Thoughts on the Drinking Age


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….

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

11 Comments

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  • I also think the most important thing is to introduce alcohol as something normal, and not as something that you may only get on irregular and unknown occasions. this leads to drinking as much as possible to “make up for” the time when you don’t have access to drink.
    It’s true that young people will generally drink to excess on occasion, but if they know they will be able to go out tomorrow night or next week, there is less worry about getting the most out of your night by drinking as much as you can.
    I’m a 20 year old Irish student, currently living in France, and I completely agree with your last sentence. I would much rather buy one nice drink than two or three cheap vodkas. I think I may also be one of the only people to have brought my bitters and shaker away with me for the year…you just never know when your Angostura will come in handy!

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  • While I agree with the idea of lowering the drinking age, I think that the argument that keeping it artificially high doesn’t work because the younger people will still find a way to drink is a horrid strawman because that will remain the case even if the age is lowered to 18.

    If the minimum age is 18, 16 year olds will still drink with the 18 year olds. Lower it to 16 and the 15 year olds will still be there, and so on.

    That’s why I think that argument should be left out altogether.

    The fact of the matter is that what you really need to do to keep people in general – not just younger people – drinking responsibly is greater responsibility and accountability by the parents at the younger ages. If parents treat alcohol responsibly and teach their kids how to do so, then their kids are more likely to drink responsibly.

    And that’s where I like to think that cocktail sites like this and others really might be able to help. Just like in food there is currently a fight to promote “good over more” there needs to be a collection of voices arguing that good drinking is better than more drinking. That occasional excess will happen and that’s OK, but that the goal is to have a good experience the entire time and still feel great the next day.

    Our society in the US has been wretched toward alcohol and its consumption for so long that it permeates all age groups. As a cocktail blogger, I’ve often been asked by people of my parents’ generation, “If it’s not too personal, can you tell me how often you drink?” Which is such an odd question to me. I drink, on average, probably every day, but rarely more than one cocktail or glass of spirit (unless I’m doing a review).

    It’s this pervasive sense that drinking is always a vice that gets instilled in people at a young age and they continue to regurgitate for their entire lives that needs adjusting.

    The more people that recognize that drinking is a pleasant, social endeavor no different from fine dining – something that should be enjoyed in moderation and with friends in a responsible fashion and not gorged upon like a starved pig set loose on his slop – the better society will handle drinking as a whole.

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  • I feel that the drinking age needs to remain at 21 for a few reasons. I have worked in several bars as a doorman/bouncer and I think society has become too uncivilized to allow the mixing of the average 18 and 19 year old in many bar settings. Which is unfortunate because my real deep down belief is that the age should be 18, if only for the fact that we have so many young veterans who really have proven themselves to be responsible.That being said, we also have many young people who have shown themselves to be lacking in the common sense department. Yes I remember being 18 and a Marine and drinking all over the world. And did I overindulge? Many times, but I always knew someone had my back, and it wasn’t like today where violence seems to break out for the stupidest of reasons. A friend who worked at a mixed ages “21 to drink/18 to party” club would tell me about things that would happen there and he said it was the most violent club he had ever worked in due to the sheer number of fights every night. And of course, the older men trying to get the younger women drunk for reasons we all know. Maybe I’ve become overly cynical because of my former line of part time work or maybe the world has gone to hell. I don’t really know, but I think adding very young people back into the mix of the average club or local watering hole is just asking for trouble.I’m sure there are many nice places where it wouldn’t be a problem, but the reality is that the average 18 year old won’t be hanging out in a nice quiet cocktail lounge sipping a Martini. And the other thing that I noticed was a propensity for many younger people to mix their booze with drugs, weed of course being the main drug, the potency of which I understand is much greater than way back when. At one place I worked for a short time, the owners 19 y.o. daughter tended bar (worst bartender I have ever seen)and would of course allow all her friends in to drink and so many of them would be in no shape to drive by the time I threw them out that she would have to leave and give them rides. I don’t even wan’t to think what it was like on the nights I didn’t work, but I do know that there are enough bad drivers out there without adding overly intoxicated teenagers to the mix. I sure don’t want them on the road with my loved ones. Yes I know there are lot of underaged drinkers anyways, but making it easier for them just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Sorry for the length of this, but I really feel strongly on the issue.

