Sunday, August 24, 2008

More on the Drinking Age

There's a flurry of editorials about that proposal to lower the drinking age. I'm a little surprised the story didn't die out, as the proposal obviously won't be implemented and it hasn't been an especially slow week. The Post had a particularly irritating editorial about this, in which they advised skeptical readers to "take a good look at numbers posted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving" -- as if you would trust anything coming out of a group like that. No one on either side of the debate mentions that the vast majority of underage drinkers neither binge-drink (guess this depends on how you define binge-drinking) nor drive drunk (at least, not especially often), and the current law is an unreasonable imposition on them. If your only objective in life is to reduce car accidents, then I have a brilliant idea -- raise the driving age to 25! Or 40! You would be astonished at the resulting decline in car accidents.

That said, my sense is that the college presidents' notion that binge drinking has anything to do with the legal status of booze is wrong. (cf. Finland, the UK) The most effective way to cut down on booze at parties is probably to raise the tax; party organizers are not, in my experience, immune to costs. I think this will affect parties more than individual / small group drinking, though obviously it isn't going to stop the more extreme cases, and there will be a general decline in the quality of social life. Btw, if people are that into reducing drunk driving, why not make it a felony? This has the added merit over the current approach that it might deter drunk driving among 22-year-olds. (It'd be interesting to compare DUI fatalities for 18-21 year olds back in the 60s and 70s with similar numbers for 21-25 year olds. If they are not significantly different, it's rankly unjust to let one group drink and forbid the other.)

In general, the argument is taking place on the wrong turf. The Star-Ledger suggests that the burden of proof is on people who would lower the drinking age. I disagree; forbidding a subset of adults from doing what other adults can is facially unreasonable except in the presence of a very compelling state interest. I'm willing to acknowledge the possibility that such an interest exists -- it depends on the numbers, which seem to me ambiguous (e.g. a 10% drop in drunk driving among underage drivers doesn't cut it) -- and that it really is a good idea to keep the age at 21 (in which case, wouldn't 22 be even better, as I argued last time?), but no one's trying to make that case.

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