Prohibition for the Younger Set?

Should the legal drinking age be 18 or 21? The debate goes on, but it ignores the fundamental issue.


When the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving last November released its final report containing 40 or so recommendations "to reduce the carnage caused by drinking drivers on our highways," it fanned to fever level a long-time American obsession—the drinking-age debate. As an indication of that obsession, the ensuing media and public discussion virtually ignored the recommendation that the 32-member commission claimed would annually reduce alcohol-related traffic injuries and fatalities by tens of thousands—mandatory use of seat belts and child restraints—and instead focused on a recommendation that the commission said would save 734 lives a year: the implementation of a nationwide legal drinking age of 21.

"Public interest" advocacy groups rallied around the national drinking-age idea, and a corps of congressmen quickly introduced a variety of bills proposing to establish, through the use of various federal powers, a national drinking age of 21. Rep. James Florio (D–N.J.), for example, has introduced a bill that would prohibit the sale of any alcoholic beverages that were transported across state lines to those under 21 years old. And Rep. Michael Barnes (D–Md.) introduced a bill in late February this year that would cut federal highway funds by 25 percent a year to states that do not raise their drinking age to at least 21. (At present, 31 states have legal drinking ages lower than 21.)

But even before a presidential commission had endorsed the 21-year drinking age, the neo-prohibition movement had been growing. Since the early 1970s, more than 20 states have raised their drinking age. (Just last year, for instance, Wisconsin raised its legal drinking age from 18 to 19, and there are now both popular and legislative efforts to raise it to 21.) And the influential 300,000-member national interest group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has made the 21-year national drinking age a major plank in its political agenda.

Moreover, many state legislatures are now considering other measures—in addition to raising the drinking age—to restrict the use of alcohol, such as "dramshop laws" (holding the proprietor of a liquor-serving establishment responsible for the drunk driving of the establishment's patrons) and tighter regulation of the alcoholic-beverage industry.

Despite the failure of the last great prohibition, it is clear that the United States is once again experimenting with stricter government regulation of a common personal behavior. And much of the public, it seems, by and large welcomes—even demands—increasing government control of drinking. But while many urge such reform, only few have first asked, in light of past failures, whether prohibition actually works. And even fewer have weighed their calls for greater government control against the political safeguards that protect individual rights.

Almost everyone who calls for further restricting the right to drink defends this position with facts and figures and with the argument that limiting the right to consume alcohol will benefit the public welfare. Similarly, many proponents of a lower or no drinking age produce their favorite studies, which are said to demonstrate irrefutably that higher drinking ages create more problems than they solve.

But even a quick review of drinking studies shows that statistics can support both sides of the drinking-age debate. For example, a study entitled "The Effect of Minimum Drinking Age Legislation on Youthful Auto Fatalities, 1970–1977," by Phillip J. Cook of Duke University, found that fatalities for those between 18 and 20 years old were higher in areas with a drinking age of 21 than areas with a drinking age of 18. Another study, "Death and the Legal Drinking Age: A Tri-State Study," prepared by Michael Birkley and published by the Blaney Institute of Madison, Wisconsin, found that Wisconsin, which has a drinking age of 18, had considerably lower alcohol-related fatalities per capita than its neighboring states of Illinois and Michigan, where the legal drinking age is 21. On the other hand, there are studies such as "Impact Analysis of the Raised Legal Drinking Age in Illinois," by Delmas Maxwell Johnson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which shows that when states raise their legal drinking age, there is less alcohol consumption among the affected age group, thus suggesting the effectiveness of a higher legal drinking age.

The ambiguity among studies that try to find the "best" minimum legal drinking age should not surprise anyone; for to use statistics in arguing one side or another of the drinking-age debate is to force something as unpredictable as human behavior into mathematical formulae and equations. But there is even a more fundamental problem with using studies and statistics to decide which rights individuals are to give up—such a procedure leads to a logical quagmire.

To illustrate what I mean, consider the argument for a drinking age of 21 because 18- to 20-year-olds account for 25 percent of all alcohol-related traffic accidents. (Incidentally, 21- to 24-year-olds account for another 25 percent.) The implication is that it is in the interest of the public's safety to reduce traffic accidents even at the expense of individual rights. But if that is true—if the interest is solely in reducing accidents by 25 percent (why not 50 percent, or 75 percent?)—why deny the right to drink to those (or only those) under 21? Why not choose an age group older than 20, such as those 55 or older? That age group begins to develop other characteristics that compound the accident problem, such as poor eyesight, slower reflexes, and so on. Or why not be equitable and rotate the burden among the four age groups that each account for 25 percent of alcohol-related traffic accidents?

