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For a Flexible Drinking Age

“Set the drinking age at 18 or 21 and woe betide those who drink too young!” This seems to be the gist of the rigid positions held by the Amethyst Initiative and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the debate over the legal drinking age.

Well, fortunately for students, there is a third position, one that recognizes that laws are sometimes supple and can be applied with intelligent discretion by the police (and campus security). To put it more bluntly, not all laws are enforced to their absolute limit in our society. This is one of the ways that our democracy organically adjusts itself to meet citizens’ real needs. Ask a cop if you will be ticketed for driving 70mph or 75mph on an interstate. A thoughtful officer will tell you that speeding is illegal, but as a rule, police departments turn a blind eye to people driving between 65mph and 75mph, unless they are driving dangerously.

Or study the current enforcement of the soft-drug laws, as society moves toward the legalization of marijuana. Smoke dope at noon on Main Street and you might have a problem; smoke at a concert or in your own home and you won’t be bothered.

Look to the past and try to find enforcement of the laws against adultery and fornication, laws that are still on the books in some states. The police began turning a blind eye to these infractions many decades ago.

While some people’s sense of moral rectitude might be offended, in our flexible society the parts of laws that make no intrinsic sense are adapted and modified by prosecutors and the police until they do­—and eventually the legislature catches up, if it can. Call it the rule of common sense: safety and other considerations are given priority over legal interpretations that produce unduly harsh results. An ideal drinking law would read as follows:

People under 21 may not purchase alcohol (because we don’t want younger purchasers to give booze to high school students); however, people under 21 living in a residential community with people 21 or over may drink (because there is little likelihood that they will then drive drunk, and we can’t effectively enforce an underage drinking law in these communities).

Of course, no drinking law could ever be written this way, but this is how the law is actually being applied at most colleges and in the privacy of people’s homes. Safety should be our primary concern and some colleges, like Yale, have been explicit about this point. In contrast, Dartmouth’s vindictive enforcement of the alcohol (and drug) laws in past years has been the exception to the elastic application of these laws at other schools.

Why does the current compromise work? Because it achieves MADD’s goal of reducing traffic fatalities, and it works to insulate high schools from easy access to alcohol. And for colleges that are not foolishly fastidious, it relieves administrators of the impossible burden of enforcing a modern-day Prohibition. It also allows students who want to drink to stay on campus and out of their cars.

The Amethyst Initiative’s academic leaders seem to want to find an ideal solution, but their perfectionism is the enemy of the good. The proposal to lower the drinking age to 18 does not respond to the valid concerns of MADD, high school educators, and parents who fear excessive alcohol consumption. There is no perfect solution to the drinking problem; the messy current situation is the best option.

College presidents who are concerned with student binge drinking (a practice which seems to date back to Ancient Greece and probably beyond) should stick to what they know best: education. Rather than lobbying Washington to formally allow freshman to drink beer, they should teach their students to behave responsibly.

There is one other dogmatic constituency in this argument: people, mostly students, who argue that if 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military, then they should be allowed to drink.

Beyond the glib rejoinder that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, it is worth pointing out that society imposes many other age restrictions inconsistent with the supposedly magic age of majority: you can drive when you are 16 in most states; you must be 21 to gamble legally; you need to be 35 to be elected President, and so on. The choice of an appropriate drinking age needs to be made with greater care than simply aligning it with other rights and obligations.

Note: This piece was previously published in the Dartmouth Review — after the D refused to print it.


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