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Should We Lower the Drinking Age? — Troy Senik

Camille Paglia thinks so. Writing at Time:

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act, passed by Congress 30 years ago this July, is a gross violation of civil liberties and must be repealed. It is absurd and unjust that young Americans can vote, marry, enter contracts, and serve in the military at 18 but cannot buy an alcoholic drink in a bar or restaurant. The age 21 rule sets the United States apart from all advanced Western nations and lumps it with small or repressive countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

… What this cruel 1984 law did is deprive young people of safe spaces where they could happily drink cheap beer, socialize, chat, and flirt in a free but controlled public environment. Hence in the 1980s we immediately got the scourge of crude binge drinking at campus fraternity keg parties, cut off from the adult world. Women in that boorish free-for-all were suddenly fighting off date rape. Club drugs — Ecstasy, methamphetamine, ketamine (a veterinary tranquilizer) — surged at raves for teenagers and on the gay male circuit scene.

Alcohol relaxes, facilitates interaction, inspires ideas, and promotes humor and hilarity. Used in moderation, it is quickly flushed from the system, with excess punished by a hangover. But deadening pills, such as today’s massively overprescribed anti-depressants, linger in body and brain and may have unrecognized long-term side effects. Those toxic chemicals, often manufactured by shadowy firms abroad, have been worrisomely present in a recent uptick of unexplained suicides and massacres. Half of the urban professional class in the U.S. seems doped on meds these days.

I’m actually open to Paglia’s point on the principles level. It is pretty hard to articulate the logic for the 18/21 divide.

That said, I find several of the lines of argument here unpersuasive. Appeals to which nations our legal code aligns with leave me cold, as do vague warnings about “unrecognized long-term side effects” and “shadowy firms abroad,” the kind of weasel words usually employed by someone who doesn’t have any evidence. (I’m not confidently stating that the pills that Paglia decries are necessarily harmless, by the way — that’s well beyond my area of expertise —but you have to either make specific claims or keep quiet). I’m also having a hard time picturing this fictional 19-year-old who, because he can’t get a Sam Adams at an Applebee’s, decides it’s open season for ketamine.

My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that the drinking age law doesn’t have much effect outside of the margins. If you want to get it, you can. It’s nearly impossible to keep a product that’s legal for one segment of the population out of the hands of other segments unless you control distribution on a much tighter basis than we’re generally willing to do with booze (this is the same reason why medical marijuana has always struck me as an untenable compromise position).

As with most prohibitions, the group most affected is likely the ones you least have to worry about — those who take the sanction of law seriously enough that illegality, regardless of the merits, is sufficient to deter them. As a result, I’d have to conclude that changing the law wouldn’t be a huge deal — but also that letting it stand falls far short of the cosmic injustice that Paglia imagines.

What do you think?

  1. Merina Smith

    Don’t change it.  It does prevent some kids from drinking and that is good.

  2. Majestyk

    The major barrier to this is the concentrated interest of one of the most powerful grievance groups around: MADD.

    While ostensibly a legitimate public interest group, this group of aggrieved mothers are a front group for the neo-prohibitionist movement.  The interests of the people who might benefit from this (18-21 yr olds) are seen as puerile and self serving in comparison to mothers who have lost children to drunk driving.

    Camille is largely talking sense here, but the wrong people are going to listen.  This is similar in some sense to why we can never get rid of something as backwards and counterproductive as Daylight Saving time.

  3. Randy Webster

    The method by which the Feds coerced state compliance has always infuriated me.  They (the Feds) collected the gasoline taxes from the states, and threatened any state refusing to raise the drinking age to 21 with the withholding of its share of the taxes.  The courts allowed them, through the withholding of tax revenue, to assert power that the founders never envisaged.  How is drinking age a federal concern?

  4. Mendel

    After living in Germany (drinking age: 16) I am convinced that we need to lower our own drinking age.
    But.
    Alcohol consumption is a cultural phenomenon, and lowering the drinking age needs to be coupled to cultural changes to be beneficial. That includes parents recognizing that teaching their adolescent kids about responsible drinking is part of their job duties, not those of their kids’ future frats.
    Accordingly, any change to the drinking age should proceed slowly.

    Merina Smith:

    Don’t change it. It does prevent some kids from drinking and that is good.

     I’m not convinced that the benefits to the few kids who wait until 21 to drink outweigh those of the many who do drink nonetheless – and do so much more dangerously due to its illegality.

  5. Basil Fawlty

    If you’re old enough to choose to have an abortion, you’re old enough to choose to drink.

  6. Aaron Miller

    At 18, I could be called upon to fight and die for my country but couldn’t legally drink alcohol. That justification for lowering the limit is more than sufficient by itself.

    That’s the first I’ve heard college binge drinking linked to the age limit. I didn’t even know when that stupid law was enacted.

