Learn to Drink


Here's a predictable adjunct to having large numbers of young people overseas fighting a war—the ones back at home want to drink. BeerRadio has started a "Countdown to 21" program featuring an intern, Jennifer Wiley, 20.

Wiley wonders out loud about the logic of U.S. alcohol laws in ways that simply are not permitted in polite, neo-prohibitionist company.

"I got my learner?s permit when I was 15?. I could drive when I turned 16 and vote when I turned 18. I can be married and a mother, own property or my own business. I can join the military or be a pilot." Wiley said. "It would be great to have some type of learner's permit for beer that could ease us into being legally able to drink."

Not a bad idea. But highly unlikely.

NEXT: Now it's really getting confusing

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  1. “It would be great to have some type of learner’s permit for beer that could ease us into being legally able to drink.”

    There used to be one. It was called a “family.”

    In the Old World, as far back as classical times, it was common to start giving children diluted wine at meals as soon as they were weaned. If David Copperfield is any indication, it was common practice for middle class children to drink beer as an ordinary beverage at meals. I doubt drunkenness was any more common in nineteenth century England than it is in modern America.

    But now we’re all property of the state, and the state is the primary guarantor of every human being’s welfare. The home is just that place where human resources are stored when they’re not being processed by the schools, or in the service of the corporate state.

  2. When I was taking a driver’s ed class to get my learners permit, the class instructor had a cop come in one day to talk in rather graphic detail about drinking and driving.

    In between talking about all the disgusting wrecks he’d had to clean up, he did say that the primary reason law enforcement agencies want to keep the legal drinking age at 21 has to do with drinking and driving. Given the puritanical attitude towards drinking (and generally having fun) in the U.S., most kids DON’T learn to drink responsibly at home; they don’t learn to drink at all at home. They learn to drink when their older buddies become old enough to buy legally.

    In the experience of this cop, when the drinking age was 21, most kids started drinking at 17 or 18. Back when the drinking age was 18, most kids started drinking at 15 or 16.

    From the point of view of the cop, the main trouble with a kid starting drinking at 15 is that he’s both an inexperienced drunk AND an inexperienced driver AT THE SAME TIME. The roads are safer if the inexperienced drunks have at least a year or two of driving experience, instead of having the ink still wet on their learner’s permits.

    Of course, the approach not presently politically possible in the U.S. is for kids to already have drinking experience before getting their learner’s permits.

  3. Hey, I am 32 and still drink like I did when I was 15! Man, I love getting sauced! Oh shit, and its St Patty’s tomorrow! Hell yeah, green beer with my green ham and eggs at 6 AM! Man, now thats a holiday! I am so looking forward to asking that bartender, “Yo, bartender dude, how about another green Bud?” Gets ’em everytime!!!

    (Note to H&R: 21 is just an arbitrary number. It has no effect on when a person actually becomes an adult. Some people are destined not to become an adult.)

  4. Speedwell-

    Right now the military is a choice. It hasn’t always been and it won’t always be.

    I have this fantasy: the draft is re-activated because of Iraq and various other nations, and as usual the majority of the draftees are below the drinking age. I, in a spectacular feat of both civil disobedience and organizational skills, get the numerical majority of the young draftees together and buy them all a really strong drink.

    In come the cops, out come the billy clubs, and soon our military is dreadfully understaffed because all the potential cannon fodder is in jail for underage drinking!

    Except I don’t have enough money to pull this off.

  5. Jennifer-

    I’ll chip in to buy beers for underage draftees. Put me down for $30.

  6. Jennifer,

    The youthful, buzzed draftees beat up the cops, and you get sent to Gitmo.

  7. Joe-
    If I want future elementary schools to be named after me, I must be willing to make some sacrifices.

  8. Ahh, the irony. A bunch of adults chipping in money to buy underaged kids beer.

  9. I just want to say that the host of “Beer Radio,” Big Don O’Brien, is an old friend and coworker of mine. He’s a very talented guy, and you should check out his program.

  10. Fyodor,

    Perhaps your right. In order to insure the large volunteer army, how ’bout we split the difference, and make 19.5 the age that the kids can start drinkin, shootin, and votin.

    I’m just amused that the assumption is that, since they can vote at 18 they should lower the drinking age. What amuses most is that if a kid can’t be trusted to drink until the magical 21’st year of their life is complete then, why do are they allowed to vote. If they can’t be trusted to drink, then why burden them with the defense of the country? Why is it that the assumption is the age should be lowered not raised?

    BTW, my position is that the 21 age is useless. I imagine that a kid under 21 has no more trouble getting a drink then I, and the rest of my peers, did 13 years ago.

  11. All this discussion and nobody has mentioned 3.2 beer? You’re all too young, I suppose.

    Anyway, it used to be (maybe still is?) that in some states the drinking age was 21, but only 18 for 3.2% alcohol beer, making it something of a “learner’s permit” situation.

