Should We Consider Lowering the Drinking Age?
For just about all people under the age of 30, we’ve never known a time when the legal drinking age was under 21. Or, the legal drinking age went up to 21 (from 18, in most states) long before it would have made any difference to us.
However, in most countries around the world, and for much of America’s history (starting when strict enforcement of legal drinking ages began), the drinking age is/was 18.
However, beginning in the mid-1980s, states began to raise their legal drinking ages to 21, en masse. By 1988, every state which had previously had a lower drinking age, had raised it to 21. What happened?
Well, beginning in the 1980s, people began to take the problem of drunk driving seriously. A group known as “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” was founded in 1980, and quickly became the most vocal and visible proponent of strong measures to reduce drunk driving.
This led to Congress passing a law in 1984, which withheld some highway funds from any state that did not rise its legal drinking age to 21. By 1986, almost every state had acquiesced. The last state to do so, Wyoming, held out until 1988. Every state found that it simply could not maintain its roads without the federal money.
I’m not entirely sure why Congress didn’t simply mandate a national drinking age of 21. It’s possible that some members of Congress thought that the federal government wouldn’t have the constitutional authority to do so, or maybe it was simply to give states the illusion of choice.
In any case, the de facto national drinking age has been 21 for over 20 years now.
And because I’m writing a blog post on the subject, you’ve probably guessed that the intended effects of this law have not exactly panned out, and have arguably made things worse. Some studies suggest that, by eliminating legal access to alcohol for people aged 18-20 (when many young adults begin drinking, anyway), drinking by this age group has been driven out of bars and restaurants, and into frat houses and dorm rooms. This means there is less supervision by non-intoxicated people, and nobody encouraging moderation.
Taking notice of this fact, a law professor and an organization of 130 college presidents have called for the 1984 law to be repealed, effectively placing the question of the appropriate drinking age back into the hands of the states. Reflecting the “old enough to fight, old enough to drink” argument, one Alaska politician has suggested lowing the drinking age to 18 for active duty military personnel.
Personally, I think that this would be a good start, but I see no reason why the drinking age for everyone couldn’t be lowered to 18, assuming that these factual assertions are correct. While I believe that drunk driving is a problem, and don’t doubt that more drunken driving accidents involve young adults than other age groups, that’s no reason to retain a law that’s ineffective, or at the very least, engage in a serious examination of its effectiveness.
However, it seems that certain laws, regardless of their actual effectiveness (or lack thereof) are viewed as sacrosanct by politicians. After all, who is going to vote against the pleas of a mother who lost a child to a drunk driver?
These days, it seems as if every politician is perpetually running for re-election, so they seem more interested in taking actions that will make good campaign ad sound bytes, rather than enacting policies which they believe to be right.
And I should note that I’m not 100% sure that the factual assertions (that raising the drinking age has done little to combat drunk driving, and increased rates of unhealthy drinking behavior) are correct. There seem to be conflicting studies on the subject. My point is more that we need to honestly examine whether or not laws like this are effective.
And if we find that these laws are ineffective, and may actually increase unsafe and unhealthy drinking behavior (binge drinking, drinking without any sober people present, etc.), we should consider different measures that might work.
Furthermore, placing the matter of the legal drinking age back into the hands of individual states would essentially create 50 “policy laboratories,” in which different approaches to the problem of drunk driving could be experimented with more freely, including (but certainly not limited to) adjusting the drinking age. And, if one state comes up with a policy that actually lowers the rates of drunk driving, without increasing rates of “underground” binge drinking, then other states would be able to emulate it.