An Honest Conversation About Alcohol

From Inside Higher Ed:

Two months after he finished up as president of Middlebury College in 2004, John M. McCardell Jr. wrote a column for The New York Times called “What Your College President Didn’t Tell You.” In the piece, he discussed how he was “as guilty as any of my colleagues [as presidents] of failing to take bold positions on public matters that merit serious debate.” Taking advantage of his new emeritus status, he proceeded to take a few such positions. Among other things, he wrote that the 21-year-old drinking age is “bad social policy and terrible law,” and that it was having a bad impact on both students and colleges….

The current law, McCardell said in an interview Thursday, is a failure that forces college freshmen to hide their drinking — while colleges must simultaneously pretend that they have fixed students’ drinking problems and that students aren’t drinking. McCardell also argued that the law, by making it impossible for a 19-year-old to enjoy two beers over pizza in a restaurant, leads those 19-year-olds to consume instead in closed dorm rooms and fraternity basements where 2 beers are more likely to turn into 10, and no responsible person may be around to offer help or to stop someone from drinking too much.

I have a few brief reactions. First, I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter, other than I’d be troubled by 18 year old high-school students being able to buy alcohol.

In principle, the general idea of a less restrictive drinking law might appeal to Libertarians, but drinking licenses? That’ll lose Libertarian support fast.

He makes an argument about current law criminalizing parents who try to teach their kids to drink responsibly. First, is serving alcohol necessary to do this? Second, as we saw a few weeks ago, this isn’t illegal in 31 states. Third, when is the last time you heard of parents fined or arrested for allowing their teen to have a glass of wine with dinner?

Some of his arguments are a stretch — for example, using SAMHSA’s increased attention to underage drinking as an argument against the existing policy and implying that there’s a relationship between the 21 year old drinking law and younger ages of first use.

The fact that we currently have problems, isn’t necessarily a good argument against the status quo. Anyone who’s honest with themselves will recognize that there is no such thing as a problem-free drug and alcohol policy. As I’ve said before in this blog, these drug policy questions are all about trade offs and, recognizing that every policy requires living with some problems, the questions you have to wrestle with are:

  • Which problems are intolerable and which are you willing to tolerate?
  • How do you make these decisions? (I’d suggest that even responses that purport to be value-free are value laden.)
  • Which policy (or combination of policies) best balances these values?

It seems like these discussions would generate more light if people were a little more honest in acknowledging the problems inherent in their pet theory.