Drinking Age

Congress, End the Hangover: Abolish the Federal Drinking Age

If lawmakers want kids to drink responsibly, they need to legislate responsibly.


Activists, administrators, and national policymakers concerned about a supposed epidemic of rape on college campuses should stop trying so damn hard to regulate students' sex lives. Instead, their efforts would be better spent lobbying Congress to abolish a law that puts students at risk of sexual assault by encouraging them to consume alcohol recklessly: the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

Just over thirty years ago, in response to public concerns about teen drinking and driving, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which punished states for failing to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 by taking away their highway funding if they refused. Within a few years, all 50 states and D.C. had fallen in line, making the U.S. one of only four countries with a drinking age higher than 18 (the others are Japan, South Korea, and Iceland).

Did the law decrease drunk driving? Many experts doubt it. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard University economics professor and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has argued that the law had "little or no life-saving effect." While a few states that adopted a stricter drinking age on their own saw limited, temporary success, the vast majority of states that prohibited teen drinking in response to federal bullying had little to show for it—other than the federal dollars they got to keep.

There is some evidence, however, that raising the drinking age might have actually worsened the teen binge-drinking problem. It's easy to imagine why that might be the case: if drinking any amount of alcohol is illegal for 18-year-olds, those who want to drink anyway have every incentive to down as much booze a quickly as possible, thus minimizing the amount of time they could be caught by the cops holding a beer in their hands.

Shay / Flickr

The drinking age also creates a black market in alcohol consumption for college kids, most of whom are under 21 but drink anyway—just as their great-grandparents did during Prohibition. Teenage college students can't legally buy booze from the corner store or enjoy an afternoon or evening of casual drinking at the bar; instead, they have to seek out older students who are willing to give them alcohol. This means paying a visit to a friend-of-a-friend's basement, or diving head-first into the house party circuit and imbibing from a tub of mystery liquid. Fraternities, in particular, often play the role of beer distributors to the underage crowd.

These environment are manifestly less safe for teen drinkers than drinking at home or at a bar. But they are where teens must turn, thanks to NMDAA.

While there's no direct evidence that binge-drinking promotes rape—and indeed, contrary to what activists believe, campus rape rates are low and falling—alcohol is a factor in the vast majority of campus rape disputes. Students find themselves incapacitated, blackout drunk, away from their own beds, and separated from their friends—and that's when misunderstandings, regretted actions, and actual violence, occur.

Local actors might like to experiment with a different approach to alcohol, by either trying out a lowering drinking age (like the rest of the world), or something else. But colleges can't stop the cops from arresting teen drinkers. Neither can the states. That's because there is only one accepted policy on the books, and it's the law of the land: the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

Congress should recognize that it's insane to force everybody to submit to an utterly failed restriction. Repealing the act might sound far-fetched, but in an era of incessant political bickering, it's something of an under-the-radar issue that would actually stand a chance of drawing bipartisan approval. Republicans who control Congress can strike a blow in favor of increased freedom and states' rights, and President Obama can show young voters that he does have their back. As Instapundit's Glenn Harlan Reynolds wrote after the November election, ending the federal drinking age is almost the perfect first move for the 114th U.S. Congress: "Easing pressure on states to raise their own drinking ages is consistent with GOP ideals. Obama hasn't been hot on lowering the drinking age, but it's hard to imagine him vetoing this."

If lawmakers want kids to drink responsibly, they need to legislate responsibly.

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  1. you are either an adult at 18 or not. If not, then raise age to enlist, get married, vote etc.

    21 to drink is turning college campus life to glorified high school.

    drop to 18 and show no tolerance for drunken behavior.

    Grow up and drink responsibly

    1. 21 to drink is turning college campus life to glorified high school.

      I think that has more to do with increasingly lower standards for admission, grade inflation, and lack of a rigorous curriculum.

    2. You’re not the boss of me.

      1. Life is unfair.

      2. Because I said so!

    3. 21 to drink is turning college campus life to glorified high school.

      Except with even less or no parental supervision whatsoever.

    4. No drunken behavior? Then why bother drinking?

  2. Wouldn’t it be nice to not need superfluous reasons toget rid of laws that limit our freedom?

    1. Too many times libertarians desert the moral high ground and are tricked by the opposition into using pragmatic rationale. We should keep it simple and argue “freedom, that’s why.”

      1. It’s difficult to appeal to the the cold machinations of the “greater” “good” mentality even with hard facts. They claim utility over morality when it suits them, and alleged morality (“I FEEL that it’s wrong that some people are rich…” etc.) over obvious facts when it doesn’t. Ultimately, the worst of the opposition don’t care how many people are crushed and cowed as long as a mythical “majority” somehow benefits.

        1. Plus a healthy dose of anti-fraternity rhetoric for good measure…

  3. Won’t someone think of the 20-year olds children?

  4. I was rather hoping that one positive side effect of Roberts’ debacle on the Obamacare case would be the end of the Federal government’s ability to extort concessions out of states by withholding highway funds.

    How is that different from Obamacare threatening states’ Medicaid funds?

    1. The answer rhymes with “duck soup, oh my.”

      1. “Rhymes”

      2. Buck coup, so high?

      3. I would’ve said “duck stew has rye”.

      4. yuck poop, blow by?

  5. at 18 one is responsible enough to pick up a rifle and “defend” the country and the Constitution, yet not responsible enough to drink a beer.

