The news media have been all agog at the presidential daughters being busted for underage drinking. Amid all the tongue clucking about "poor judgment" and "setting a bad example for the nation's youth," almost no one has bothered to ask whether the law that Jenna and Barbara Bush violated makes any sense. The reality is that setting the minimum age for drinking alcoholic beverages at 21 is one of the most ill-conceived pieces of legislation Congress ever foisted on mostly reluctant states. That is not a charge that should be made lightly, since there have been a lot of foolish congressional mandates over the years.
The drive to set a national minimum drinking age at 21 came during the first Reagan administration, pushed by such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Proponents touted it as a crucial measure to stem the epidemic of drunk driving in the United States. Critics pointed out that most people arrested for driving while intoxicated were over the age of 21 and argued further that the rights of the overwhelming majority of responsible 18-to 21-year-olds should not be trampled to strike at the minority of irresponsible drinkers.
Their arguments were drowned out by the hysteria of the day. The outcome of a political contest between MADD members and other prohibitionist forces (most of whom voted) and young adults (most of whom didn't bother to vote) was predictable. And it was a bipartisan rush to impose Prohibition on the younger set. Liberal Democrats such as Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md) were invaluable allies of the conservative Reagan administration.
Ever since the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, the federal government is without constitutional authority to directly ban the sale of alcohol to any American. Control over alcohol policy is explicitly left to the states. But that constitutional impediment didn't slow those who wanted to require all 18- to 21-year-olds to be teetotalers. The device used to impose a national minimum drinking age was the threat to withhold federal highway funds from any state that didn't comply with Congress's wishes. One might have thought that conservative Republicans, who are constantly affirming their reverence for states rights and the 10th Amendment, would have been a little chary about dictating to the states in that fashion. Most, however, were not deterred by a little inconsistency.
At first, some states did balk at the congressional diktat, and there were even some court challenges. Ultimately, though, the lure of highway dollars from Washington was too strong. By the end of the decade, all 50 states had complied.
Not only is the law widely flouted by young adults, it places the United States wildly out of step with other industrialized countries. Indeed, according to a study by the International Center for Alcohol Policies, of 53 countries where information was available, only four– Malaysia, South Korea, Ukraine and the United States–set the minimum drinking age at 21. Only two others–Japan and Iceland–put the age at 20. In contrast, 26 countries have a minimum drinking age of 18, and 5 set the standard at age 16. Several countries, including Portugal, have no legal minimum age requirement at all. Most of America's democratic friends have decidedly more liberal standards. Italy, Spain, and France set the minimum age at 16. Israel, Sweden, Great Britain and Australia allow anyone over 18 to drink. (Britain even allows 16-year-olds to consume beer or cider when purchased for consumption with meals.) Germany allows 16-year-olds to drink wine or beer but sets the age at 18 for hard liquor.
All of these societies seem to do quite well with the lower drinking ages. They certainly are not afflicted by massive epidemics of alcoholism or drunk driving as prohibitionists in the United States might expect. Indeed, countries with liberal standards compare quite favorably with America on both counts.
One ought to hesitate to advocate or even defend the breaking of a law. And there seems to be little question that the Bush daughters violated the law against underage drinking. But some laws are so irrational or so outrageously intrusive that they virtually invite violation. The law mandating a minimum age of 21 to consume alcohol is guilty on both counts.
Telling adults of any age that they may not drink is inherently intrusive. It is also illogical. Adults between the ages of 18 and 21 may legally do all manner of things. They may sign binding contracts, obtain credit cards, marry, own property, and vote, to name just a few of the more important rights.
The divergence of the law on drinking from those governing these other matters sets up situations that are manifestly absurd. For example, a young married couple may drive to their leased apartment in the new car they recently purchased with a loan. They may stop at the store to purchase flowers with their Mastercard or Visa for the celebration of their wedding anniversary. On their way home they may stop to cast their votes in an election. They may do all of these things legally. But if they attempt to purchase a glass of wine in their favorite restaurant to celebrate their anniversary, they become criminals.
It is hardly surprising that young American adults violate such an obnoxious, intrusive law in droves. Jenna and Barbara Bush were merely doing what millions of their peers do every day. Rather than condemning them, Americans of all ages should demand that the law be changed.