Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Dealer Has...Twenty-One..

No this is not a gambling post. Thank goodness.

Rather, this is a reflection on a different twenty-one, as in the age. Without revealing too much about my secret identity, your host recently turned 21. With this comes the legal coming-of-age ability to booze and, not relevant to today's topic, gamble.

Let us start with a little history. Congress passed a law in 1984 to make the national drinking age in the United States 21. Many states already had this as the drinking age. The law was not a direct change since any such law would largely run afoul of federalism in the United States. Not even the Commerce Clause could really finagle its way into an act without testing Equal Protection. Instead, the Feds would withhold money from any state that refused to comply. The bill made its way to the Supreme Court as some states resisted. The Court upheld the law in 1987, which for all tense and purposes become the year the National Drinking age became 21, Puerto Rico excluded.

The law was passed and padded further with backup from states, as in Massachusetts by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The group, at its founding had noble and indeed correct intentions by pushing for drunk drivers to face real punishments and tightening laws with regard to what constituted drunk driving. Part of that effort was to reduce the drinking age. However, the organization quickly became overly bureaucratic and somewhat fringe, such that its primary founder, Candy Lightner quit the organization in 1985, characterizing it as "neo-prohibitionist."

Despite a lower drinking age in Canada, where MADD's efforts were also undertaken, drunk driving and drunk driving deaths have fallen, as they have in the United States. The implication being that a higher drinking age may have no real connection to drunk driving reduction. Third party liability, i.e. bartenders and establishments who serve drunk drivers or make drivers drunk, may also have a role.

In addition, having a higher drinking age acts as an encouragement for reckless behavior among both those able to drink legally and illegally. It puts a forbidden fruit label on drinking that it may deserve, but whose placement only makes booze more (philosophically) powerful. The argument that a lower drinking age in the US would make it more accessible to even younger kids is not without merit, but those 10-18 year-olds are getting it anyway.

And yet, the answer is not necessarily lowering the drinking age. Why? Because Americans are reckless. Although framed in a discussion of needless death of the innocent and more rarely adolescent brain development, the fundamental sticking point is that alcohol's place in our culture is muddled. Yes, the Europeans have their share of drunks and alcohol related problems, but a responsible introduction of liquor into people's lives yields a society that can have a lower drinking age without the same problems our society would and does have.

This problem is not new either. There are stories of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald partying their way through Paris recklessly. Boisterously stumbling around drunk like stereotypical Americans aged 18-35 do. This was not the way the French around them behaved. Other American Expats at the time also looked down on this.

There are no simple answers with this regard. Given that one cannot legislate social policy, despite the fact that many have tried, the solution is not simply one that rests with the government. Those efforts have yielded some fruit, but at some cost to civil liberties. The responsibility rests with individuals to control themselves and impart better wisdom and guidance onto their offspring. This alone is not a panacea, but it is essential to success in this regard and to do so at a way that secures some of our basic Constitutional rights.

Editor's Addendum: To anybody who has lost individuals to drunk drivers or even alcohol more generally, let me be clear that I do not mean to minimize your loss. Although I seldom receive letters at all, let alone angry ones, I suspect this could provoke such a response. Surely, if any offended person is a member of MADD, you and I will disagree about a great many things. However, I, too, am worried about the place alcohol has in our society and among our youth. The concern must be not that people drink, but rather why they drink. That answer cannot just be focused within the parameters of alcoholism, either Its scope is wider. More broadly, it is WMassP&I's intent to stir the embers of discussion on the issue and find thoughtful, effective means to counter the greater problems presented to us and not just knee-jerk reactions that cause more harm that good. Thank you.

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