Reasoning based solely on the "common good" and statistics becomes even more complicated. For example, the study by Birkley, mentioned above, found that in some years the age group of 21- to 24-year-olds actually is involved in more alcohol-related accidents than those under 21. And Prof. Michael F. Morris of Pensacola Junior College in his study "Drinking-Driving Behavior in Florida" found the same to be true in Florida. Does that mean at the end of each year we should tally the traffic-accident statistics and deny the losing age group the right to drink legally for the next year?

The use of statistics to decide who gets to exercise what rights also begs the question of how many rights individuals will have to give up for the so-called common good. If denying those under 21 the right to drink legally will reduce alcohol-related traffic accidents by 25 percent, for instance, is that good enough reason to interfere with individuals' freedom of choice?

If society answers yes and prohibits drinking for those under 21, other questions arise. If 21 were the national legal drinking age—and were effectively enforced—some new age group above 21 will then account for 25 percent of alcohol-related traffic accidents. So if the "common good" was an acceptable argument to deny those under 21 the right to drink due to the number of alcohol-related traffic accidents they caused, should the same logic be applied regarding the new age group now accounting for 25 percent of the alcohol-related accidents? This question would persist with the establishment of each new drinking age. Clearly, that criterion cannot be used to set a drinking age, because when followed to its logical conclusion it takes the right to drink away from everyone.

If society can remove the rights of a small group solely on the grounds of statistics and the perceived common good, what is to prevent a government from applying that logic to other rights and other groups? For example, suppose that women as a group committed the majority of checking-account overdrafts. Should they then be denied checking accounts to shield the public from the economic havoc caused by overdrafts? (A similar argument is made for gun control: because some people—a small minority—use guns to commit crimes, then everybody should be denied the right to possess a gun.) In the past, black slavery and female disenfranchisement were excused in part by similar appeals to the "common good." And the list is endless. If individuals give the government the power to deny rights based on the supposed common good, we may have a safer society, but we will have spared ourselves the value of living.

Of course, none of this is to say that anyone has a right to drive while drunk. Those responsible for the public safety may legitimately establish and enforce rules of the road. And injuring another while driving under the influence of alcohol should be treated as the rights-violation it is.

The rejection of a minimum legal drinking age, thus leaving the decision to drink to individuals and parents (and bars and liquor stores), may seem like a radical departure from current practice or an untried social theory; but it is neither. Many countries, in fact, have a long history of no drinking age. Italy, for example, is one.

Drinking-age proponents are quick to point out that Italy has a greater per capita consumption of alcohol than the United States. They then argue that the US system of controlling alcohol accessibility—they assume a legal drinking age works—is better than Italy's system of allowing individuals to make their own decisions about drinking. But what those same people often fail to point out is that America's alcoholism rate is eight times greater than Italy's. What controls the consumption of alcohol in Italy, then, is not a minimum drinking age but cultural mores—something that government laws cannot duplicate or improve.

Israel, too, has no minimum drinking age, yet alcohol problems there are reported to be almost nonexistent. Instead, culture and custom control the use of alcohol. In the case of Israel's Islamic population, their religion forbids the drinking of alcoholic beverages. Among Israel's Jews, alcohol is associated with cultural customs and religious ceremonies. As a consequence, both populations view the abuse of alcohol as offensive to society and religion.

Still, some argue that drinking is not a right to be decided solely by individual choice. But the lesson of the Prohibition offers powerful evidence to the contrary. During Prohibition there was a wholesale disregard for laws against drinking because people considered drinking to be a personal right. Individuals, that is, felt that drinking is not a privilege granted by government but a right of individual decision.

Individual decision is a notion central to the drinking-age debate—and to the gun-control debate, the drug-law debate, the gambling-law debate, etc.—because the individual, not the group, is responsible for his or her behavior. When government establishes a minimum legal drinking age, then, it is denying individuals the fundamental right of choice. And the denial of individual choice by a government is nothing but tyranny.

Rex Reed is editor and research director at the Blaney Institute of Madison, Wisconsin.