we live in a society where we are perfectly at ease with sending our 18-year-old sons and daughters to fight for our freedoms abroad but then deny them such basic rights as what beverages they may or may not consume? It is illegal for many veterans to come home and enjoy a beer in their own backyard, yet we entrust them to operate tanks, artillery, jets, and lead troops into battle. How can we extend the right to vote to 18 year olds, the right to marry, the right to sign a binding contract, and claim legal adulthood begins at age 18 all the while restricting the freedom to choose?
It is clear that the law destroys freedoms at the individual level, and this only extends further to the state level. Before the 1984 law, the states were free to set up their own drinking age based on their own circumstances and what they saw as fit. This is similar to the current set up with the Canadian provinces. Many states did indeed maintain a drinking age of 21 yet many others set it at 18. The point was the states decided, something the Founding Fathers of this country would have expected. Taxing the citizens of the states and then threatening to withhold that very same money from them in order to force a piece of legislation down their throats is wrong, and certainly not adhering to the spirit of our Constitution or conservative ideals.
At the heart of conservative thinking is the ideal of placing the individual and the family above that of the central government. The federal drinking age does the exact opposite by taking choice and responsibility away from parents in how they want to raise their children. Many societies and cultures across the world expose their youth at an early age to responsible attitudes towards alcohol consumption. These societies and cultures do not come close to the level of binge drinking and other associated woes that we have been experiencing in this country. That sort of culture is effectively outlawed in our country.
The law is an abject failure and contrary to the beliefs of conservatives and liberals alike. It crushes individual freedom and choice, strips away state’s rights, and sidesteps the importance of the family in child rearing.
So what should be done? What should conservatives of all stripes push for? Well I, and many like-minded thinkers would like to see Congress or even a presidential candidate stand up to this law and make it an issue worth pressing for.
At the political level we have seen a massive movement underway towards the decriminalization and outright legalization of recreational marijuana use. I personally believe these to be positive developments, but while states like Colorado have been liberalizing their marijuana laws we have seen no similar move to relax our alcohol laws. Many of these laws in fact are Prohibition era laws that do nothing but stifle an entire industry with burdensome, archaic, and regressive regulations. I’m talking about those pesky “Blue Laws”, keg registrations, “Happy Hour” bans, dry counties, and alcohol taxes among others.
A Congressional push to return the drinking age to the states would find bipartisan support. One has to remember returning the drinking age to the states does not necessarily equate to lowering it. Many states would still maintain it at its current level, giving them the choice would only mean to take the drinking age out of the federal domain once more. As a result, even if you personally support a 21-year-old drinking age, you could still support these efforts on other grounds, namely states rights.
I find it very hard to conceive that many social liberals in the Democratic Party voting against such a proposal, further I find it very hard to see the President vetoing such a proposal should it make its way to his desk. Both strongly depend on youth votes particularly students from college campuses. As a result this is a common sense reform that is very politically feasible.
With all that said, I and many others have little faith in Congress doing anything meaningful. They are clearly too busy bending over backwards to an imperial presidency or the Supreme Court to worry about advancing the causes they were elected for. I instead turn my attention to the presidential contenders for 2016, particularly the ever-growing Republican field. I would love to see someone like a Senator Rand Paul making a strong stand on this subject. It is no secret that Senator Paul has strong libertarian convictions. If he were to make returning the drinking age to the states a plank of his campaign, he could win over many youth supporters and solidify his image in the Republican Party as a reformer and forward thinking candidate. This is the time to do so. The drinking age is hardly brought up in today’s news cycles, he would seize headlines with a call for the final death-blow of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.