A hundred and thirty college presidents and chancellors have signed a controversial statement calling for a new debate about the legal drinking age; their notion is to lower it from 21 to 18. Alas, college presidents are politicians of a sort, so none will take the reopened debate where it needs to go. There should be no drinking age at all.
By tradition each state sets its own minimum age for alcohol, but Congress has intruded. A 1984 federal law decrees that if a state picks anything less than 21 it can lose 10% of its federal highway funds. That's why the debate is so bizarrely fixated on automobiles and the automobile infrastructure. But this debate should be about the desirability of a culture that fosters freedom and responsibility, not about cars and how many people of what age die in them.
The enjoyment (and abuse) of alcohol is an ancient part of human life. Traces of wine have been found in 9,000-year-old Chinese pottery. Kid tipplers are nothing new, either. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, taught that infants should be given wine ("diluted and not at all cold") to gain strength. John Nye, an expert in the economic history of alcohol, points out that beer was the biggest budget line in some 18th-century Dutch orphanages.
UCLA professor of public policy Mark Kleiman, an ex-advocate of age restrictions, told PBS that he came around to the no-limits position when he saw a billboard that said, "If you're not 21, it's not Miller Time--yet." Age limits make drinking a badge of adulthood and build in the minds of teens a romantic sense of the transgressive danger of alcohol. That's what so often leads to the abuse of alcohol as a ritual of release from the authority of parents. And that's what has the college presidents worried. They see it.
There's certainly evidence that if we got rid of age limits, teens would drink more. But drinking more is a drinking problem only in the minds of neoprohibitionists. In a 2003 survey 22% of American tenth graders said they'd had five or more consecutive drinks in the last 30 days. But in Denmark, where there's no legal minimum to drink (though you have to be 18 to buy), 60% of 15- and 16-year-olds said they'd thrown back five or more in a row within the last couple of fortnights. Maybe you think that's too much. But the European champion of heavy teen drinking ranks as the world's happiest country and scores third in the United Nation's 2007 ranking of child welfare. In the UN listing the U.S. came in 20th out of 21 wealthy countries.
Then there are the car crashes. It is an article of faith among much of the U.S. government that raising the drinking age to 21 averted thousands of grisly traffic deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with deceptive five-figure precision, puts the number at 21,887 through 2002. But even this statistical factoid, the neoprohibitionist trump card, deserves scrutiny. A recent research paper by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron and his former student Elina Tetelbaum shows that states that raised the drinking age to 21 since 1984, in response to Congress' road-funding threats, enjoyed no statistically significant decrease in traffic fatalities for 18- to 20-year-olds. They point to the decades-long, steady decline in the rate of traffic fatalities (deaths per billion passenger miles), a decline due in large part to safer cars, improved driver education and better medical technology. Raising the drinking age did little or nothing.
Drinking by itself just isn't very dangerous. But driving is. Despite more relaxed drinking-age laws, the EU, according to Miron and Tetelbaum, averaged 95 fatalities per million inhabitants in the past decade while the U.S. experienced 150 fatalities per million. The big difference is that in many EU countries you have to wait until 18 to get behind the wheel. If you're worried about car wrecks, regulate drivers.
Salt makes things taste better. If you eat too much, it can kill you. But we don't need laws regulating salt. In an America without a minimum drinking age, we would shift our focus from demon rum and car crash statistics to creating an environment where parents are expected to supervise their children and alcohol would become for teens just another thing, like bicycles or swimming pools, that can either make your day or take your life.