Not quite an adult

The New York Times reports that the movement to lower the drinking age is gathering steam. On my other blog, I posted about this last year and said:

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.

Ezra Klein offers his take here:

21 is, of course, a bizarre marker. Demanding that kids refrain from drinking for three years after they become legal adults and, in most cases, leave their parent’s supervision, is a bit odd. “Welcome to adulthood, except when it comes to beverage choice!” But this could point the way towards a grand new education policy scheme: Drinking age is 18…if you attain a college-worthy GPA. Otherwise, 21. Implement that and you’ll blow those other, way lamer, educational attainment proposals out of the water.

I stand by my earlier comments and I’m still concerned about about the relationship between legal drinking age, age of first use, and dependence later in life. However, it does seem that there is little cultural “buy in” for the current drinking age, particularly for 19 and 20 year olds–we’re deeply ambivalent about it and this ambivalence turns into permissiveness that seems to drift downward toward high school aged teens. Parents excuse (and sometimes facilitate) underage drinking, police often do little more than dump alcohol, and no one feels strongly enough to challenge it directly or there is not enough consensus to challenge it effectively. If the drinking age was lowered to post-high school and there was broad consensus that this was important to enforce, maybe that would not be such a bad thing.