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Over the past quarter-century, the United States and its political subdivisions have by and large established the age of maturity at 18 years. With a few minor exceptions, this means that an eighteen-year-old can vote, enlist in military service, and marry without parental consent. If he commits an offense he can be tried as an adult and, if the offense is of sufficient gravity, upon conviction be put to death. Yet, a glaring exception to this general rule is the minimum age for the public consumption of alcohol, now universally established at age 21. A close examination of the relevant facts points to favor of a more flexible age limit policy.
It was not always thus. Before the American Civil War, youngsters were routinely enlisted in military service as young as fourteen (usually restricted in their duties) and women routinely married at age fifteen or sixteen. Voting was almost always restricted to men over the age of 21 (often with other requirements such as property ownership) if only because of the gravity of the responsibility involved. Until the First World War, there were virtually no age limits on the consumption of alcohol. It was the common belief that a man, irrespective of his age, who had gone into the world was prepared to accept the responsibilities that accompany life as an adult. Lower age limits on alcohol consumption appear to have grown out of two fundamental, yet unrelated, events. The first was the repeal of prohibition in 1933. And the second was the massive expansion of automobile ownership at the same time. Whatever the merits of the arguments introduced in their favor (encouraging sobriety, safe driving), it has become eminently obvious that they have not worked, they are counterproductive, and they are incongruent with the prevailing delimiters of adulthood.
Social conditions and considerations today
Since then we have witnessed an almost incredible reversal of priorities. Eighteen-year-olds have been awarded the vote, a public act of such importance that for centuries democracies have sought to restrict it to the most responsible citizens. The primary argument for a constitutional amendment for lowering the minimum voting age to 18 was the responsibility of those same men (and now, arguably, women) to be drafted into military service. “If he can fight, he should have the right to vote.” Yet the minimum age for lawful consumption of alcohol, which was non-existent for the better part of the first one and a half centuries of this nation’s history, was established nationally at 21, having to be raised to that level where it had been previously otherwise.
From Scandinavia to Spain the lawful drinking age varies from 16 to 18. In many nations (e.g., France and Germany) it is both: 18 for an adult, 16 for a teenager in a restaurant with his or her parents. The assumption, a perfectly logical one, is that parents are excellent judges of the maturity of their children and the state has only a limited right to question that judgment. By the same token, the age of maturity is accounted 18 with all the rights and responsibilities associated therewith.
There are a number of arguments presented in favor of maintaining a minimum age of 21: it reduces the gross number of automobile accidents; lowering the age to 18 would have a deleterious effect on 16- and 17-year-olds; there are many different minimum ages of eligibility for certain positions, electoral or appointive. These arguments vary from the specious to the downright foolish. Proponents argue that car crashes have materially decreased with the introduction of higher minimum drinking age laws. This however appears to associate an outcome unrelated to the decision in question. Most states in the union have had a minimum consumption age of 21 since the repeal of prohibition. Yet they have experienced the same drawdown in automobile deaths as the states that raised their age limits. Clearly, some other factors (e.g., aggressive advertising, more severe sentences for infractions) are at work. In many respects, 17-year-olds do not “blend” into 18-year-olds. The latter cohort has, by and large, left high school and gone on to college or into the world of work. And as for the different ages for certain public offices (30 to be a member of the senate, 35 to be president), these are mandated by the Constitution, have been the law for over two centuries, and have absolutely nothing to do with drinking a glass of beer.
But, there is an underlying, and perhaps more important, factor that merits consideration. We now have the ludicrous situation at work that two twenty-year-olds may lawfully marry each other yet would be violating the law if at the reception they toasted their new status with champagne. (And the argument that no one is going to complain about it is so much nonsense. For one, the act is against the law. For another, someone probably would.) Likewise, if an eighteen-year-old is old enough to take up arms in the defense of his country—where he may have to apply his judgment in determining whether or not to kill someone—he should be considered of sufficient good judgment to recognize his own limits in consuming alcohol.
In increasing the mandatory minimum age to 21 we may have unwittingly created another, largely unmentioned problem—binge and solitary drinking. Consuming alcohol historically has been a cultural event. Traditionally, people have done it in the company of one another. Thus, the beverage is associated with conviviality. By the same token, such venues of conviviality—the neighborhood tavern, the front porch—tend to place practical limits on the amount of alcohol a person consumes, if only to discourage him from making too much of a fool of himself in public. However, increased minimum drinking age laws preclude young adults from being acculturated into this socially restraining system. Rather, they appear all too often to drink to the point of insensibility when they gain access to alcoholic beverages.
On balance, given the arguments pro and con, the nation would be better served by a selective reduction in the minimum age for lawful alcohol consumption.
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- [Title Page] Alcohol minimum age consumption laws should be relaxed
- An Arbitrary Restriction: Current minimum age limits on the lawful consumption of alcohol are unreasonable, 2007