Andrew Sullivan links to a Will Wilkerson post quoting me in support of the abolition of the minimum drinking age. The arguments I made — that a drinking age makes alcohol use a badge of adulthood, and that if drinking is illicit it is less likely to be responsible, leading to the creation of norms and customs of irresponsible use — still seem plausible to me, though there doesn’t seem to be much if any empirical evidence on those points. It’s also the case that having massively disregarded laws is bad civic practice; moreover, underage drinking goes along with acquiring false ID, which is a habit we don’t want to encourage.
Still, Philip J. Cook’s Paying the Tab makes a reasonably airtight statistical case that lower drinking ages lead to higher levels of adolescent drunken driving and therefore higher levels of carnage on the highways. Are we really wiling to accept more corpses to shed the costs of the current minimum drinking age, or some lower age? Not a question with an obvious answer: safety counts for something, but it doesn’t count for everything.
But Cook’s work also points the way out of the bind: combine a lowering (or perhaps abolition) of the drinking age with other policies that would reduce drinking by minors: a strict “no-driving-after-any-drinking-at-all” rule for drivers under 21 (known as zero tolerance [ZT] or zero-BAC rules), and higher alcohol taxes. It’s easy to compute that combining a lowered or abolished drinking age with a dime a drink in additional taxes plus ZT could produce less drunkenness, less crime, fewer highway fatalities, and less lawbreaking, and in addition bring in substantial revenue, and do all of that without putting much of a financial squeeze on any but the heaviest drinkers. [Averaging four drinks a day puts you at the top decile of the drinking distribution. At a dime a drink, that comes to around $140 per year.]