The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Monday, May 31, 2004
Prohibition lite - the incomprehensible age-limit for drinking
In every country, a natural conservatism leads to the preservation of laws and institutions that, objectively, are counter-productive or just damned weird.
(In Europe, we have the Common Agricultural Policy, that subsidises Greek tobacco farmers - who produce tobacco which is to Virginia what gros rouge is (or was) to Château Lafite - whilst campaigning to end smoking.)
But only - well, signally - in the US do they start with a position of sweet reasonableness and voluntarily introduce such indefensible laws and institutions. And promote them with messianic fervour.
Slavery was somewhat different: all the main European countries had it, and political agitation was needed to secure emanicipation. But, the process saw the slave-trading and -holding interests largely on the defensive, seeking to make the best deal from an inevitable process.
Even in the US, into the 1830s, something of the sort was underway: gradual emancipation had long been the rule in the Northern states, and even Virginia sheltered a large swathe of pro-emancipation counties.
By the 1850s, the fire-eaters were telling everyone just what a thoroughly excellent institution slavery was - something to be celebrated, not to be allowed to wither.
Prohibition, in its turn, gained fanatical support; in the same period as the UK was limiting drunkenness by reducing the number of pubs licensed and their hours of opening, America went hog-wild to go the whole hog.
And now, technicalities apart, 20 year olds can be sent to jail for having a can of beer in their hands.
Old enough to hold Iraqi prisoners by the dog-lead; not old enough to chug a brewski.
My understanding is that the alcohol rule is imposed by Federal blackmail - what better, and cheaper, sign of sanity could John Kerry give than to promise to seek repeal of this absurd law?
Chances of him taking up the suggestion? As they used to say down in John Edwards country, Likely as a nigger slapping a white woman on the ass in Mississippi.
The law at the root of the lunacy  is, I find, the Uniform Drinking Age Act, HR 4616, which became PL 98-363. Don't bother looking for the text on THOMAS: the summary sheets go back to the 93rd Congress  but the texts only to the 101st, dammit!
It turns out that the law is now 23 USC 408, headed Alcohol traffic safety programs. §408(a) says:
Subject to the provisions of this section, the Secretary shall make grants to those States which adopt and implement effective programs to reduce traffic safety problems resulting from persons driving while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance...
The Secretary shall, by rule, establish criteria for effective programs to reduce traffic safety problems resulting from persons driving while under the influence of alcohol...Such criteria may include, but need not be limited to, requirements -
An interesting quote from HL Mencken on the subject, dating from 1914:
There has never been a large political or social question before the American people which did not quickly resolve itself into a moral question.
Unfortunately, the source for this is not online.
(The quote comes from a 1996 piece in CJR - love those deep, deep archives! - on a flurry of books on the Clinton White House - including Bob Woodward's The Choice - and their treatment in the media. It dares to criticise Uncle Bob! Hopefully, I'll come back to it.)
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