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Most Significant Events of the Twentieth Century: Part IV

Updated on October 1, 2010
President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan
Proof that minimum age laws work?
Proof that minimum age laws work? | Source
Can this information really be quatified?
Can this information really be quatified? | Source

1980s--National Minimum Drinking Age Act

President Ronald Reagan has been held up by some conservatives, especially since his death, as the ultimate hero in the fight to reduce the level of government intervention in all areas, but particularly in the economy. This hero worship has made it hard to find useful information on how exactly he did this. It is undoubtedly true that he led the way in pushing down marginal income tax rates, which led to a growth in real GDP and lowered unemployment and higher industrial production by the time he left office; increased spending (especially defence), however, outpaced revenues, resulting in record deficits. Reagan also brought about some deregulation while in office, mainly continuations of Carter Administration policies such as eliminating the Civil Aeronautics Board and deregulating oil prices; critics can point to this latter act as helping to send oil (and gasoline) prices up to their current levels. In many other areas, such as health, safety, and environmental regulation, and the bureaucracy, the presence of government has remained unchanged or actually increased--the most basic example is Reagan's promise to abolish the Education and Energy Departments; these two agencies are not only still in existence, but so is another created by Reagan, Veteran's Affairs. Reagan's legacy is still being debated, but it can be agreed that he failed to reduce government intervention in the lives of the people. In fact, if any one thing can be seen to symbolize the growth of government in the '80s, it is a seemingly simple change that took place in the middle of the decade: mandating 21 as the minimum age for drinking alcohol.

There is, and never has been, a federal law setting a minimum drinking age. Before the passage of the 18th. (Prohibition) amendment in 1919, there were no minimum drinking ages at all in the states. After Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment in 1933, more than half of the states established 21 as the minimum age; most of the rest set it at 18, although a few states set ages of 20. (A couple set varying ages for men and women.) A trend towards lowering the age to 18 began in 1969, and accelerated after the voting age was lowered in 1971 as a result of the 26th Amendment. Even though 12 states kept the age at 21, by 1976 the trend had peaked; afterwards, many states began raising it to 19, and a few to as high as 21.

Public concern over underage drinking and rising incidents of drunk driving, as well as intensive lobbying efforts by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) led Congress to pass the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984; the act became effective in July of that year when President Reagan, in spite of his vaunted conservative credentials, signed the bill. The new law basically ordered the states to change their laws governing the minimum age to purchase and possess alcoholic products--without, interestingly enough, actually telling them outright to do so. Instead, political blackmail was used. The law said that any state not complying with the demand would have its share of federal highway funding (mandated in the Interstate Highway laws) cut by 10 percent; in addition, states passing strict sentencing laws against drunk drivers would be rewarded with increases of up to 5 percent in highway funding. (Ten percent doesn't sound like a lot, but it meant the loss of millions in money needed for highway construction and repair.) Faced with these possible losses, every state without a twenty-one and up law (more than half of them) quickly passed the necessary laws raising the drinking age, ignoring concerns from business interests dependant on alcohol sales that this would hurt them financially (a possibility that failed to materialize), not to mention possible constitutional questions.

The law contained a number of possible loopholes. First, while it demanded the prohibition of public possession of alcohol by people under 21, it did not actually demand that consumption be similarly restricted; several states included this in their own laws, though to date, not every state bans consumption by minors, and several of those that do allow certain exceptions (for example, allowing consumption as long as an adult family member is present). The law also defined "public possession:" in ways that carried several exceptions--possession for an established religious purpose, for medical purposes as prescribed by a doctor, in private (as opposed to public) clubs, and when the "minor" is lawfully employed in a business that handles alcohol are allowed. (Some states, such as Texas, prohibit those under 21 from working in such businesses.)

The law has encountered much opposition. Its constitutionality was challenged, when the state of SouthDakota sued Transportation Sec. Elizabeth Dole in 1987; the Supreme Court decided in the government's favor, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist writing that the law was allowed under the terms of the Constitution's Taxing and Spending Clause, which he said allows Congress to withhold funds in pursuit of the national interest. Objections based on other constitutional provisions, such as the 10th Amendment and substantive due process, have also been stated but never brought to court. Opponents also argue that underage dringking laws have been ineffective, and have even made the problem of excessive drinking among college students worse.

The important point here is not the relevance of arguments for or against underage drinking laws, but to hold the National Minimum Drinking Age Act as an illustration of the continuing trend of increased federal intrusion in matters not traditionally considered part of its jurisdiction--in this case, state law and public policy, and by extension the rights of individuals to make decisions related to their personal behavior. This account also illustrates another trend--that of the federal government using federal appropriations to the states as a hammer to enforce its will, something which should perhaps be considered an inevitable consequence of congressional beneficence. This Pandora's Box has been opened in a number of cases since--most notably, in mandating the use of seat belts and banning while driving. This method of exerting federal authority is deceptive, because it gives the false impression of voluntary compliance with the will of Washington; but it is very effective, because it takes advantage of the greed of the states and their increasing dependence on the federal government. One is forced to wonder how long it will take Congress to expand the use of this tool to governing the private actions of individuals--many of whom are also dependent on federal largesse, and who may be similarly affected by greed as a result.


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