You probably already saw that Alaska Republican state representative Bob Lynn, a Vietnam vet from Anchorage, is proposing changing his state’s law to allow active duty servicemen to drink as well as die for their country. Seems reasonable enough, but it puts at risk millions of dollars in federal highway funding, because the national minimum drinking age statute mandates that in order to receive federal highway money, a state has to keep its minimum drinking age at 21. The federal law, strong-armed into existence by MADD in the 1980s, effectively bullied states into towing the neo-prohibitionist line. The minimum age is supposed to be a state decision, but no state could afford to leave money on the table so reason and common sense never had a chance, not when the decision was between money and screwing over the rights of young adults who probably weren’t going to vote anyway.
As recently as yesterday, MADD was still crowing that they’re responsible for reducing drunk driving deaths despite the fact that every unbiased economist believe the two are essentially unrelated. The truth is that drunk driving was already in decline in the 1980s, as evidenced by the fact that all age groups saw declines, not just 18-21 year olds.
The Wall Street Journal today has an interesting op-ed piece by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, entitled Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Drink.
He starts with the obvious argument that an adult who can fight to defend our country (and potentially die in that effort) should at the very least have all the rights and privileges of adulthood. But as a nation we are virtually unique in the world at denying our soldiers between the ages of 18-20 the right to drink alcohol. When I was in the military, we had a soda machine in our day room filled with cans of beer (I think they cost 50 cents) and we were allowed to drink at the bar on base, both at the base I was stationed at in Virginia and then later at my permanent duty station in New York City. Not one person at either location ever abused that privilege. A few got drunk from time to time, but never in a way that affected their responsibilities and their duty.
Which is why I’m so surprised by the military reaction. According to an NPR report, state military commanders have stated they believe it “would encourage unhealthy behavior.” I’m starting to think the military just can’t stand change of any kind, and will complain about any and every proposed change. I recall quite vividly that when I was in the Army, they made a big deal out of us working for civilians, that they were in charge and it was our duty to serve and follow orders. Yet every time some change is proposed to the military, the higher military ranks ignore their own rule and whine to high heaven. But their job is the same as the lowliest private: to shut up and follow orders.
Other complaints include that “[t]he law could set a precedent, said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, where any young person whose profession puts them at risk of losing their life, such as police or firefighters, could be allowed to drink.” Yes, and it’s a valid argument. Adulthood should include all the rights and privileges, not all but one. I don’t really understand how these people can look someone in the face and say, ‘sure you can risk your life, but you’re still not quite an adult yet, we still can’t trust you with alcohol.’ That’s deeply disturbing.
Other protestations include that it “could further increase drunken driving arrests of young soldiers who would drive back from off-base bars” and “[a]lcohol is involved in a third of misconduct incidents on Alaska’s military installation, three generals said in a letter to Rep. Dan Saddler, co-chairman of the House Special Committee on Military & Veterans’ Affairs.” But those are both absurd defenses. Soldiers would still be subject to the same laws as before, and suggesting that they might start breaking the law shows very little faith in them, doesn’t it? Essentially, I think it comes back to our unhealthy perception of alcohol, that people can’t be trusted with it, and therefore it has to be heavily regulated.
My own experience is that as a soldier at 18, my peers who either got jobs or went to college stayed more immature than the people I served with in the military, despite being the same age. As a result, for a while I was in favor of mandatory one-year conscription after high school because the discipline I believe was good for me and I could see how it might have benefited others, too. A few other nations do this, and I haven’t heard any arguments against it. I doubt that’s changed much, so it seems doubly troubling to me that the military is so set against this that they’d accuse their own men and women of being unable to handle alcohol, while expecting them to handle guns, grenades and other weapons. And doesn’t the statement that alcohol is already involved on military bases suggest that it’s the same problem that’s on college campuses, that having it be illegal is what’s causing the problems because it drives it underground?
One of the most telling statements in Reynold’s article is the following:
Research by economist Jeffrey A. Miron and lawyer Elina Tetelbaum indicates that a drinking age of 21 doesn’t save lives but does promote binge drinking and contempt for the law.
Safety is the excuse, but what is really going on here is something more like prohibition. A nation that cares about freedom—and that has already learned that prohibition was a failure—should know better. As Atlantic Monthly columnist Megan McArdle writes, “A drinking age of 21 is an embarrassment to a supposedly liberty-loving nation. If you are old enough to enlist, and old enough to vote, you are old enough to swill cheap beer in the company of your peers.”
And I love his political analysis at the end:
Democrats traditionally do well with the youth vote, and one reason is that they have been successful in portraying Republicans as fuddy-duddies who want to hold young people down. This may be unfair—college speech codes and the like don’t tend to come from Republicans—but the evidence suggests that it works. What’s more, the first few elections people vote in tend to set a long-term pattern. A move to repeal the federal drinking-age mandate might help Republicans turn this around.
Republicans are supposed to be against mandates aimed at the states, so this would demonstrate consistency. Second, it’s a pro-freedom move that younger voters—not yet confronted with the impact of, say, the capital-gains tax—can appreciate on a personal level. Third, it puts the Democrats in the position of having either to support the end of a federal mandate—something they tend to reflexively oppose—or to look like a bunch of old fuddy-duddies themselves.
Principle and politics. If the Republicans in Congress don’t pick up on this issue, we’re going to have to wonder what they’ve been drinking.
My guess is propagandist kool-aid. And while I believe that every eighteen-year old should be allowed to consume and purchase alcohol, it seems monumentally wrong that at the very least our brave young men and women who volunteered to serve and defend our peculiar way of life can’t drink a beer.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting this, I received an interesting press release from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization in Washington DC that appears to lean toward the right or possibly Libertarian.
From the press release:
In most European countries the drinking age is far lower than 21. Some, like Italy, for example, have no drinking age at all. Yet, the rates of alcoholism and teenage problem drinking are far greater in the United States. The likely reason for the disparity is the way in which American teens are introduced to alcohol versus their European counterparts. While French or Italian children learn to think of alcohol as part of a meal, such as a glass of wine at dinner, American teens learn to drink in the unmonitored environment of a basement or the backwoods with their friends. A 2009 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Health, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that 72 percent of graduating high school seniors already consumed alcohol.
Statement by Michelle Minton, CEI’s Director of Insurance Studies:
The current age limit has created a culture of hidden drinking and disrespect for the law. Regardless of whether a person is in the military or simply an adult civilian, he or she ought to be treated as such. If society believes you are responsible enough to go to war, get married, vote, or sign a contract, then you are responsible enough to buy a bottle of beer and toast to living in a country that respects and protects individual rights. It is long past time the law caught up with that reality.