Apr 13, 2011 3:56 PM GMT
'If you get shot at, you can have a shot." That's the rationale behind Alaska State Representative—and Vietnam veteran—Bob Lynn's effort to establish a drinking age of 18 for active-duty service members.
It's an idea that has gotten consideration in other states, and it makes sense. Unfortunately, Mr. Lynn's proposal would violate the 1984 Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act, costing Alaska federal highway money. This is a battle that Republicans—and fair-minded Democrats—in Congress should join.
The "old enough to fight, old enough to drink" argument has force. In fact, 18-year-olds in America are old enough to do pretty much everything except drink. Along with joining the military, 18-year-olds can vote, marry, sign contracts, and even take on a crippling lifetime burden of student loan debt in pursuit of an education that may never land them a job. Yet we face the absurd phenomenon of colleges encouraging students to go into six-figure debt—which can't be discharged in bankruptcy—but forbidding them to drink on campus because they're deemed insufficiently mature to appreciate the risks.
To be fair, over 130 college presidents, as part of something called the Amethyst Initiative, have called for an end to the drinking age of 21. They note that the higher drinking age doesn't stop college students from drinking, as anyone who's been on a college campus in the past several decades knows. It does drive drinking out of bars and restaurants and into dorm rooms and fraternity houses, where there is less supervision from the non-intoxicated and less encouragement for moderation.
Defenders of the status quo claim that highway deaths have fallen since the drinking age was raised to 21 from 18, but those claims obscure the fact that this decline merely continued a trend that was already present before the drinking age changed—and one that involved every age group, not merely those 18-21. Research by economist Jeffrey A. Miron and lawyer Elina Tetelbaum indicates that a drinking age of 21 doesn't save lives but does promote binge drinking and contempt for the law.
Safety is the excuse, but what is really going on here is something more like prohibition. A nation that cares about freedom—and that has already learned that prohibition was a failure—should know better. As Atlantic Monthly columnist Megan McArdle writes, "A drinking age of 21 is an embarrassment to a supposedly liberty-loving nation. If you are old enough to enlist, and old enough to vote, you are old enough to swill cheap beer in the company of your peers."
On Jan. 21, 2009, I suggested in these pages that President Obama might wish to signal a new approach by supporting a return to state freedom in setting drinking ages. He hasn't, of course. Perhaps he sees the drinking age as a Republican problem—which, to be fair, it is.
Republicans are supposed to stand for limited government, freedom and federalism, but it was under a Republican administration—and a Republican transportation secretary, Elizabeth Dole—that states were forced to raise their age limits or face financial penalties. That was before the tea party, though. Perhaps today, when Republican leaders across the board are singing the praises of limited government, it is time for them to put their money where their mouths are and support an end to the federal drinking-age mandate.
And if arguments based on fairness and principle aren't enough, perhaps one based on politics will do the trick: This will get votes.