Migration — Old Enough To Kill But Not For Votin’

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The presidents of 100 colleges and universities are urging a re-examination of the drinking age.
These leaders of a number of the country’s most prestigious schools are not saying that the age should be reflexively moved back to 18. Rather, the Amethyst Initiative urges “informed and unimpeded debate” on the issue. The motive for this discussion is that binge drinking afflicts their campuses, that a policy urging abstinence has not produced “significant constructive behavioral change,” and that the use of fake identification forces “students [to] make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.”
These arguments fall into the category “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” And maybe they should prevail. After all Prohibition didn’t work either and gave rise to excruciating deaths from “bathtub gin” and various other social ills.
The Initiative’s most cogent argument is that the government recognizes 18 year olds as adults for pretty much every other purpose. When the voting age changed from 21 to 18, the federal government was drafting young men to go fight in Vietnam. At that point they could fight and die for their country but couldn’t help pick the president who sent them there. States also treat 18 year olds who commit crimes as adults. Many hedge their bets when it comes to 16 and 17 year olds, recognizing that they are not fully mature. Commit a robbery when you’re 17, you might get tried as a juvenile. But the day you turn 18, watch out. On the civil side, 18 year olds don’t need the signature of a parent or guardian to sign a contract. And there’s other stuff that’s legal way before 18: A few states put the age of consent for sex at 14, and good ol’ Mississippi allows girls to marry without parental consent at 15.
I support the Amethyst Initiative without reservation. When I was in college (shortly after the Middle Ages), the drinking age was 18. All freshmen under 18 at Vassar were asked to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t drink until they were 18. I was and I did sign and I did honor it. Because drinking was legal for most of the students, we pretty much ignored it. There was a bar right outside the gates, and I think I went there twice during my entire four years. At Dartmouth (whose president signed the Initiative), we had cast parties after the opening night of each show. Liquor was served, but no one got drunk. In fact, most people drank very little because we all – students and faculty – had to get up for class the next morning.
The southern Europeans seem to have the most sensible approach to alcohol. They serve it to children in small quantities. I went to a birthday party where the guest of honor received a small glass of watered wine on the occasion of her 10th birthday. Allowing children to drink small amounts takes away the forbidden aspect. It seemed to be working when I was in France. While the older people drank a demi bouteille, the young folks were swigging Cokes. Unfortunately almost everybody had switched from Gitanes to Marlboros. Thus the U.S. had managed to export two bad habits.

If the complaint is that young people will abuse alcohol and then drive, we can follow the example of the Scots: Get caught once for drunken driving, lose your license, permanently. At least that’s how it was when I visited, and I hope it hasn’t changed. That way people feel free to drink as much as they want. They just can’t get behind the wheel afterward.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving disputes the arguments in favor of discussion of the issue and says that the Amethyst Initiative serves as evidence that the college presidents have not been enforcing the current age limit. MADD questions whether the schools would enforce a younger limit. I say that reducing the age would make enforcement that much easier as the schools would have to police only a small percentage of the freshman class. Supervising a few 17 year olds would be much easier than trying to ban drinking among three-fourths of the school population.

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