Puritanism
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A Joan of Arc, burning on the pyre of American puritanism

Jun 7th 2001

From The Economist print edition

FORGET about the Senate or Californian black-outs. This summer, there is only one story in America: the attempt by two 19-year-old girls, the president's daughters as it happens, to buy drinks in a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas. This was Jenna Bush's second alcohol-related offence in just over a month in a state that imposes mandatory prison sentences for a third offence. She compounded her crime by using a fake ID to try to buy her margarita-and by encouraging her goody-two-shoes twin sister, Barbara, to join her in flouting the law.

"Margaritagate" has launched a national debate about everything from journalistic ethics to teenage stress syndrome. Some of the ghastly "doctors" who take over TV screens at moments like these have even blamed George Bush (he gave up drinking through cold turkey, rather than encouraging his entire family to "work through" his drinking problems with him). But there has been no national debate on the one subject that is crying out for reconsideration: America's absurd insistence that people cannot drink until the age of 21. Most other countries allow people to buy alcohol at the age of 18. Americans can marry, breed, abort their unborn children, pay taxes, appear in pornographic films, fight for their country and even vote at that age. But buy a margarita with your Mexican mush, and you could end up in the slammer.

The original faggot-tosser on Jenna's pyre is easy to identify: Elizabeth Dole. As transport secretary in the early 1980s, Mrs Dole hit on the idea of linking federal highway grants to raising the legal drinking age to 21. Sadly, even states that are supposed to take freedom particularly seriously, such as New Hampshire (motto: "Live free or die") decided to take the cash. But Jenna is not just the victim of the bossiness of a transport secretary (and failed presidential candidate). She is also swimming against two currents in American life: petty Puritanism and a pathological obsession with safety.

America rightly thinks of itself as a country conceived in liberty. But it is also a country that was conceived by puritans. Again and again, these days, Puritanism seems to be trumping freedom. No country treats smokers (or indeed tobacco companies) with such petty vindictiveness as the United States. As for safety, America seems to have convinced itself that the world is an astonishingly dangerous place, and that the only way to keep these dangers at bay is to regulate even the most trivial bits of behaviour. Hence the need to replace standard playground equipment with "safer" alternatives, such as one-person see-saws and transparent tubes to crawl through. And where else would photocopier toner come in packets that warn you not to eat the contents?

Of course, defenders of the current drinking laws argue that they have saved thousands of lives. But if raising the drinking age to 21 makes the roads so much safer, why not raise the age to 31? Or 51? Or ban alcohol altogether? After all, it worked so well in the 1920s. Certainly, drunk-drivers should be penalised severely. But there is no sillier use of the police's time than trying to criminalize a substance that has lubricated student life since universities were invented. And there is no simpler way of advancing liberty in America than to bring its drinking (and smoking) laws into line with common sense.

Let Jenna Bush party on. And let America rise up in revolt against all the petty prince lings of Puritanism, before every aspect of social life is criminalized, pathologised, regulated or legislated out of existence.

 


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