Repeal the Drinking Age

by: Jeffrey A. Tucker

Somehow, and no one seems to even imagine how, this country managed to survive and thrive before 1984 without a national minimum drinking age. Before that, the drinking question was left to the states.

In the 19th century, and looking back even before – prepare yourself to imagine horrific anarchistic nightmares – there were no drinking laws anywhere, so far as anyone can tell. The regulation of drinking and age was left to society, which is to say families, churches, and communities with varying sensibilities who regulated such things with varying degrees of intensity. Probably some kids drank themselves silly, and we all know that this doesn’t happen now (wink, wink), but many others learned to drink responsibly from an early age, even drinking bourbon for breakfast.

Really, it is only because we are somehow used to it that we accept the complete absurdity of a national law that prohibits the sale of beer, wine, and liquor to anyone under the age of 21. Every day, the police are busting up parties, shutting down bars, hectoring restaurants, fining convenience stores, and otherwise bullying people into clean living. We read the news and think: crazy kids; they shouldn’t be doing this.

And yet every day, young people are finding ways around these preposterous restrictions that are hardly ever questioned, imbibing with their booze a disdain for the law and a creative spirit of criminality, along with a disposition to binge drink when their legal workarounds succeed.

On college campuses, the industry of the fake ID thrives as never before. It seems nearly true that almost every student believes himself or herself in need of getting one. Do the restaurants and bars know this? Of course they do. They have every interest in having these fake IDs look as real as possible to give themselves some degree of legal immunity if someone gets caught. The whole thing is a gigantic fakeroo, a mass exercise in open but unspoken hypocrisy, and everyone knows it.

If you think about it, it is the very definition of a state gone mad that a society would have a law of this sort spread out over an entire nation that tells people that they cannot drink before the age of 21 even as most everyone in a position to do so happily breaks the law. In Virginia in the Colonial period, where the average lifespan was 25, this law would have provided only 4 years of drinking in the last fifth of one’s life (but what a way to go).

However, if you think about the history of this country in the twentieth century, one might say that the age of 21 is actually rather liberal, as strange as that may sound. After all, it was in this country, the “land of the free,” that the federal government actually added as part of its Constitution a total banning of liquor, wine, and beer from sea to shining sea (1920 to 1933). The 1920s roared in any case, with organized crime, speakeasies, police corruption, rampant criminality and alcohol abuse.

The mystery to me is not the failure of Prohibition but the sheer insanity of the attempt to do this in the first place. It seems utterly bizarre in a country that habitually proclaims its devotion to liberty and freedom that such a thing would have ever been attempted.

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