The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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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 [1] 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 [2] 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...

§408(f) says
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 -
(6) for the setting of the minimum drinking age in such State at twenty-one years of age;...

  1. The WaPo piece that set me off refers to DC law, which, needless to say, is different.

  2. That elected in 1972 - the pons asinorum of American political history is surely to know which year each Congress started without needing to think about it. As a rank civilian, I reckon from the 80th - elected in 1946 - and work forward and back from that. Lincoln was elected to the 30th, of course, for those who delve that far back. This crib may also come in handy.


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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