Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 3: Raising the Drinking Age

Like many conservatives, Reagan had a relationship with America’s mainstream universities that might be described as rocky at best. (And like many conservatives, Reagan had a rather warm relationship with Bob Jones University, but that’s another story.) It is thus fitting that Reagan played a key role in creating a major headache for university presidents all over the country by helping raise the drinking age. Historically, the drinking age had been decided at the state level and often fluctuated. During the 1970s, many states lowered their drinking ages to 18. This coincided with the lowering of the voting age to 18 and reflected the position that a person old enough to fight in the military was old enough to make any other adult decisions. Unsurprisingly, some Americans considered this shift toward more libertarian policies to be a public safety hazard. New Jersey was one of the key states to take the pro-raising the drinking age position. The state’s Republican Governor Thomas Kean would take liberal and libertarian positions on a number of social issues  before, during, and after his governorship, including racial justice, teacher-led prayer in public schools, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, and restitution for survivors of Japanese American internment. But on issues such as gambling, the War on Drugs, and drinking, he supported nanny-state policies, including a ban on drinking for people under 21. In a speech to New Jersey high school students in 1984, Reagan declared that drunk driving was “a national tragedy involving transit across state borders,” and one of a few “special cases in which overwhelming need can be dealt with by prudent and limited Federal action.”

That year, with Reagan’s support, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The law stipulated that any state which allowed residents under the age of 21 to buy or publicly possess alcohol would automatically forfeit ten percent of federal highway funds. Reagan signed the bill on July 17. While few would dispute that drunk driving was and is a problem, banning drinking by adults ages 18 to 2o seems counterintuitive. Firstly, it represents a flagrant restriction on individual freedom of choice for people who legally bear all responsibilities of adulthood up to and including the ability to be tried as an adult and executed. ( I do not support the death penalty, but it remains in place, and people under 21 are eligible for it.) Secondly, it stands to reason that a person willing to break the law by driving drunk would have no compunctions about purchasing alcohol illegally. Thirdly, drunk driving was and is hardly limited to 18-to-20 year olds–as demonstrated by the fact that Reagan’s own Vice President’s oldest son went drunk driving at age 30. In essence, Reagan viewed 18-to-20 year olds as old enough to be forced to register for the draft. But they were too young to use beer to drown their sorrows at the loss of civil liberties.

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