    Binge drinking usually begins in high school, so I’m not sure what the downside of lowering the limit is supposed to be. It would be easier for parents to teach about responsible drinking if kids started to drink legally under parent supervision (before college). To that end, make it 16 instead of 18.

  7. Salvatore Padula

    Change it.

  8. John Walker

    In Switzerland, as in much of Western Europe, those 16 years of age and older can buy wine or beer and those 18 years or older can buy distilled spirits.  There is no regulation at all (at least by the confederation: cantons and communes may have their own laws in our federal system) of parents allowing their minor children to imbibe at home or when eating out.

    My perception of the prevalence of public drunkenness is that it is a small fraction of what I encountered in California in the 1980s.

    I have no idea whether this is a consequence of the drinking age or the culture.

  9. Salvatore Padula

    1 Timothy 5:23 instructs us to, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” One frequently hears laments about how the younger generation is moving away from religion. Think of the outreach opportunities.

  10. Aaron Miller

    Anyone old enough to drive is old enough to drink. Alcohol consumption can, in excess, be dangerous. An automobile is always dangerous.

  11. Misthiocracy

    What, and ruin the bar business in Windsor and Niagara Falls, Ontario?

    ;-)

  12. Guruforhire

    Its time to get rid of it.  Its a pointless anachronism.

  13. Mama Toad

    My dad, a grumpy conservative if ever there was one, has always railed against the drinking age of 21. 
    His rationale is that it has turned young people into criminal drinkers instead of responsible drinkers.

  14. Troy Senik, Ed.

    Randy Webster:

    The method by which the Feds coerced state compliance has always infuriated me. They (the Feds) collected the gasoline taxes from the states, and threatened any state refusing to raise the drinking age to 21 with the withholding of its share of the taxes. The courts allowed them, through the withholding of tax revenue, to assert power that the founders never envisaged. How is drinking age a federal concern?

     Totally agree. This was similar to the method used during the Nixon Administration to nationalize speed limits.

  15. Jimmy Carter

    Mendel: Accordingly, any change to the drinking age should proceed slowly.

     Yeah, let’s lower the age to 20 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds. Government’s shackles must be removed slowly.
    We can’t proceed too fast for a Nation of supposedly “Free” Citizens.

  16. Troy Senik, Ed.

    Mama Toad:

    My dad, a grumpy conservative if ever there was one, has always railed against the drinking age of 21. His rationale is that it has turned young people into criminal drinkers instead of responsible drinkers.

     That sounds about right to me. You have to wonder at the wisdom of any policy that sets out to take an activity already considered cool, add to it the romance of illicitness, and assume that the mix will deter college-aged kids.

  17. Mendel

    Teenage alcohol consumption could also be improved on a community level without changing any laws.

    One reason teens have difficulty handling alcohol is because they have no guidance in responsible use. In my (quite liberal) hometown, all teens got a negative message about alcohol from their parents and from health class: “it’s bad, it’s dangerous, don’t do it.” Then one day we indeed started drinking, and were left on our own to figure out how – with predictably bad results.

    But even under our current laws, I have never heard of parents being harassed by the law for giving their teenage children a drink or two at dinner from time to time. If parents were willing to take on the task of introducing their kids to responsible alcohol consumption – and thereby removing much of its “taboo” factor – we might see a decrease in binge drinking even without a change in the legal age.

  18. Jason Rudert

    A few random thoughts–I go back and forth on this…
    I’ve known some Italian kids who drank starting at sixteen, and they turned out fine. But as others have said, they have a strong cultural taboo against being drunk enough that you lose your balance or slur your words. That protects against overconsumption.
    American kids drink through a funnel. Will they give that up if we drop the drinking age? Dunno. I’d drop it and see what happens.
    The kids I grew up with who missed graduation because they were busy decomposing were from the sort of families that absolutely prohibited alcohol, and turned it into “the forbidden fruit.” My parents used alcohol as a food, and there was essentially no fascination in my mind for it. I just never had that sense that I was getting away with something when I drank.

  19. Jason Rudert

    Also, what they leave out of the lectures–and this goes for anti-drug messages as well–is just how good it feels to be drunk. There’s that moment when the buzz first starts to hit you, and it’s a  classic example of “more is not better”. Learning how to drink, where your limits are, what it does to you is something I think you should pick up at a younger age. It’s a lesson that should be learned in a safe, maybe chaperoned or at least supervised environment where your incapacitation can’t hurt you.

  20. Jason Rudert

    Another anecdote:
    I spend a fair amount of time in a little town up in Idaho, where there was a news story a few years back: Two boys, about ten and twelve had gotten a bottle of vodka, drank a bunch of it behind dad’s barn or wherever, and died of alcohol poisoning. They just guzzled it down, thinking it was like gatorade or something. This being a Mormon community, they’d never really seen anyone drinking–that sort of thing is done furtively up there, by me and the other bad people of the town–so they had no example or role model for how much you drink at a time, what it does, how much a person can handle.

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