  12. It touches on a singular point that transcends other perfectly logical arguments (such as the learners permit point, which I myself have argued): it is the epitome of absurdity when your government demands of you that you take another human’s life (i.e. selective service), but at the same time, denies you the legal right to consume alcohol. It’s like La Cosa Nostra taking in a kid and having him partake in the family “business”, but prohibiting him from smoking.

  13. Jennifer said:
    “I have this fantasy: the draft is re-activated because of Iraq and various other nations”

    I have this fantasy that they’ll draft me again like they did back in ’66, but they won’t because government is stupid. Duh… The very raison detre of Hit & Run.
    I’m much more Ruthless today than I was then. Isn’t that what they’re looking for in “a few good men”?

    But what I really meant to say is that if drinking is to be like riding a bicycle, then the training wheels for it would need to be on telescoping axles that could go way out there like on outrigger canoes… and seatbelts on motorcycles would be mandatory. Not to mention helmets.

  14. The 18 year old vote was zipped through in record time for a constitutional ammendment because it was thought that the majority of 18 year olds would vote democrat. The lowering of the drinking age and the age for contracts were never even considered.

  15. A learner’s permit to drink is “not a bad idea”? Have you lost your goddamned mind? How about just leaving parents alone to attend the responsibilibity for rearing their children?

    What the hell is wrong with you?

  16. The legal drinking age in this country is ridiculous, agreed. One of the main things that stands in the way of change, is the very age of those with the most to gain. I am part of this problem. When I went away to school at 17, it was in NY shortly after they raised the age to 21. I was upset and vowed to work to change this. In just over three years, I hadn’t done much (wrote a few letters, tried to get others interested) and I suddenly found the problem gone from my personal perspective. Out of sight, out of mind. Sure, I’d still sympathize with, or sign a petition or vote for some one who was for change (all other things considered of course), but it wasn’t worth my time to fight for a change.

    This cycle repeats endlessly. The voting age was rolled back only in small part by the efforts of those 18-20. There was a large contingent of 21+ people who wanted the youngsters to vote, and were willing to work towards it. Barring a major change in our overall view of the role of govt., I doubt it will change without a strong effort by those whose interest won’t fade when they hit the magic age. The bar/restaurant/alcohol industries seem the most likely candidates. Unfortunately, the neo-prohibitionists have these groups on their heels on several other fronts, so it seems unlikely that this would become a really imortant issue for them any time soon.

  17. Well, in some countries, children begin drinking at home and under parental supervision at an early age. In other words, they “learn to drink” they way they learn how to do anything else. Of course, this is “Old Europe” I’m talking about. You know, countries like France. So, obviously we have nothing to learn from them.

  18. I’m not sure a learner’s permit is the right model, but the reality is that with a 21 year old drinking age and kids going off to college at 17, is it any surprise that campuses (including mine) are full of irresponsible behavior involving the over-consumption of alcohol – everything from sick students to property damage to sexual assault? Could there be a worse mix than kids raised on the scare tactics of DARE and “Just say no” then being released to supposed adulthood and THEN having to hide their drinking behavior from the authorities? I’ve seen too many college students destroy themselves and others simply because no one, including parents, ever modelled the responsible use of alcohol. We teach them to use condoms to keep them safe, but doing the same with alcohol is riskier because underage consumption is illegal (unlike sex…).

    Having said that, we’ve tried that sort of alcohol education on my campus and it does seem to have had some positive effects. But lowering the drinking age to 18 and un-demonizing alcohol and other recreational drugs would do a hell of a lot more to help. And it would save lives, both literally and metaphorically, by allowing me to invite a student out for a beer or to serve wine at dinner with them, and thus have some ability to dent the dysfunctional alcohol culture that permeates college campuses. It would also get administrators and staff out of the business of policing student lives for demon rum and back to whatever the hell it is we are supposed to be doing!

  19. I’m an 18 year old American high school student living in London. Here the drinking age is 18, a mere 16 if the drink is served as part of a meal. Here high school students have been given the priveledge to drink in pubs and bars with adults and this priveledge has not been abused.
    While I think its a bit daft to issue learners permits which would allow 18-21 year olds to ease their way into drinking culture, I do agree that there is no need for the drinking age to be so high in the states.

  20. 21 to drink is pretty stupid alright. At least it’s still set by state law. Although I seem to remember some federal arm twisting, road money wasn’t it? Now if we could just be this stupid when it comes to pot.

