Lowering The Drinking Age.

The Wall Street Journal published a roundup today of policy hopes for the Obama Administration, and Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a Libertarian blogger and law professor, offered up this:

Instead, I propose a smaller step toward freedom — eliminating the federally mandated drinking age of 21. This mandate was a creature of Elizabeth Dole (who is no longer in the Senate to complain at its abolition), and it has unnecessarily limited the freedom of legal adults, old enough to fight for their country, to drink adult beverages.

Megan McArdle, who blogs for the Atlantic, agreed, writing this:

A drinking age of 21 is an embarassment to a supposedly liberty-loving nation.  If you are old enough to enlist, and old enough to vote, you are old enough to swill cheap beer in the company of your peers.

I reject (as the Supreme Court has) the notion that a federally-mandated drinking age is unconstitutional; the Constitution does not guarantee life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and booze.  And the fact remains that a higher drinking age demonstrably saves lives, predominately young lives.  Considering that the fastest form of transportation in 1787 was the horse-drawn buggy, this is perhaps not an area in which we should be deferring to what’s explicitly outlined in the Constitution.

What I think is more necessary than a lowering of the drinking age is a cultural shift in the way we think about underage drinking, and how we talk to young people about it.  (This is where I part ways with organizations like M.A.D.D..)  The degree to which alcohol is taboo makes it extremely appealing to teenagers, and when they start drinking they’re much more likely to drink irresponsibly, to excess, and before driving.  I didn’t start drinking until my mid-teens, and I started not just because it was fun but because it was illicit fun.  It was a novelty.  But I had no practice at drinking.  I didn’t know how much alcohol was too much, in what time frame and on what stomach.  And so I spent a shameful amount of time between the ages of fifteen and eighteen with my cheek on a toilet seat, sink and shower curtain spinning above me.  I was just smart enough (or well-raised enough) never to get behind the wheel of a car in that state, but I can’t say that the idea didn’t occur to me a time or two.

The twenty-one-year drinking age, then, is not designed to prevent twenty-year-olds from swilling cheap beer in the company of their peers.  It’s designed to prevent sixteen-year-olds from downing nine shots of Absolut and then trying to drive home.  In this it is moderately successful, but nowhere near as succesful as it could be.  Hundreds of thousands of teenagers continue to drive drunk each year, and thousands of them die because of it (including people I knew).  As long as alcohol is viewed as a wonder-drug by young people, as long as we continue to teasingly withhold it from them throughout the entirety of their formative years, these sorts of deaths will continue.  But the solution is not to simply lower the drinking age back down to eighteen, and eliminate the measure of good it’s doing right now.

So were I to ask President Obama for a substantive change in alcohol policy, and were I given such a venue as The Wall Street Journal (or The Atlantic, for that matter) in which to do it, I would not waste that opportunity on something as utterly inane as lowering the drinking age.  Instead, I would ask Obama to reform programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) that have taken over the role of alcohol education in the United States.  If they were to move away from their zero-tolerance policies and toward a more commonsense, responsible approach to alcohol (instead of simply saying “don’t drink, even though everyone you know does and they all think it’s really fun”) it would have a greater effect on diminishing teenage drunk driving deaths than the drinking age (high or low) ever could.