A recent federal spending package, strongly backed by Democrats and Republicans and signed by President Trump, contained a poison pill that I vehemently urge the American people not to swallow. In fact, like all federal spending bills, it contained a veritable treasure trove of waste and bad policy. But one measure stood out: a requirement that the FDA enforce a nationwide minimum age of 21 to buy any and all tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes, and vaping materials.
Sadly, this is just the latest in a long series of assaults on the freedoms of American citizens of college age. Back in 1984, the U.S. government compelled all 50 states to ban the sale of alcohol to persons under 21. It did so by withholding federal highway funds from states that refused to comply.
More recently, several states raised the minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21. President Trump even voiced his support for a nationwide revision of the minimum age to buy firearms. The NRA is fighting back, but the voices of support for the gun rights of young Americans are easily drowned out each time a high-profile shooting occurs. Thus, we now face the irony that the age bracket most likely to be called upon to fight and die in America’s wars is denied the legal right to keep and bear arms in civilian life.
Unfortunately, these efforts to restrict the rights of younger Americans are broadly bipartisan, and they transcend even the age of 21, which one might (optimistically) regard as a “ceiling” for efforts to infantilize the American people.
We should reflect on the fact that one of Obamacare’s most popular provisions raised the maximum age at which Americans could keep their adult children on their family health insurance policies to 25. Clearly, this policy benefits many American families, but it is still based on the assumption that Americans 18 to 25 are not, in the fullest sense, adults, and may be regarded more properly as dependents for health care purposes. At best, they are put in the “adult lite” category.
Measures such as these are designed to improve the health and well-being of the American people, true. The same could be said for any and all federal legislation, regulations, and spending measures. Uncle Sam’s heart is always in the right place. His head, though, is in the clouds—and his well-meaning micromanagement of Americans’ daily lives and most intimate decisions is an impediment to the exercise of a broad range of constitutionally-protected freedoms.
Every governmental directive reduces the liberty of the American people, and every such action can therefore only be justified when a pressing national interest, especially the preservation of liberty, is at stake.
Do alcohol, tobacco, and firearms pose a threat to the well-being of Americans 18 to 21? Certainly. So do cars, planes, pogo sticks, frozen yogurt, and Justin Bieber concerts. But that is not the point. Americans of all ages above 21 are legally entitled to make their own decisions about whether to drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, and own guns. To restrict these rights for everyone would be unthinkable (except in the most “progressive” circles). Why, then, should we tolerate the denial of these rights to any American, especially for the specious and self-evidently ageist reason that they are, in some people’s eyes, too “young and dumb” to handle them?
I urge conservatives, including President Trump and Republicans in Congress, to reflect on the dangerous precedent that it sets to deny rights and opportunities to any American on the basis of age. Our society made the decision long ago that a person becomes an adult at the age of 18, and we should stick to that. Conservatives, moreover, should not be in the business of curtailing liberty, period.
To be free—free even to make mistakes—is the American way. This logic should apply equally to everyone, regardless of age.