A Modest Libertarian Proposal

The Wall Street Journal has multiple writers from both the left and right discussing their hopes from the Obama administration. Via Megan McArdle I came across this proposal from Glenn Reynolds:

I will make one policy proposal. Some of my fellow libertarians hope that the Obama administration will put an end to the drug war. I hope so too, but I’m not too optimistic. Instead, I propose a smaller step toward freedom — eliminating the federally mandated drinking age of 21. This mandate was a creature of Elizabeth Dole (who is no longer in the Senate to complain at its abolition), and it has unnecessarily limited the freedom of legal adults, old enough to fight for their country, to drink adult beverages.

What’s more, as the 130 college presidents of the Amethyst Initiative have noted, rather than promoting safety, it has largely created furtive and less-safe drinking on campus. As a former professor of constitutional law, President Obama knows that the Constitution gives the federal government no legitimate role in setting drinking ages. Returning this decision to the states would be a step for freedom, a step toward honoring the Constitution, and a step away from nannyism. It would also be a particularly fitting act for this administration. Barack Obama received enormous support from voters aged 18-21. Who better to treat people that age as full adults again?

Like Glenn Reynolds I have not been too optimistic that Obama will put an end to the drug war, but I do anticipate improvements over some Republicans policies such as stopping the raids on those who use medicinal marijuana, even in states where it is legal.

Megan considers the politics of the current drinking age:

A drinking age of 21 is an embarassment to a supposedly liberty-loving nation.  If you are old enough to enlist, and old enough to vote, you are old enough to swill cheap beer in the company of your peers.

The problem is, the main constituency of this initiative is small.  I remember sitting through the  alcohol education class that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania required me to sit through in exchange for clearing my sentence.  The lawyer teaching it allowed that the drinking age might well be–indeed, probably was–unconstitutional in various ways.  So why did the law still stand?

“Because when people turn 21,” he explained patiently, “they stop caring.”

It strikes me that this might be a golden opportunity for the Republicans, though.  The news post-election was filled with commentators pointing out that the first few times a person votes tend to seal their political identity.  Well, a president coming out strongly against the drinking age could put the next generation in Republican pockets for decades.

With all their unpopular views, I doubt that supporting a lower drinking age would be enough to get young voters to back Republicans for life. It would also be counter to the mind set of most people remaining in the Republican Party to back an issue which gives  people more freedom of choice, along with upsetting their supporters in the religious right.

If Republicans could overcome their overwhelming tendency towards telling others how to live their lives, I doubt the Democrats would be so foolish as to allow them make such easy in roads with the youth vote. What such an attempt by Republicans might do is force Democrats to enact such a change, neutralizing it as a political issue. From that perspective, I do hope that the few remaining libertarian-minded Republicans are successful in getting Republicans to adopt such an idea.

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