Lower the Drinking Age

The night of my grandmother’s high school graduation, her father said to her, “Now that you’ve graduated and become an adult, I’d like to buy you your first drink!” She feigned surprise, but on the inside, her feeling was one of disbelief. I doubt he really believed she had never tasted alcohol, as his gesture implied. More likely, his pretended belief in his daughter’s innocence comforted him, just as today’s laws regarding alcohol consumption do for the anxious parents of American teenagers. The open secret is that these laws don’t work, but the delusion that they do provides a bit of phony satisfaction.

About 60% of college students aged 18-22 drank alcohol in the past month, as have two-thirds of underage students. It appears that a huge proportion of underage students have access to booze despite the legal prohibition. Whether or not the American government is capable of regulating what people put in their bodies is open to debate. With alcohol, however, enforcing the 21-to-drink law is about as effective as eating soup with a fork. 

Without the law, one might imagine that the percentage of college students who drink would significantly increase. However, as the law is currently enforced, any underaged person determined to get alcohol can find it without much effort. In other words, the people under 21 who want to drink, can already drink. If this claim seems doubtful, try it for yourself. Go out on a Saturday night with a little cash, and see how long it takes for you to get a drink without an ID. 

It is also important to note that the current legal drinking age was established quite recently. It was in 1984 that our beloved neoliberal Ronald Reagan forced the states to adopt the law; before that, the legal drinking age was 18. My parents grew up in a time where 18 was the legal age. Not only is the law fairly recent, but it’s also pretty unique to the United States. Only 12 countries have a legal drinking age of 21, and 61% of countries have a legal drinking age of 18-19. In Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Spain the legal drinking age is even lower, at just 16-17… So the question is, why did the US make this change?

The answer lies on America’s roads. Middle-class voters feared that if teens and 20-year-olds could drink, an epidemic of car crashes would sweep the country. This argument, admittedly, is not completely unfounded. Studies suggest that in the US, the increase in the legal drinking age correlated with a reduction in the rate of car crashes. Banning alcohol altogether would probably reduce the number of car crashes even more significantly, but it’s unlikely an amendment like that would be ratified a second time. 

In Germany, the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) is 16. For every 100,000 car users, about 1.6 people die a year on the road. In the United States, that number is 7.9. In Belgium, where the MLDA is also 16, the rate is about 3.3 people a year. So the per capita rate of car crash deaths is much lower in many countries that have a lower MLDA. If we focus specifically on drunk driving, then we see that the US has a significantly higher rate than Germany, with 31% of road accidents involving alcohol compared to only 9% in Germany. These lower rates are not caused by the lower MLDA, but they suggest that the number of car crashes in the U.S. would not skyrocket if the MLDA were lowered. In the 1980s, a higher MLDA did improve road safety but, in 2019, access to good public transport, as well as rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, reduces the need to drive drunk. In fact, one recent study done in New York City found a 25-to-35-percent decrease in drunk driving accidents since the inception of Uber, as compared to other locations where the company doesn’t operate. Another study, by economics professors Angela Dills and Sean Mulholland at Western Carolina University, found similar results. When safe rides are available at the touch of a button, the “car crash” argument becomes invalid. 

Furthermore, the American MLDA is made absurd by conscription and military recruitment laws. No one who can be considered mature enough to die on the battlefield ought to be considered too immature to handle a white claw. This contradiction should be enough to get the MLDA lowered, or at least the recruitment age increased.

If the MLDA was lowered to 18, I don’t think much would change. The open secret is that 18-year-olds drink. Changing the law to reflect reality simply the rational thing to do. The “horrible consequences” anticipated by opponents of lowering the MLDA have not come to fruition in any of the countries where the legal age is already 18 or lower. The law should reflect the values of personal freedom and responsibility, rather than prohibition. The strait-laced crowd may whine that their delusions are no longer being indulged, but I think on the whole society will get along just fine. Enough with the state trying to regulate what people do with their bodies, it’s a ridiculous idea in theory and a failure in practice.



Categories: Domestic Affairs

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