The Seen and Unseen of Drinking-Age Laws


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August 21, 2008

Check out a simultaneously refreshing and infuriating article about American drinking-age laws from CNN. It's nice to see that adults are finally starting to approach this absurd law, given the near impossibility of a youth-led effort at liberalization in this area ("We should be allowed to drink as much as we want, we're responsible enough!!!"). But in reading the article, I noticed something wonderfully irritating:

But critics say McCardell has badly misrepresented the research by suggesting that the decision to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 may not have saved lives.

In fact, MADD CEO Chuck Hurley said, nearly all peer-reviewed studies looking at the change showed raising the drinking age reduced drunk-driving deaths. A survey of research from the U.S. and other countries by the Centers for Disease Control and others reached the same conclusion.

This is a paradigm instance of pointing to a piece of evidence in isolation without considering the mechanism by which it would come about. As a 22-year old who has been able to observe underage drinking in its natural habitat for several years, I can attest to the fact that the illegality of drinking between the ages of 18 and 21 almost certainly resulted in fewer instances of drunk driving among people I knew. But the reason for this has nothing to do with people within this age range drinking less. Believe me, we drank plenty; probably a whole lot more than we would have if we had been going to the bars and paying vastly inflated prices to get alcohol. We messed up and damaged our parents' houses, some of us drank until we couldn't drink any more, and some us incorporated a pretty fair deal of pot into the process. We learned to orient our fun around drinking; we got better at all the drinking games, and played them more often and with greater enthusiasm as a result; we never had to worry about what adults would think of us, since they were never around when it happened, and so never learned to be "presentably drunk"; it became cool to drink a lot, and to be able to drink a lot; we made friends with the people who had the alcohol, even if they weren't always the greatest people; luckily, I never personally had to deal with sexual assault among my friends when I was underage, but I would imagine it's a whole lot easier to assault someone at a high school or college house party than it is at a bar. But largely, we didn't drive home drunk. That's because we were at our friends' houses, and we could always sleep there if we didn't have a ride. There was no bartender to force us to leave. So there you have it: the seen and the unseen. The seen: we didn't drive home drunk as often as we probably would have if drinking had been legal, and so fewer of us were lost to car crashes. The unseen: many more of us were likely sexually abused, many more of us developed patterns of alcoholism or became full-blown alcoholics, many of us likely failed to learn how to integrate responsible drinking with an adult lifestyle until we were already well into adulthood, and many of us probably used other drugs which we may not have if we had been exposed to the less drug-oriented bar scene. There you have it, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Even by your own standards, where 18 year olds are somehow incapable of deciding whether or not to drink, but can decide to get addicted to cigarettes, sign up to go to war, participate in the democratic process, and go off to college to live on their own, it's not clear that your draconian goals are being advanced by your draconian policy. Of course, I don't think that the federal government should have anything at all to do with determining whether someone should be allowed to drink or not. Even if you do believe that there is a role for drinking-age laws, it's not clear why a centralized national solution is necessary to bring them about. And of course, if you don't think that drinking-age laws are desirable, obviously you won't want the federal government to have anything to do with them. So the best-case solution, I think, would be for the federal government to completely get out of this particular policy arena. Decouple road funding (which probably shouldn't have anything to do with the federal government either, but that's a separate discussion) from drinking-age laws, and wash your hands of the whole thing. But if the government is going to insist on having its own set of rules, the lower the better! As is so often the case, the alleged benefits of the existing policy come along with a host of unintended consequences, which in this case are particularly pernicious. But that shouldn't be surprising to anyone; after all, it's the government we're talking about!

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Danny Shahar's picture
Columns on STR: 9

Danny Shahar is an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education.  He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to begin work on a PhD in philosophy in the Fall of 2009.  Danny's research generally falls within the fields of ethical, political, and economic philosophy.  He writes a blog called Back to the Drawing Board.