I currently live in Israel, where the minimum alcohol purchase age is 18. To Americans that seems lenient, even though it is consistent with the minimum age for almost everything else adults are allowed to do, including voting, enlisting in the military, getting married, signing contracts, and buying firearms (from federally licensed dealers). From a global perspective, it's the U.S. that is weird in this area: Only a dozen countries have a drinking age as high as 21; the other 11 are Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kiribati, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Samoa, and Sri Lanka. More countries (19) have no drinking age at all, while the most common choice (the law in 115 countries) is 18 or 19. In a Vox essay posted today, Nick Tucker highlights the arbitrariness of America's strange drinking rule:
I'm a 19-year-old loose in Pittsburgh, living on my own, working in an industrial apprenticeship with a great company. Instead of college—too expensive, too much time, too little payoff—I'm attending a liberal arts academy online. I drive, pay bills, make meals, and have a social life. Yes, I'm trying out adulthood, and mostly succeeding.
But there is one huge hangup. The law doesn't allow me to buy anything alcoholic: not in stores, not at bars, not anywhere. No beer, no wine, and certainly not my favorite drink, which is bourbon. In almost every area of life, I'm expected to be an adult. In this one area, I'm not allowed to behave like an adult.
After recounting his adventures with fake IDs, Tucker notes some of this policy's perverse consequences. "People in my age group behave like children when it comes to drinking because the law treats us this way," he writes. Because access to alcohol is iffy and hard to arrange, he says, 18-to-20-year-olds have an incentive to get as drunk as possible when the opportunity arises. Hence the popularity of "pregaming," which involves drinking a lot of alcohol quickly before the evening's main activity, because you can never be sure it will be available later. The excess-encouraging properties of alcohol bans were familiar during Prohibition, Tucker notes, and "Prohibition still applies to us."
Most Americans are drinking by the time they turn 18, but the law pretends they are not. This is not the sort of environment that encourages moderation and responsibility. "I was raised in a household where civilized drinking was introduced at a young age," Tucker writes. "It's because of this that I am a responsible drinker. By comparison, my peers from families that considered the legal age of 21 to be gospel had no idea what they were getting into."
At bottom, Tucker's plea is about fairness and consistency. "I only want what anyone else wants, which is to hang out with friends at bars and be a normal person," he says. "Maybe pour up a cocktail when I get home from work. Why can't I do this? I don't abuse the stuff. I just want to be a human being who can sidle up to a bar and order a drink without the fear of being ridiculed or considered a criminal."