The Magazine

Keep the Drinking Age at 21

Despite all the criticism, it's actually working well.

Jul 30, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 43 • By STEVE CHAPMAN
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BETWEEN COLUMBINE, EMINEM, AND MTV, today’s teenagers often come across to their elders as indecent, self-destructive, and dangerous. But Baby Boomers shouldn’t be too quick to judge. In one respect, modern adolescents behave far more responsibly than their parents did at the same age. High school students today are far less likely to drink or to drink and drive.

This is partly because changing attitudes among kids. But they’ve also gotten some crucial help from adults—particularly a 1984 law effectively forcing every state to bar alcohol sales to anyone under the age of 21. One consequence is that a lot fewer teenagers now end their lives in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Since 1982, the number of youngsters killed in crashes involving a drunken teenage driver has plunged by 63 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that higher drinking ages have saved more than 19,000 lives since 1975—including 901 in 1999. "Drinking and driving," reports NHTSA, "is no longer the leading cause of death for teenagers."

But a lot of people count that as a piddling achievement. Since President Bush’s 19-year-old daughters were cited for trying to buy alcohol at an Austin establishment a few weeks ago, a chorus has gone up in favor of lowering the drinking age. And a lot of the voices have come from the right. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, writing in USA Today, noted that Jenna Bush can legally vote, go to war, get an abortion, get married, and be prosecuted as an adult—"yet we insist that when it comes to alcohol, she conduct herself as a child." An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal assailed the current law as "irrational" and "morally confused." Even the Economist magazine weighed in, attributing the 21-year age floor to two malign currents in American life: "petty puritanism and a pathological obsession with safety."

One group has conspicuously dissented from the emerging new consensus: the people who would be most affected by the change. A recent poll by the survey organization ICR found that 84 percent of teenagers support keeping or raising the current drinking age. "In a given year, the majority of high school seniors drink, but only a small proportion are drinking heavily," Boston University School of Public Health scholar Ralph Hingson told the Associated Press. "On balance, they are supportive of legislation that will reduce the risks to themselves."

So why would anyone want to increase the risks to them? Simple consistency, we are told, demands a change. If 18-year-olds are adults for purposes of voting, enlisting in the military, signing contracts, and most everything else, the argument goes, they should certainly be free to go into a restaurant and order a margarita. The Bush daughters were only doing what most young people do sooner or later—trying to circumvent a law that denies them a simple and often harmless adult pleasure. Treat 18-year-olds like grown-ups, and they’ll act more like grown-ups.

But this is one of those instances that bring to mind the supremely conservative observation of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: "A page of history is worth a volume of logic." We raised the drinking age in the 1980s not because we were eager to turn college campuses into monasteries, but because we could no longer stomach the costs incurred when many states lowered their drinking age in the 1970s. Thanks to that change, alcohol-related highway deaths rose, helping to fuel the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a broad national effort to reduce the carnage. If we abandon the 21-year drinking age, we can expect to forfeit a lot of lives, both young and old.

A uniform age of consent holds a superficial appeal, but practical considerations ought to weigh heavily in our calculations. There are good reasons to treat 18-year-olds differently for different purposes. Some responsibilities they are ready for. Others they may not be. Experience suggests that teenagers may be trusted to drive a car. But drinking and driving are another story entirely. A one-size-fits-all policy pretends that the world is a neater place than the complicated reality we know.

Another argument against foolish consistency is that the drinking age is a uniquely porous barrier. Lowering the voting age to 18 didn’t cause a mass outbreak of illegal voting by 15-year-olds. Very few high school students obtain fake IDs so they can take out a mortgage or join the Navy before the law allows. But many, if not most, are fiercely impatient when it comes to alcohol. Setting the drinking age at 21 can be criticized as a highly imperfect way of keeping booze away from college-age kids, who have devised numerous ways to get it. But it does hinder them at least a little. Perhaps more important, the existing law presents even greater obstacles for younger teens. Lower the floor to 18, and millions of high school seniors would suddenly be free to buy all the Budweiser their friends can guzzle. Middle schoolers would soon find alcohol more accessible than it is today. Drinking among adolescents has fallen substantially in the last 20 years. If we want to take it upon ourselves to reverse that trend, reducing the drinking age is a sure way to do it.

Conservatives argue that in any event, this is a matter that ought to be handled through state decisions, not by federal coercion. But federalism, correctly understood, doesn’t mean leaving all decisions to the states—only those decisions whose consequences are largely confined within their boundaries. If California chooses to bar construction of power generators or New York levies high taxes, its citizens will pay the price. But we don’t let one state foul the air of its neighbors at will, or block goods and services coming from elsewhere. In those sorts of cases, the federal government steps in, as it should.

Like air pollution, lax liquor laws reach insidiously across borders. Back when there was no national uniformity, some states, such as Wisconsin, allowed 18-year-olds to drink, while others, such as neighboring Illinois, didn’t. So taverns just north of the interstate border promoted heavily to bring in Illinoisans who were just a short trip away from beer heaven. Many of them accepted the invitation, took full advantage of Wisconsin’s hospitality, and then perished trying to drive home in a fog of alcohol. The Wisconsin-Illinois line became known as the "blood border." Let states regain control over the drinking age, and that grim history will repeat itself.

An economist was once defined as someone who, upon seeing something work fine in practice, wonders if it can work in theory. A similarly sterile attitude afflicts those who want to lower the drinking age. Conservatives should be the last people to elevate blind consistency over prudent accommodations of reality. Keeping the current drinking age is contradictory, less than satisfying, and, in some sense, unfair. But it’s far preferable to an approach that is logical, uniform, and wrong.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.