By Devin Lynch, Staff Writer
Now that most of us have reluctantly settled into the 2020 lockdown life, fake IDs and frat parties seem like a distant memory. But less than a year ago we were partying hard and treating the 21-year drinking age as barely more than a nuisance we all had to accept.
I’m 21. Less than a year ago I could be arrested for drinking a beer. Really?
But that’s also why drinking in college is fun. Because you’re not supposed to do it.
Just look at alcohol use patterns among college students before and after graduation. The hard partying collapses into a more tame pattern of social drinking, unless you’re Lindsay Lohan.
We should have learned this lesson in the 1920’s. When drinking is criminalized, alcohol users, i.e. most college students, have an incentive to drink as much as possible, as quickly as possible, in isolated, unsafe conditions in order to not get arrested. And even then, luck is the only thing standing between them and a lifelong criminal record.
We’ve all heard dumb arguments for keeping the drinking age where it is. But the commonly-cited justification, a reduction in drunk driving fatalities, doesn’t even hold true. Drunk driving has been on the decline since 1982, years before the federal Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed. In fact, the 21-year drinking age is directly responsible for an increase in alcohol-related traffic fatalities among 21-24 year olds.
And then, of course, we’ve heard about brain development, academic achievement, and plenty of other variations of the “alcohol is bad for you” argument. Of course it is. It doesn’t matter if you’re 12 or 19 or 22 or Brett Kavanaugh — alcohol is bad for you. But you know what else is bad for you? A criminal record from drinking a beer in college. Also soda, not going to your 8am lecture, and anything else fun in life. The fact that something is bad for you doesn’t give the government the right to stop you from doing it. Remember those cities that tried to ban 64oz soft drinks? Yeah.
At 18, then in almost every state (looking at you, Mississippi) you’re a legal adult who can consent to sex, enter into contracts, and get drafted and sent on suicide missions by the same government that doesn’t think you’re old enough to have a beer. Isn’t that a little screwed up? You’re an adult. Your body, your choice. Except it isn’t. It’s not your choice because our government decided that placating an insane special interest group was more important than your natural right to personal liberty.
Here’s why the National Minimum Drinking Age Act is an incredibly stupid law:
Much like prohibition, the NMDAA was lobbied for and passed by a relatively small but vocal special interest group — Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which sounds great except for the fact that they don’t care all that much about drunk driving anymore. In fact, the founder, Candace Lightner, left the organization in 1985, citing concerns that they had become modern-day prohibition advocates.
The law itself doesn’t actually set the drinking age at 21. That’d be unconstitutional (not that Congress cares). What it does do is authorize Congress to withhold 5-10% of highway funding from any state that doesn’t set a 21 year drinking age. Turns out that’s quite a bit of cash.
It’s also a stretch to tie the drinking age to road money. In a dissenting opinion for South Dakota v. Dole, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited the ridiculousness of tying highway funding to drinking age laws, saying “establishment of a minimum drinking age of 21 is not sufficiently related to interstate highway construction to justify so conditioning funds appropriated for that purpose”.
The problem with this blackmail method of lawmaking is that even if the Act was overturned, there’s still 51 state/district-level laws to repeal. So if North Carolina wanted to restore their policy of 18 for beer and 21 for liquor, they’d have to get other states on board with repealing the federal law as well as pass new legislation at the state level. To my knowledge this is the only law you’re likely to interact with on a regular basis that has this kind of double-insulation from change.
Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to change anytime soon because the drinking age isn’t that far off from the voting age. The only voters who are directly impacted by it are 18-20 year olds. That’s hardly enough to single-handedly elect candidates who support change. What’s crazy about this is that around half of all American adults support lowering the drinking age to 18, and 81% support “initiating a national discussion regarding alcohol and what can be done to motivate more responsible consumption.” But most of them are over 21. They don’t have a dog in the fight. They might express support for a lower drinking age in public opinion polls, but they’re not going to be out protesting or electing single-issue candidates, because they’re too old to be directly affected. That’s what happens when you pass a law that only affects 1/20th of the voting population — people outside of that group who object to the law are just going to say “not my problem”. It’s not going to change until people realize that a legal age of 21 causes problems for everyone by incentivizing dangerous drinking patterns in college which can persist even after graduation.
Is this really a significant issue? I don’t know, is binge drinking on college campuses a significant issue? We know prohibition only makes things worse, and around half of adults agree on the necessary policy change. The federal 21-year drinking age came into being through an unjust piece of legislation backed by a special interest group gone rogue. It’s unusually hard to repeal, more than any other law which you’re likely to come in contact with in your day-to-day life. And it affects only a fraction of the voting population, which means even those who disagree with it are unlikely to seek change when they have nothing to gain. So until 21+ year olds realize the magnitude of this, we’ll be stuck with the status quo — dangerous, isolated parties hosted by people who think Animal House is a bucket list.
Devin Lynch is a Staff Writer studying Computer Science from Charlotte, NC. He is the State Chair of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) in North Carolina, and is libertarian-aligned.