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21st century prohibition

Ben Linskey | Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The 18th amendment is one of the more infamous sections of the United States Constitution. Ratified in 1919, the law prohibited the production and sale of alcohol throughout the U.S. Its authors’ intentions were pure: federally mandated universal sobriety, which they assumed, would erase a plethora of social ills and lead to a more enlightened, harmonious society. Violence and poverty would disappear if only the wise archons of the U.S. government were given the power to supervise the leisure activities of American citizens and ensure that they did not partake in the dangerous and intemperate consumption of intoxicating beverages.

The actual results, of course, were not quite as expected. For one thing, it quickly became apparent that a significant number of Americans didn’t really care whether the federal government approved of their partaking in a glass of wine or a mug of beer. The now-legendary “speakeasies” of the 1920s quickly sprouted up, providing people with a private location where they could relax as they saw fit without fear of the prying eyes of government agents. Furthermore, prohibition did not lead to a drop in violence and social unrest; rather, by creating a black market for a good in high demand, the government ensured that organized crime would have the opportunity to flourish in America. With the friendly neighborhood liquor store shut down by government fiat, thirsty citizens were forced to turn to illicit purveyors in order to acquire alcohol. The results, needless to say, were not pleasant. Rather than stemming crime, prohibition led to the emergence of a new, more vicious strain of illegal behavior.

Wisely, after more than a decade of attempting to enforce the ill-conceived law, the federal government recognized that prohibition was a massive failure. The 21st amendment, ratified in 1933, ended the failed experiment and restored Americans’ legal right to imbibe whatever they would like. Prohibition should have taught legislators a number of important lessons about attempting to regulate personal behavior. Banning a highly desired good such as alcohol neither reduces demand nor prevents consumers from obtaining the good. It simply drives the business underground, replacing peaceful, honest business with the criminality and danger of the black market. Furthermore, the United States’ failed experiment with alcohol prohibition should have prompted Americans to reevaluate the role of government in their lives. Do the police exist to protect our rights, or to protect us from ourselves? Not only was prohibition a practical failure, but it violated Americans’ precious right to simply be left alone and behave as they wished.

Sadly, over seven decades since the end of prohibition, the federal government still believes it can regulate the personal habits of American citizens. The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act imposed a federal mandate on states, threatening them with a reduction in highway funding if they did not ban the purchase and consumption of alcohol by persons under the age of 21. Since then, the effects of the 1920s prohibition have repeated themselves: underage drinking is widespread, as any high school senior will tell you, and those under the legal drinking age have little difficulty acquiring alcohol. Fake IDs abound, and a general disregard for the law prevails. Rather than make our society safer, the 21-year-old drinking age has encouraged risky behavior and helped to create a dysfunctional culture wherein alcohol is treated as a forbidden fruit and abused rather than consumed responsibly in a mature fashion.

Even if we ignore all of the practical consequences of the 21-year-old drinking age, it’s difficult to explain why a person who is considered a legal adult and can vote, join the armed forces, operate a car, sign a contract, and purchase a gun cannot be entrusted with a bottle of beer. The drinking age arbitrarily discriminates against a group of people who are otherwise considered full legal members of society.

With these considerations in mind, a group of over 100 college presidents and chancellors (the exact total stands at 129 at the time of this writing) have come together to call for a public debate over the drinking age. These college administrators have witnessed the ill effects of the current laws and concluded that they accomplish no practical good and serve only to encourage dangerous behavior amongst their students. Their organization, the Amethyst Initiative, urges an “informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.” Such a debate is long overdue.

The current signatories to the Amethyst Initiative span a variety of colleges throughout the nation, ranging from small colleges to prestigious universities such as Dartmouth and Duke. Father Jenkins, however, has yet to add Notre Dame to the list. It’s safe to say that few members of our university’s student body and administration are under the illusion that the drinking age is effective or serves a salutary purpose on our campus. By signing the Amethyst Initiative, Father Jenkins would add Notre Dame to the growing number of academic institutions which are standing up for the rights and health of their students. It’s time for our society to recognize, at long last, that prohibition simply does not work. Let’s join the chorus of voices calling for open debate and sensible drinking laws in the United States.

Contact Ben Linskey at blinskey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.