  21. just go to the “bermuda triangle” part of vienna on a friday night and that scene belies the oh so sophisticated myth germanic drinkers. you see kids who aren’t old enough to shave stumbling around, puking, destroying property. i don’t, sadly, think this behavior is only found on US college campuses.

    the most responsible drinkers i’ve met have been americans. they don’t seem as though they have to live up to some stereotype and impress other europeans. or they’re on a budget and aren’t drinking as much

    and – sam adams is a really good beer 😉


  22. I never get the comparison between military service and drinking — “old enough to kill for your country but you can’t drink a beer!?” Seems like apples and oranges to me. Besides, if I judge by my own behavior at that age, or that of pretty much everyone I knew at the time, people make a lot of lousy choices between 18 and 21, and I imagine for me they could only have been worse if I was drinking. A soldier at least doesn’t have many choices — they have training and orders, and if they deviate, the consequences are immediate and severe. I also seem to remember reading somewhere (wish I could site) that even as late as 25, the brain is still developing and alcohol use can have a severe impact on how it develops. Of course, I guess you could say that post-traumatic stress disorder is evidence of war having a severe impact on a developing brain as well…

  23. The heck with the drinking age set at 21 – lower it. It’s the thought of a 16 year old behind the wheel of a 280 horsepower SUV that scares the hell out of me.

  24. I agree that the drinking age should be lowered, but it’s ridiculous to think that the behavior of young people in London pubs provides support for that position. American college students will continue to get puking drunk, too, no matter what the drinking age is. I’m afraid it has less to do with modelling and culture than with genetics.

  25. Genetics? Genetics may predispose a party to alcoholism, but it is fallacious to say that the entire late-teenage-to-early-20s populace of the United States is genetically inclined to get intoxicated at every opportunity. It has to do with social conditioning. If we weren’t allowed to buy strawberry jam until we were 21, guess what we’d be eating when our parents were away?

  26. Karl,

    What does a six-pack of Sam Adams cost in Vienna?

  27. Hmm, methinks I see an easy way for an LP candidate to win a state legislative seat in a district with a large university… “Hey, everybody, I’ll lower the drinking age to 18 and legalize pot. No more cops ruining your parties!”

  28. Raise the age of driving, service, and voting to 21.

  29. deron,

    I hope you’re also against a large volunteer military, cause your proposal would quickly derail that!

  30. Jarod,

    While you’re correct, being forced to murder someone you don’t know and buying a beer are distinctly different activities, the common thread is the assumption of responsibility. It’s hypocritical to, on one hand, trust an eighteen year old with a machine gun and tell him he’s responsible and mature enough to handle going to war, and on the other, tell him that he isn’t responsible or mature enough to purchase a beer. Going to war is something that fairly obviously would require more maturity and assumption of responsibility than purchasing alcohol. The fact that both of those things are law demonstrates clearly that there is no consistent logic to the age at which our government thinks we are old enough to be out from under our parents’ watchful eyes and under the government’s instead.

  31. greetings Ed,

    i have not seen sam adams in six packs. at a bar it costs 3 euro 20 for a small bottle. i had it in boston, too, once and loved it.


  32. Karl,

    How does that compare with domestic beers?

  33. I don’t understand you guys on this military thing. I thought that the military was not what you should join if you wanted to have freedom to make decisions. I thought the military was no place for you if you wanted to act on your own initiative. Everything is dictated to you, from when to go to get government-issue breakfast, to what form to use to order government-issue shoelaces. Discretion? What discretion?

  34. Ed,

    a 1/2 liter costs around 2-2 euro 50 or so. so it is considerably more expensive per liter for Sam Adams. (9.60 for Sam Adams, 5 for regional beer, inkl Budwar/Budwiser)


  35. Out here in Oregon, if you brew it yourself you can drink it, no matter how young you are.

    The college I went to (Reed) has a brewing society for that very purpose.

  36. The driving analogy in the original post is pretty much useless, unfortunately, since more and more states are raising the minimum age for drivers. Within 20 years, I honestly expect the federal government will enact legislation threatening states with the loss of highway funds if they don’t raise the driving age to 18.

  37. To set the “military” argument straight:

    Following orders does not require as much maturity as being able to handle intoxicating liquors. Period.

  38. Eddie,
    Maturity is being willing and able to pull the trigger. A lot don’t, even when ordered.
    Those able to pull the trigger should be able to drink concurrent with the event.
    Whoa! Have I painted myself into a corner? I think not!

  39. If you’re old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to get a buzz on the night before you die.

  40. I am not sure if anyone will read this since its over 2 weeks since the last post. I would like to say thanks to everyone for their comments and also their support. The Beer Learners permit is just an idea that was tossed around in the studio. I do think that there needs to be more responsibility involved with drinking but also with driving. If youcan go out and have a beer, and not be allowed to drive yet, this factors out the problem of drinking and driving for the time being. Honestly, there are 45 year olds who still get behind the wheel after they have had too many. Basing a drinking age on only a number is not logical. But really how can you decide if someone is responsible enough to drink or even to get behind the wheel of a killing machine?

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