Camille Paglia Is Right and Wrong About the National Drinking Age

I loved  Camille Paglia’s great piece at the Time site: “The Drinking Age Is Past Its Prime.” I think every conservative should read it.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act, passed by Congress 30 years ago this July, is a gross violation of civil liberties and must be repealed. It is absurd and unjust that young Americans can vote, marry, enter contracts and serve in the military at 18 but cannot buy an alcoholic drink in a bar or restaurant. The age-21 rule sets the U.S. apart from all advanced Western nations and lumps it with small or repressive countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

While I think most of Paglia’s arguments and observations are excellent, I will disagree with her about the national law being a “violation of civil liberties.” It is rather a gross violation of the sovereignty of the states. Just look at the Wikipedia page for the 1987 Supreme Court decision, South Dakota v. Dole, and ask yourself how any self-respecting Constitutional conservative could have anything to do with such a monstrosity.

Basically, the Federal Government taxes the people in each state and then withholds federal funds from states that don’t bow to its law—even though everyone acknowledges that Congress doesn’t actually have the authority to set the drinking age for the nation! The Supreme Court rubber-stamped the idea that when Congress punishes states for not passing the “right” laws it is not thereby establishing a national law and thus exceeding its authority. So when Congress doesn’t have the authority to pass a law it can make a law that punishes states unless they pass laws that match what Congress dictates to them.

This also demonstrates how income tax destroys the entire point of Federalism. All the limits on Congress are destroyed because Congress has the power of the purse. They collect revenue from the residents of each state and then give some back to the states when the states obey them.

And the age limit did virtually nothing to keep the highways safer, even though that was the rationale for denying Federal highway funds. Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissent is telling:

O’Connor agreed that Congress may attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and that the Twenty-First Amendment gives states authority over laws relating to the consumption of alcohol. But O’Connor wrote that the attachment of condition on the states must be “reasonably related to the expenditure of funds.” O’Connor disagreed with the Court’s finding that withholding federal highway funds was reasonably related to deterring drunken driving and drinking by minors and young adults. She argued that the condition was both over and under-inclusive: it prevented teenagers from drinking when they are not going to drive on federal and federally funded highways, and it did not attempt to remedy the overall problem of drunken driving on federal and federally funded highways. She held the relation between the condition and spending too attenuated: “establishment of a minimum drinking age of 21 is not sufficiently related to interstate highway construction to justify so conditioning funds appropriated for that purpose.”

Paglia’s essay makes some great points, especially in reminding us that alcohol is probably much less dangerous to health than marijuana. I’ll be curious to see the liberal reaction to her remarks. I also loved this paragraph:

Learning how to drink responsibly is a basic lesson in growing up — as it is in wine-drinking France or in Germany, with its family-oriented beer gardens and festivals. Wine was built into my own Italian-American upbringing, where children were given sips of my grandfather’s homemade wine. This civilized practice descends from antiquity. Beer was a nourishing food in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and wine was identified with the life force in Greece and Rome: In vino veritas (In wine, truth). Wine as a sacred symbol of unity and regeneration remains in the Christian Communion service. Virginia Woolf wrote that wine with a fine meal lights a “subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.”

It reminded me of this command from Deuteronomy:

You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you. (Deuteronomy 14:22-27 ESV)

Abolishing the national drinking age as an unconstitutional affront is a definite conservative must. And then, like Paglia, I think the states need to lower the age to eighteen.