Here’s a thoughtful, but somewhat ambivalent argument for lowering the drinking age to 18.
Twenty-nine states lowered their minimum age by 1975. I and a colleague analyzed the effects on highway fatalities, finding that the relevant age group experienced about a 10% increase in states that lowered their age for all beverage types from 21 to 18, compared with states that didn’t change their law. Other research documented this and other indications of increased abuse. President Reagan appointed a commission that documented the problems (with some exaggeration) and ultimately sold Congress on establishing a national minimum.
(Note that we analysts could recite all the theoretical reasons why an age-based prohibition could have perverse effects on health and safety. Those arguments have some truth, but were ultimately trumped by the data. The net effect of lowering the minimum age was to increase alcohol abuse.)
Yet giving 18-20 year olds the right to drink has a lot going for it. After all, 18 year olds currently can vote, serve on juries, and hold most public offices, enlist in the military or work at any job without parental consent, undertake contractual obligations including marriage, and legally purchase lottery tickets, cigarettes, and shotguns. They are held fully accountable for criminal acts and are too old to receive the protection of the statutory rape laws.
It is also true that while the minimum age law does some good, it’s widely violated – in fact, it’s hard to think of another law that is so widely scoffed at. The great majority of older teens choose to drink, with whatever effect that may have on their respect for the law generally.
It’s good to see someone wrestling with the subject in an intellectually honest manner.
I doubt that there will be movement in this direction, but if there is, I’d hope that the requirement would be lowered to 18 with a high school diploma and 19 without. This might help reduce access for high school students.