Underage Drinking

by Auren Hoffman

It is hard to be a law abiding citizen these days. Many laws make little sense. Like most people, I J-Walk all the time. I also ride my bike on the sidewalks. One law I do not break anymore is underage drinking. But I confess, I used to break that law at least twice a week.

Between the ages of 18 and 21, I consumed more alcohol then I probably will between the ages of 21 and 40! In those three years, my first three in college, drinking is an accepted form of socializing. Now I'm not condoning getting totally plastered or using alcohol as an excuse to break more serious rules, but drinking happens.

I can only speak for myself, but now that I'm 22, I feel less inclined to drink. Maybe it's because I'm more mature, but I doubt that. I think it is because it's legal. There's no allure to drinking anymore. There's no drama, no excitement, no tension, and no fear. Now it is only alcohol.

Fact: American college students drink excessively

Fact: Most American college students who drink excessively are underage

Fiction: Drinking age laws prevent students from drinking. In fact, drinking age limits promote the use of alcohol.

The two biggest responsibilities one has are parenthood and voting, in that order. Notice I did not include "drinking alcohol." It takes a far more responsible person to raise a child or to vote for President than to drink a beer. But at age 18, one can be a parent and a voter but cannot buy a bottle of wine for a neighbor. Seems odd!

Our politicians of infinite wisdom shows their priorities when they claim that at age 18 one is responsible to vote but not responsible to drink. By inference, politicians are telling us that it takes more responsibility to drink than to vote. No wonder Americans are so apathetic about politics our leaders no longer believe in us.

Of course, the old saying still rings true. If your old enough to shipped half-way around the world and take a bullet in the brain for our country, you are certainly old enough to drink a toast with your family before you leave.

SUMMATION: Though it has good intentions, the 21 year old drinking age should be lowered to 18. When you 18 you can smoke, vote, drive, marry, be a parent, run for most local offices, serve in the armed forces, legally establish a business, sign a contract, and enforce the law. But in most states you cannot drink.

BIO: Auren Hoffman is an editor for the Internet Herald (http://www.iherald.com) and a senior majoring in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at UC Berkeley.

Auren is also a partner in Kyber Systems and built Guestimate (http://www.kybersys.com/~guestimate), the highly touted guestbook package.

Jonathan Wallace replies: Under the libertarian theory pioneered by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, the government shouldn't intervene in actions we take that hurt only ourselves. However, I do not believe for two reasons that Mill's theory of liberty protects teenage drinking (by the way, I personally did most of my drinking between age 15 and 18).

First, Mill made an exception for children, who are presumed to be not fully capable of making decisions for themselves. This is the weaker of my arguments, as Auren presumably doesn't disagree that there is an age below which children must be protected by adults. He is simply arguing that society has determined for all other reasons to set that age at age 18, after which a citizen can fight or vote.

However, underage drinking is dealt with in our laws principally as a driving problem--the federal government will not give highway funds to a state which sets the drinking age below 21, which has resulted in all states (so far as I know) falling into line. This has decreased the number of fatal automobile accidents-- half the fatalities involving people 20-24, for example, were alcohol-induced. H.W. Lewis wrote in Technological Risk: "Most states that have raised the drinking age in recent years have experienced a small but real reduction in traffic fatalities."

This takes the discussion out of the personal liberty realm. An eighteen year old may have an arguable right under Mill's analysis to engage in a self-destructive activity--but Mill would agree that he has no right to drunkenly launch himself at me on the highway as a 2-ton projectile going 90 mph. Since teenagers are a lot more likely to do this than older folk, I think underage drinking prohibitions have a reasonable basis.