This is not going to become a political blog. I promise. But the politics of booze are an important part of
the cocktail life, and if you read my mission statement in the header, I must occasionally ramble thereupon.
An issue I’ve wanted to write about for a while is our national drinking age of 21. The video embedded above, new from Reason, has given me the excuse I’ve needed to talk about this. (H/T: Ed Morrissey) I suggest you watch it, it makes good points.
This is a long post, so I’ll tuck the rest below the fold. If you don’t want to read my thoughts, at least check out the video. (Oh, and welcome ye readers of Jacob Grier!)
Reason, being a libertarian outfit, is pretty explicitly on the side of lowering the drinking age. They lead with the sort of argument that is quite effective in public discourse these days: There rest of the world doesn’t do it this way.
Well, the US is one of only four countries in the world with a drinking age as high as 21. The other three are Indonesia, Mongolia, and Palau.
Sounds pretty effective to me. Why are we so out of step with the rest of the world?
Sorry, this point is utter bullsh*t. It’s the equivalent of,
But Mom! All the cool girls are having unsupervised sleepovers with ecstasy and boys! I hate to smack the lead point of an argument I agree with, but I pop a blood vessel every time I hear a political opponent use this horse hockey line of debate, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t similarly beat up an ally.
Fortunately, Reason simply drops that first stinker and moves on to real substance.
The second argument is primarily a practical one which they return to throughout the video: people under 21 will drink regardless of what their elders say. Further, the way they will drink is modified because of this special exemption to the onset of adulthood. They do an excellent job of explaining how these changes are seriously not a good thing.
The third argument is a moral one. Does society have the right to carve out that “special exemption” I mentioned to the rights of one class of adults? We have adjudged that eighteen-year-olds have the responsibility to sign contracts, vote, and serve on a jury that could even hand down a death sentence.
We even ask them to put on uniforms and kill or even die for their country, but we won’t let a twenty year old Purpple Heart recipient buy a PBR?
Exactly, though Reason left out the military service portion of the argument. I’m not sure why.
The fourth argument is the most explicitly libertarian, or perhaps federalist in nature. Legal drinking ages were and technically remain creations of the states. There is no federal enforcement of drinking law violations. Congress explicitly admitted that they did not have the authority to mandate the nationwide drinking age, so they simply blackmailed, er, bribed the states. If a state sets its drinking age lower than 21, they lose 10% of their federal highway funds. The video (justifiably) smacks Reagan around for abandoning his federalist principles to sign the law. If I may, this sort of federal overreach has become so ingrained in our political mind now that we have moved on to the feds feeling empowered to tell individuals what they must do, too. Slippery slopes are a bitch.
The last argument, which goes back to the second and fourth, is that enforcement of the drinking ban on most college age people leads to a variety of actions by law enforcement which are, to say the least, unsavory. Some are pretty clear violations of civil and constitutional rights, others are corrosive to civil society.
Throughout the video, they give extensive time to two articulate spokespeople on opposite sides of the issue.
John McCardell, former chancellor of Middlebury and now president of Choose Responsibility, an organization with roots in the educational community which aims to re-open the debate on the drinking age and increase the responsibility of drinking habits among the young. McCardell also began the Amethyst Initiative, which is a group of college and university presidents also dedicated to lowering the drinking age. The Amethyst signatories are all too aware of the problems created by the drinking age limits, yet required to be on the front lines of enforcing them.
Mary Beth Griffin is the executive director of the Orange County chapter of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She is intelligent, articulate, and the picture of concerned motherhood. Reason of course destroys most every argument she makes, likely because those arguments are vulnerable to the truth, but certainly because Reason controls the editing bay….
She counters argument one perfectly, by simply not giving it the time of day. Simply put, this is our decision. The opinions and practices of people in Portugal, Peru, or Palau for that matter, are irrelevant.
She attempts to finesse the civil liberties argument by claiming that rather than a
rights and responsibilities issue, the drinking age is a
public health and safety issue. While the scientific issues Griffin cites, brain development and highway fatalities caused by drivers 18-20, are pretty easily countered in the video, I think they miss a larger point about the argument. Appeals for better health,
for the children, especially delivered by motherly-looking women, are the skeleton key to the cabinet of power for blue-nosed social conservatives. This tactic allows them to obscure the more complicated issues underneath, and to sanctimoniously dismiss any question of whether they actually have the power to do what they want. It’s sorta like the Commerce Clause for statist liberals.
Now hold on.
Traffic fatalities due to drunk teenagers have fallen a ton since the drinking age was raised. That’s not in dispute is it?
No it isn’t, and this point bears special mention. Traffic highway fatalities have dropped dramatically for all age groups, not just the ones that can no longer drink legally. The statistics actually indicate that our safer roads are due to improved public awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated, stricter penalties, and more vigorous enforcement of DWI laws. This is a very good thing, and it is MADD who richly deserves the credit for this sea change in our national culture. Make no mistake, MADD’s initial mission has made America a safer place, and the Reason video does not recognize this as much as it ought.
Overall the video is a good discussion of the debate, but Reason makes a hash of one particularly important element of the discussion.
They gloss over the point that while lowering the drinking age back to 18 would make it easier to contain independent drinking to legal drinking, it only alludes to the fact that this only addresses half the issue. Drinking is a skill, like driving. Everyone who drinks needs to gain experience with it, needs to understand the effects of doing it wrong, and needs to learn how to do it right.
Also, kids need to understand that drinking is hardly some awesome forbidden fruit. Drinking should not be an activity unto itself. When it is, the drinker is in a danger zone. Regardless of whether the drinking age is 21 or 18 (though the effect is worse the longer you go), the longer a person goes with all romantic and no practical experience with the effects of booze, the worse an outcome you are likely to have. Reason makes the case that parents help kids learn to drive before they get their licenses, they then then fail to complete the argument, instead pivoting back to the 18 limit. I guess the point they are making is that, since college is the focus of the video’s narrative, college is a good place to learn to drink independently. And they are right. But not everyone goes to college. Barring a sea change in the economics of college, fewer people will in the future. And on your own in college is still a lousy place to first encounter alcohol’s effects.
My contention is that it shouldn’t be increasingly illegal for teenagers (or even slightly younger) to occasionally experience low doses of alcohol with their parents, in their homes. In fact, it should be considered normal. The most important lessons about drinking every parent should give to their kids before they begin drinking on their own, legally or illegally, are: Drinking is not some magic passport to fun, and drinking is not a huge, fat, hairy deal. In short, let’s de-romanticize drinking.
Nice talk from a booze-blogger. You guys all, in one way or another, promote and romanticize drinking!
Yes, but I suspect the way we write about drinking would bore your average post-adolescent (boring ≠ romantic). Indeed, most of us romanticize the art of drinking well, rather than drinking a lot. Most of the time.
Frankly, if the average college student wants to drink like us, he won’t be able to afford to drink too much….