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Drinking Age Act, passed by Congress 30 years ago this July, is a gross violation of civil liberties and must be repealed.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?