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  • Jim,

    No problem. Take as much space as you like.

    I value some thoughts from others on this front. And I can certainly believe that we would have some difficult things happen at first when the age is reduced.
    That said, I cannot imagine a worse idea on the drinking front than these 18/21 clubs.
    My point however remains that when people drink illegally, they tend to expand on illegal/antisocial activities, since they have already crossed that line.
    But this is a somewhat separate issue. We tend to tolerate all too many dangerous behaviors to today, instead focusing on “root causes”, which only give people an excuse for the actual damaging behavior.
    This is what MADD did so very beneficially in its original incarnation. MADD did not start out as being against drinking, it was against driving after drinking. It focused on increasing the penalties AND THE SHAME of dangerous behavior. And it worked.
    We need more significant consequences for bad behavior, rather than thinking that by keeping the booze limit artificially high, we can prevent it. You yourself say that this kind of bar violence is prevalent already in underage drinkers.
    Do many bar owners with this trouble try to just keep a lid on it, rather than prosecuting the troublemakers, since they are afraid they’ll find out they were serving minors? It sounds to me as if we might have another example of the history of prohibitionism leading to far worse conduct than alcohol itself. Does that make sense?

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  • I don’t think people under the age of 21 have more of a propensity to fight than people over that age. I think age is probably one of the least important factors in this. On nights out in Dublin I have seen plenty of people over 21 acting anti-socially, just as I have seen people younger behave in the same way. It is a fact, In Ireland at least, that plenty of people go out with the intention of getting drunk and getting into a fight. The drinking age will not change this, only a new attitude to alcohol will change this. It needs to be seen as an enjoyable pursuit unto itself, as opposed to a means to an end, namely getting drunk.

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  • Ooops!I forgot to say thanks for such an entertaining blog. I can definately see your point and I would agree that what we need here in the U.S. is maybe a little more common sense and less nanny statism. Maybe if it weren’t treated as some form of child abuse, then parents could educate kids about drinking as they do in Europe, by slowly introducing them to wine, beer and spirits as part of a meal or social occasion, not as the focus of whatever the event may be. My thoughts are that until we have regained our collective common sense and are also free to teach our kids as we see fit, then drinking is going to be seen as a momentous milestone in the minds of a lot of young people, and as such, there are always a certain number of any group that will take things to an extreme. I had my very first tiny sip of beer when I was 6, and I can remember that moment 39 years later like it was yesterday! But, my parents would never have considered allowing me to actually “drink” until I was much older, and it was minimal and controlled and reserved for very special occasions.But I did learn that getting loaded was not the point of drinking, although like almost every young guy I did my share of going a bit overboard. I guess if there were more of a focus on personal responsibility and less on the attitude of entitlement and “self esteem” then I could agree with the age being lowered back down, but I don’t see a return to the old values anytime. Too bad because we were better for them.

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  • Thanks Jim,

    Your point here is exactly mine. I had watered wine with special meals as early as 5 or 6. When I hit 18, I don’t think I got around to having a drink in public for a couple of weeks.
    This doesn’t mean I didn’t drink in college, sometimes to excess, but it was part of larger socialization, rather than “Whoooo! I can get drunk! Look at me!”

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  • I think Tennessee had this exception when the Feds first started to put the screws to the states on this. If you had an active duty military ID, you could drink, regardless of age. Some state, I can’t remember which had an 18 age limit if you were in a restaurant with your parents.
    Anyone help confirm on these, or know what happened to them?

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  • Want to get around drinking ages at your college/university? Open a temple to Bacchus/Dionysus (perhaps in a frat house). Drinking and intoxication are parts of the worship ceremony, and the states/fed cannot interfere with it (anyone taking communion in a christian church drinks alcohol, which happens well before 18; once a jew has reached 13, the are required by their religion to drink wine on certain holy days, etc.).

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