Monday, August 25, 2008

Twenty One or Busted

T-19 has posted a letter by one Derek Melleby advocating against the repeal of the 21 year old drinking law passed back during the Reagan administration. The letter being short, I am appending it below.

The recent movement by some college presidents to reduce the legal drinking age to 18 is shortsighted. Trying to lower the drinking age is a superficial response to a deep issue ("College presidents want lower drinking age,", Aug. 18). It is unlikely that the law would be changed, no matter how many college presidents join this movement. So why are they getting involved? Know this: Not all students go to college to drink. I've talked to countless students across the country who long for their college experience to be different. They are developing virtues of delayed gratification, self-control and sacrifice. They are students who want to think more deeply about the goal of education and the meaning of life. Some are students who have been hurt by the effects of alcohol abuse. Many didn't mind waiting a few years to drink legally and have learned to do so responsibly. Developing students such as these will require college presidents with the moral clarity and courage to make strong decisions about what is acceptable behavior at their colleges. What is needed is an atmosphere on our nation's campuses conducive to shaping students' character so that waiting to drink until the age of 21 wouldn't seem like such a sacrifice. Colleges and universities used to pride themselves on fostering a countercultural ethos. Today, what would be more countercultural than a college or university committed to educating students to be responsible and virtuous?

Now admittedly most ill informed people could construct a stronger argument for retaining this absurd law. But it does serve to illustrate the weak rationales employed by those who continue to support this foolishness.

Back when I was in the Navy right after I made Petty Officer 3rd class, a crusty old boatswains mate who was in the canoe club before Noah took me aside and gave me some words of advice that have stuck with me through the years. "Never give an order that you know is likely to be ignored and that you are either unable or unwilling to enforce. It lowers respect for authority in general and you in particular."

The 21 year old drinking age is without a doubt the most universally ignored law since they repealed the 55 MPH speed limit. Is there anyone who knows an 18 year old who cannot get his hands on a beer if he wants one? Its passage was one of the most blatant assaults on States Rights in recent memory. Congress has no authority to regulate people’s dietary habits and the law was only able to pass by blackmailing the states into submission. But even more than being unconstitutional and generally unenforceable it is flawed on multiple levels.

First, it serves no demonstrable purpose. The argument for it was that it would save lives in traffic accidents. But the statistical evidence on this is at best inconclusive. Much of the lowered fatality rates claimed by supporters of the law can be attributed to tougher safety laws (like seat belt requirements) and the construction of much safer automobiles today than when the law was passed. Further, there is a growing suspicion that the law may have had an opposite effect by encouraging binge drinking by young people in places where for obvious reasons there is little or no presence on the part of responsible adults. In such situations excessive drinking is far more common. Often these illicit drinking parties occur in remote places and those participating drive to and from. How many accidents have have been caused by this? As far as I am aware there have been no studies.

If one stands by the (IMO spurious) argument that the 21 yo drinking law saves lives, why then did we not ban drinking by those over 21? I guarantee you that if it works for those under 21 (which I doubt) than it would work for those over that age. There is of course one very good reason why drinking was not banned for those over 21. They vote.

No member of Congress is going to vote to deny a large block of reliable voters a basic right of adulthood. They would be committing political suicide. However, one undeniable statistic is that persons under the age of 21 are among the least likely to vote. This has been proven in every election since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. This demographic group is thus regarded by most politicians as a safe target for discrimination.

Which brings us to the subject of discrimination. At age 18 in these United States…

* You are considered an adult in virtually ever respect under the law.
* You can sign contracts and go into legal debt.
* You can sue and be sued.
* You can own real property.
* You can own a firearm.
* You can serve in the armed forces and get shot or killed while fighting for your country. But if you order a beer in a bar you risk jail.
* You are eligible for the draft should it be reinstated.
* You can vote.
* You can buy cigarettes(!) but not a beer.
* You are subject to the full rigor of the criminal code as an adult.
* You can even be sentenced to death in more than thirty states. But you could not order a beer with your last meal before they fry you!

All things considered I can not think of a single well reasoned argument in support of retaining this modern day mini version of prohibition. As someone who is well past 21 and who drinks so rarely that I have been called a teetotaler I have no dog in this fight. But I intensely dislike hypocrisy, especially when it comes from grandstanding politicians and moral busy bodies. The basic premise of this law boils down to this. Some people think they have a right to tell other people how to live their lives, but don’t want the same standards applied to their own. This is hypocrisy at its most guttural level. If you’re a Baptist or a Temperance person and you don’t think people should drink, that’s fine. Preach it from the pulpit. Excommunicate or shun those who don’t tow the line. But if you try telling others how to live by passing laws you are crossing a line that I feel compelled to push back on.

The right to regulate by law the behavior of others ceases when their behavior does not interfere with your rights. Until someone can demonstrate how an 18 year old soldier or sailor just back from Iraq having a beer constitutes a threat to the public safety, this law will remain not merely absurd, but an unambiguous attack on liberty which every citizen who is concerned with the ever increasing encroachment by government on individual rights should be outraged over.

To those young adults who may wander onto this site and read this post, I have a modest suggestion. Start a petition drive online and at every college campus in America with the signers pledging that they will under no circumstances vote for any candidate for Congress or President who does not publicly support the repeal of the 21 year old drinking law. That just might get some attention from Washington.


Anonymous said...

Rod Dreher blogged about this a bit earlier.

I find the arguments in favor of the current legal age requirement fairly specious at best, and in the case of one of the comboxers, somewhat scary (an argument which suggested the real solution was to bump back all forms of legal adulthood to age 21, if not later, because, among other things, everybody can't be assumed to have "good genes" and therefore be expected to be responsible).

Still, can't imagine anything will change anytime soon, one way or the other.


James the Thickheaded said...

My solution to this was always if MADD had a problem with drinking and driving... then raise the driving age. But that would have inconvenienced the same folks in favor of the legislation... so they opted to reduce sales at bars. Or did they? Seems like most college kids have been 21 for ummm... five years or so.

Ending hypocrisy would be nice. AA's recommended changes back in the 1970's were to LOWER the drinking age or abolish it altogether to remove the mystique. Raising it has had the opposite. Current generation has drinking habits exactly like my speak-easy grand parents: hard drinkers.

I'm just glad a group of opinion leaders has finally had the courage to break the conspiracy of silence. Wish it had come sooner.