Setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21 saves lives by reducing drunk driving, and not just among the 18-to-21’s; if 18-year-old high school seniors can buy beer at the supermarket, then 16-year-old high school sophomores have access to it. Common sense and evidence agree: drinking and driving by people who are both inexperienced drinkers and inexperienced drivers is really, really dangerous.
Setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21 also encourages disrespect for the law and encourages young adults to acquire and use false identification documents, which is not a social practice we want to encourage just right now. Moreover, that policy insultingly treats people who are adults for all other purposes as if they were still children, and deprives them of lawful access to an activity that forms part of the normal U.S. social scene and which some of them enjoy. And it may (the evidence isn’t clear) lead those who are drinking illegally rather than legally to do so irresponsibly rather than responsibly.
Now, given those facts, what do you want to do about it?
How about looking for policies that would offset the bad effects of lowering the drinking age? They aren’t hard to find.
To address the specific problem of youthful drinking and driving, we could — as some states have already — change the drunk-driving laws so as to forbid drivers under 21 to drive with any detectable level of alcohol. (These are called “ZT” [for “zero tolerance”] laws.) For someone still learning both to drive and to hold his or her liquor, even a little bit under the influence can be too much. Anyway, a bright line (and zero is a very bright line) may be better observed than a rule that enables the proverbial “two beers.”
To address the more general problem of excessive drinking by teenagers (not to mention the still more general problem of excessive drinking, period) we could raise alcohol taxes. This summer has provided a useful object lesson in the Law of Demand: when gasoline prices went up, people drove less. Drinking is the same, especially heavy drinking. Price matters.
Doubling the current alcohol tax, which currently averages out to about a dime a drink, to twenty cents a drink, would put a substantial dent in heavy drinking, especially by younger drinkers. That would measurably reduce homicide, other violent crime, and other accidents, in addition to reducing drunk driving. And the additional tax burden on anyone but a heavy drinker would be trivial: even someone knocking back an average of two drinks a day (which puts him at about the 90th percentile of alcohol consumption) would wind up paying additional taxes of less than $80 a year. To paraphrase my favorite ad for expensive Scotch, “If the tax increase matters to you, you’re drinking too much.”
The combination of a lowered drinking age with ZT laws and a modest tax increase could give us less drunk driving and less false ID than the current policy mix. What’s not to like?
Yes, of course you could have even lower youthful drunk driving rates by doing ZT plus a tax increase and leaving the drinking age where it is. But at what cost in disrespect for the law and loss of liberty? Not one, I think, that we should want to pay.
The Amethyst Initiative starts from sound instinct, but I wish they hadn’t forgotten the amethyst. (The Amethyst Initiative is a group of college presidents pushing for changes in the drinking age. The name comes from the Greek belief that carrying a piece of amethyst wards off drunkenness.) And I wish that Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has done substantial good work in de-normalizing getting behind the wheel sloshed, hadn’t turned into one more enforcer of what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”
If you’re interested in this stuff, the book you want to read is Philip Jackson Cook’s Paying the Tab. He also has a short, insightful paper on alcohol taxation in the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis.
Footnote The comparison of the 21-year drinking age to Prohibition is a bit of rhetorical overstretch. But (speaking of orthodoxies) it’s hard to imagine a bunch of college presidents putting out a call to reform the cannabis laws. I wouldn’t want to enable commercial cannabis sales, just because I’m worried about what the booze and tobacco marketers would do to teenage drug abuse rates if we gave them cannabis to work with. But why not let people grow their own?
Update Megan McArdle reminds me that we could also start a policy of “carding” all buyers of alcohol, not just young-looking ones, and marking the driver’s licenses of DUI convicts in a way that would make them ineligible to buy a drink or a bottle. I remain amazed at what a negative reaction this idea draws — “too big-brotherish” — from people who aren’t bothered either by the current drinking age or by the prohibition of cannabis. Status quo bias is a powerful thing.