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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.