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Lowering The Drinking Age: Logic, Emotion, The Nanny State—And Social Justice?

August 20, 2008

[Updated: 8/21/08]

There’s prominent debate going on nationally about whether the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18. I developed an opinion on this issue a long time ago, but never felt compelled to articulate it here until now. What’s changed? The current debate is being driven by higher education administrators across the country.

To get us on the same page, minimally at least, below are some excerpts from an AP story, written by Justin Pope, that the Chicago Tribune published yesterday—with my interspersed comments:

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College presidents from about 100 of the nation’s best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

TL: No, people engage in binge drinking due to both real and imagined social pressures. Laws can implemented to discourage binge drinking, but I’m unaware of any in the U.S.—in any state—specifically aimed at reducing binge drinkers by penalizing the parties involved.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell, ex-president of Middlebury College in Vermont, who started the organization. “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”

TL: I’m completely on board here. If you can be recruited to die for your country at the age of 18, then you can have an adult beverage. Period. If people don’t like this logic, then raise the Selective Service age requirement to 21. This seems to me to be a social justice issue.

Other schools on board include Syracuse University, Morehouse College and Lake Forest College.

But before the presidents begin the public phase of their efforts, which may include publishing newspaper ads in the coming weeks, they are facing sharp criticism.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and, in the words of MADD CEO Chuck Hurley, “waving the white flag.”

TL: How can we assume that binge drinkers aren’t already driving cars? It seems par for that course with regard to that person’s risk-taking behavior. And what does the drinking age have to do with driving? Why should we assume that all potential legal drinkers between the ages of 18-21 are more likely to drive drunk than the rest of the population? This answer is that MADD is making statements based on emotion rather than reason. Teach people how to drink responsibly from an early age, and we’ll have fewer drunk driving accidents in the population overall at any age level.

Both sides agree alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem. Research has found that more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

TL: You bet this is a problem. It’s an ongoing, four-year “amateur night” for some college students. Or, in a better scenario, they wise up by the end of their first or second year. Let’s train them to drink responsibly and legally from the moment they step foot on campus. I wonder how many of the injuries and deaths cited above are related to driving? My guess is that a vast majority are not. Most college drinking is done in concentrated locations, and my guess is that it occurs less than one mile from home.

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PS—The nationally syndicated columnist Steve Chapman, who is based with Creators Syndicate but also a Chicago Tribune Editorial Board member, has come out against lowering the drinking age. Mr. Chapman is known, philosophically, for his own special brand for conservative libertarianism. Indeed, he says of himself: “What readers can find here is an independent, libertarian perspective beholden to no party, candidate or dogma.”

I wonder how Mr. Chapman reconciles his nanny state position on lowering the legal drinking age with his otherwise “libertarian” views? – TL

PSS—Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has weighed in with some intelligent commentary. Apparently he thinks that (1) college presidents have the power to lower the drinking age on their own campuses—apart from the law (at least this is the impression I get from the write-up)—and (2) that all college-age drinking is done Animal House style. Of course, per the article, his rant could be calculated, distractionary bluster with regard to the city’s budget deficit. Hmm… – TL

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6 Comments
  1. Couldn't have said it better myself.

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  2. Is this drinking epidemic unique to four-year campuses? Or is it just as prevalent on two-year campuses? If there is less drinking on two-year campuses, then shouldn't four-year campuses be looking to two-year campuses for ideas on this issue?

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  3. Sterling,

    I'm guessing that, as usual, there is no accounting here for 2-year schools. But I don't believe, off the top of my head, that 2-year schools will have much advice to offer since most of those students (at CCs at least) live off campus. Then again, because of this they might have something to offer on the subject of students and drunk driving. Plus, the usual population about which 4-year admin folks are concerned are first and second-year students.

    – TL

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  4. Anonymous permalink

    Is anyone wondering about the effect of this on 18-21 year olds not in college? The argument seems to be pretty much centered on the those in college.

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  5. Dear Anon,

    Good point. How could it hurt or help them any more than college students? We shouldn't assume any more level of responsibility, among individuals, from either cohort. I remember attending many hometown parties on breaks where the non-college folks binge drank as much as us college goers.

    – TL

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  6. Anonymous permalink

    And what about 18 year olds who are still seniors in high school? I thought part of the argument for raising of the age to 21 was to help combat the “trickle down” effect of 18 year olds in HS supplying younger teens.

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