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Why A Drinking Age?

The American experience suggests restrictions on alcohol consumption are misguided.

Written by johnleemk on 12:04:03 am Nov 25, 2007.

One of the more controversial issues in America is the drinking age — how old an individual should be before they can consume alcohol, or whether there should be a drinking age at all. I daresay it is one of the more defining aspects of the United States, since I know of few other countries where the drinking age is a huge problem.

American society has always had a love-hate relationship with booze. Although the Judeo-Christian religious precepts it was supposedly founded upon do not frown upon drinking anywhere as much as Islam does, it is this Judeo-Christian democracy which at one point banned the sale of alcohol (and most other groceries) on Sundays, leading to a perverse world where pharmacies are often convenience stores and purveyors of alcohol (because only pharmacies could open on Sundays). Likewise, America is the only major developed democracy which passed a constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol (eventually reversing it after enforcing the law proved to be unworkable).

Modern America has loosened up considerably about alcohol since the days of Prohibition, but the love-hate attitude towards drinking remains. Even though a substantial number of Americans drink — it's no sin to drink, after all — it is possible to parent a child, vote for your president, and die for your country without ever being legally allowed to touch alcohol, simply because the age of majority is 18, while the drinking age is 21.

The reason is the suspicious rationale that too many youths drink irresponsibly, resulting in deaths from driving while under the influence. It was this thinking which led to a federal law in the 1980s mandating that no person under the age of 21 be allowed to consume alcohol.

Yet, in a strange irony, binge drinking amongst youth, especially those between the ages of 18 and 21, is going stronger than ever. Stranger still, society tacitly condones this behaviour, with most people brushing it off as simply part of "college life", something people this age ought to be doing.

I got to thinking about this subject when one day in Chinese class, we were discussing alcohol (having just learnt the word for beer). The professor offhandedly mentioned that there is no drinking age in China, and attributed the relative lack of irresponsible drinking there to this fact.

The more I think about it, the more I think that it makes no sense for society to impose a drinking age. Perhaps a restriction on buying alcohol, yes — just as we restrict who can buy cigarettes — but not consuming it.

The fact is, many, maybe even most, parents are resigned to their children consuming alcohol — they permit this behaviour. Why should the state be telling people how to parent their children, or worse still, become a surrogate parent even after the child has attained the age of majority?

If we want to punish drunkards for killing people, then we punish them — it should not matter how old they are. And if we don't want to punish people who just drink responsibly, then why should it matter how old they are?

Until you become an adult, your parents decide a lot of things for you. Society doesn't tell them how to be a parent (with obvious exceptions such as child abuse). If some parents insist on temperance, then that is their decision; if others permit consumption of alcohol, who is the state to intervene? Why should it punish youth just for drinking responsibly, or their parents for permitting responsible consumption of a legal drug? If what we are after is punishing those who pose a menace to society, then that is what we should do — not treat ordinary people as menaces in themselves simply because a drop of alcohol passed their lips.

The same argument applies even more strongly for adults. Adults should be held responsible for their actions, and if nobody is harmed by a 19-year-old having a drink, why should anyone care? On the other hand, if that same 19-year-old gets behind the wheel and kills someone, would we not punish him even if she was 30 years old?

Typically in a legal system, age is a factor in sentencing. The judge decides what type of sentence, and the magnitude of that sentence, to impose based on a number of factors, including age. But the age of the accused is rarely, if ever, a factor in deciding whether a crime occurred. Either you harmed someone, or you did not. What is so dangerous about alcohol to demand that we change this philosophy?