There was a news item today about a group of college presidents who have signed on to an effort to "rethink" the drinking age in America. While not explicitly calling for lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, these collegiate leaders are urging legislators to at least consider the idea of letting states lower the de facto national drinking age.
When you stop and think about it, the drinking age doesn't make a whole lot of sense. On his eighteenth birthday, Joe American can sign a legal contract, buy a house, sign a mortgage, get married, serve on a jury, vote in an election, and join the military -- all without a parent or guardian's signature. Because now Joe is considered a legal adult, having reached the age of majority. If Joe commits a crime after turning 18, he will be tried as an adult. If Joe serves on a jury, he can be one of twelve voices that condemns a murderer to death. If Joe joins the Army and is shipped off to war, he can kill enemy soldiers and/or get killed himself (or get horribly maimed) in service to his country.
In other words, society has determined that Joe is now a rational adult member of society, with all the benefits, freedoms, and responsibilities which are a part of that adulthood. Except that Joe can't legally buy a beer. Even after he's served in a foreign war and been horribly maimed as a result -- still no (legal) beer for Joe until he turns 21.
Like I said, it's kind of preposterous when you actually think about it.
Some history is in order, to understand how we got here. One of the most powerful grassroots efforts in the recent political past was largely responsible for where we are now -- Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. This group reached its height of influence in the early 1980s, decrying drunk driving penalties which were (at the time) often no more than a slap on the wrist for the offender. Drive drunk and you might get a slight fine, with no suspension or revocation of your license to drive as a result. Even multiple offenders were let off lightly.
This, as MADD saw it, was an outrage. So they successfully lobbied at both the state and local level to stiffen penalties for drunk driving to be much more of a deterrent. They were spectacularly successful at such efforts. Their other focus was on getting states to raise their drinking ages. They were also successful in this as well, which is why the de facto national drinking age is now 21.
I say "de facto" because there actually is no national legal drinking age. It's technically still a matter for the states to decide. Before MADD, each state set the drinking age at whatever they felt was appropriate. Mostly, this meant 18, but not universally. MADD started pouring on the pressure on the state level, and was slowly getting one state after another to increase the drinking age to 21, when they got legislation passed in Washington that all but guaranteed it. In 1984 Congress basically told the states they would be blackmailed if they didn't raise their drinking age to 21. Congress passed a law saying that a percentage of federal highway funds (we're talking billions of dollars here) would be withheld from any state that didn't set the drinking age at 21. Almost every state immediately complied.
I believe Washington, D.C. was the last holdout, since they knew full well that every highway dollar spent in the district is federal; and that legislators had to use their streets to get to work, meaning that Congress wouldn't allow D.C.'s streets to fall too badly into disrepair. But they, too, eventually succumbed (immediately after a spectacularly deadly crash on the Beltway which involved people under 21 who had been down to Georgetown to get drunk... and who then tried to drive home to the suburbs).
Now, it has to be pointed out that the term "states' rights" has an ugly history. It was code language for "letting Southern states deny civil rights to blacks" for a long time. But, putting that history aside, the argument of which powers are vested in the federal government and which are in the domain of state governments is actually older than our country, since it was a big debate point in the ratification of the Constitution itself. Today, people from all sides of the political spectrum wish to see states given the right to pass the laws that they agree with, and subsequently bar states from passing the laws they do not agree with. So the issue has become rather muddled. On the left (for instance), legalizing medical marijuana is seen as something that states should decide for themselves -- without federal interference. On the right, banning gay marriage and whittling away at abortion rights are seen as properly in the realm of the states to decide. Like I said, the ideology has become muddled, depending on the particular issue at hand.
Which leads us back to the present. The Associated Press reported today on the efforts of the group of college presidents to at least start the discussion up again in America. It's actually a pretty even-handed piece, and shows the points of view of those for change, and those for keeping the status quo. The group, which calls itself the Amethyst Initiative (being academics, they of course got their name from an ancient Greek belief that amethysts cured hangovers or some such), has its own web page up, and is reportedly going to be buying some ad time in newspapers to promote their idea.
Now, I personally think it's a good idea to have this conversation. Full disclosure: I was directly affected by the raising of the drinking age, which happened just before I turned 18. So call it sour grapes if you will (wait a minute, aren't sour grapes used to make wine? ahem...). But I do believe that this should be up to each state to decide for itself. The legal age for gambling is currently set this way, on a state-by-state basis. Before 1984, each state similarly decided what was the best legal drinking age, and there were some creative ways of approaching the problem. Some states split the difference, and pegged the drinking age at 19 or 20. The most creative approach, and one that makes a certain degree of sense, was to let people who were over 18 (but under 21) buy beer and wine, but not let them buy hard alcohol until they hit 21.
Or here's another creative idea: how about we let anyone who is serving in the military (or has honorably served) drink at age 18? This would create a special privilege for a certain class of Americans, I am aware, but while it is admittedly not egalitarian, I could actually support this idea. Serving in the military means putting your life on the line wherever and however your country tells you to. To grant an extra privilege to those who are doing so (or have done so) seems appropriate to me. They're taking extra risks, so maybe they deserve an extra reward, so to speak. At the very least, letting them drink beer or wine seems like a reasonable idea to me.
The point is not just to let the soldiers drink beer, the point is that maybe this is a matter best left to the states -- without the feds squeezing budgets to bludgeon them into conformity. The states are, after all, supposed to be little laboratories of democracy, testing things out on a small scale. Perhaps it's time for such experimentation with drinking ages once again.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com