    1. No they arent, at 18 they are just stupid enough and full of enough hormones that you can sell them war, they do not defend any such documents or else we would have a much emptier rotunda on the hill and a pile of dead pols burning next to it

    2. Old enough to be forced to go to war.

  6. Let us not forget it was Reagan who pushed this through. It was the first tear in the mask of Republicanism for me. It was then I went by the – then popular – term Libertarian-Republican. It was the Republicans pushing through Medicare Part D in 2003 where I finally dropped the -Republican part.

  7. Fat chance of that happening. This law also lowered the legal limit to .08 which is hardly intoxicated. I blew and .08 and a .09 before the limit was lowered. I easily passed the field sobriety test but the CHP was going to take me in no matter what. He wrote on the police report that he told me me to count backwards from 100 to 88 and I counted to 85. Then he told me to repeat it – he never restated what the end points were and just said repeat it. I did exactly as the first time. He was too stupid to realize that if I did the same thing twice I either didn’t hear him correctly or he lied about what he said. Either way the DA didn’t file DUI charges.

    However since then I have been to high grade misdemeanor court. DUI is no longer a money loser to the court system. 5000 dollars fines – alcohol classes and paying for you “probation” to suck money out of affluent and middle class offenders who got caught at a checkpoint after a party or left a bar after only a few drinks and you can see why the government wants to keep it.

    There was even an attempt in California to make DUI one of the offenses making you ineligible to own a firearm. The government wants everybody to be a criminal on paper so they can harass you if they need to.

    1. The government needs no such pretext to harass you, they already have the FYTW clause

  8. Japan’s drinking age is 21? Is this recent? Back in ’87 When I was 19 and stationed at Okinawa defending the US and the Constitution against VicRattlehead’s (BTW Megadeth is a favorite) better judgement,there was no drinking age on or off base. Of course, that may only pertain to Okinawa and not the mainland, but it’s the first I’ve heard it. (I could do a Google search, but fuck it.)

    1. I don’t think I saw them in Okinawa, but there were coin-operated beer vending machines all over the place in Sasebo (25 years ago). I heard that since then Japanese vending machine businesses have expanded into used women’s panties, doing their part to reduce drunken rape. Alas, maybe it’s just urban legend. I never did see a donkey show in Tijuana, but not from lack of trying.

    2. I believe Japan and Korea both have drinking ages of 20. How rigidly that is enforced, I don’t know.

      From what I gather from anecdotal evidence, even the countries with an 18 or 19 drinking age don’t enforce it as rigidly as the US. My sister’s mom was able to order beers for her while they visited Canada when she was 14.

  9. Lowering the drinking age is a bad idea. The premise that those not responsible will be held accountable is preposterous because it won’t happen. In my 50 years, I can count up over 10 people that I have known personally that we killed by a driver under the influence. Punishment for manslaughter when DUI is too weak and punishment for DUI is too lenient in our society.

    1. Not everyone who drinks drives drunk. Your issue should be with the drunk drivers and the legal system that doesn’t hold them accountable.

    2. Oh piss off, statist. For a crime that results in injury only once in every 120,000 incidents it’s punished just about right.

  10. Age has its benefits, sometimes. One of those is having experienced a somewhat freer America.

    Prior to the “National Minimum Drinking Age Act”, I saw firsthand the results of 18 year olds being able to buy and consume booze legally. My year in freshman dorm at a state university involved many weekends when the place reeked of stale beer and the results of those who had overindulged and not made it to the bathroom in time.

    That’s about it.

    No great tragedies.
    No mass rape parties.
    No ambulances to take the dead away.

    Just spilled beer and sour puke on the floors.

    Perhaps a different story for the 80% of the population not in college, but I suspect that they may have had a more gradual weaning-in period hanging out with oldsters who had mastered the art of surviving demon drink.

    18 or 21, there is a learning curve. Better to learn early at low levels than suddenly be dumped into the adult population.

    1. That wouldn’t be the Fightin’ Irish era 😕

  11. The first mistake proponents for a minimum drinking age make is thinking that it actually stops underage drinking to any quantifiable degree, and thus makes us somehow safer.

    1. Ah, yes. But it does allow for more people to be arrested.

  12. Kids associate drinking with sex because both are forbidden fruit just begging to be explored. If kids were allowed to partake in family rituals and treated as adults with the substance occasionally with adult supervision (responsible) at least one fruit might not be as tempting or at least handled responsibly.

  13. I drank underage simple as that. The law has done little to nothing to stop underage drinkers, and it reinforces underage drinkers to drink in the private scene. It’s just sent it underground behind close doors like prohibition did. We all knew how that went? It failed miserably and in 1933 they abolished it allowing drinking to become legal again.

    Now being 21 turning 22 in May I can safely say since I’ve had alcohol underage it’s less appealing to me since I can get it anytime I please now. So, this law has failed and I’m sorry MADD but there is no data supporting that it has at all saved lives. Tighter regulation on vehicle safety has contributed to the decrease in deaths. Also accidents over all age groups have decreased not just those who are 18, 19, and 20. Stop lying and start enforcing better drinking habits among the youth by encouraging healthier drinking habits. Exposing people to alcohol early does indeed help. Look at Europe and their drinking model? They’ve been surprisingly been doing pretty well with their drinking age. Also they have strict laws against alcoholic beverage advertisements which in my opinion mislead us into drinking underage. However, that’s part of our sacred 1st Amendment Freedom of Speech.

    Now if I can fight and die for this country at 18; actually 17 with consent… I should be able to crack open a beer when I get home from deployment. I almost joined the military at 17 with consent and by this point would of been deployed abroad.

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