A Moral Failure

I’m at a loss to understand how one can commit the moral failure of demanding that while a 20 year old be allowed (encouraged!) to stand toe to toe with another man and attempt to kill him for his country, he not be allowed to sip Pinot Nor.

This is the position of MADD, AKA "Morally Absent Day after Day" "Mothers Against Drunk Driving".

It’s about time: A group of college presidents are asking that our nation re-evaluate our 21 year-old drinking age. I’m not sure exactly what motivates them to take this brave, but nearly suicidal, position. However, I’m willing to bet it has something to do with the fact that in addition to trying to control binge drinking on campus, they are also required to police binge drinkers on campus. If common sense ruled, these colleges would have more time to spend explaining why binge drinking isn’t such a great idea.

I have to be honest, my position on the drinking age is affected not one iota by fears that if it is lowered to where it should be, 18 years old, more drinkers might die in car accident. It doesn’t even enter my equation. I’m much more concerned that the 21 year-old drinking age probably does more to extend a childhood mentality among those that should be expected to act like adults.

See, here’s the thing. If the 21 year-old drinking age reduces drunk driving, as MADD insists and some studies show, then wouldn’t a 35 year-old drinking age reduce drunk driving even more? What in the world is stopping MADD from advocating a 35 year-old drinking age? What is it that makes an 18 year old too immature to be trusted with a Cabernet, but mature enough to shoot an Iraqi in the face with a large caliber side arm? I’m just not sure I can pinpoint that difference.

I wonder if Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD knows the answer to that question? She apparently is possessed of a great deal of information. Why just the other day she declared unequivocally about the colleges to which the brave administrators advocating discussion belong that, "It’s very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses."

I certainly hope she’s right.

John McCardell, a former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and a member of the college presidents calling themselves the Amethyst Group said, "It is a law (the 21 year old drinking age) that the people at whom it is
directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."

How is it that a group of 18, 19 and 20 year-olds could have so much more common sense than the president of MADD?

It strikes me that if we are really going to take MADD’s advise and treat adults like children in the area of drinking alcohol, we really should be intellectually honest and go all the way by prohibiting anyone under 21 from entering the military, voting, or, when they break the law, trying them as adults. The 21 year-old drinking age is a moral failure by the United States. Not the only one, to be sure. But one that should be taken note of.

39 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - August 20, 2008

    “What is it that makes an 18 year old too immature to be trusted with a Cabernet, but mature enough to shoot an Iraqi in the face with a large caliber side arm?”
    The same kind of thinking that values life in the womb, but does not favor universal health care policies to keep people alive, favors capital punishment, invasions that kill non-military people, and no tax return dependent status until that living baby climbs out of the womb and proves its existence.
    In other words, having an ideology often eschews employing reason.

  2. dhonig - August 20, 2008

    Follow the money. Criminal law in this country has become perversely driven by federal funding, fines, and forfeiture provisions. Every time a municipality or police department starts depending upon new funding from a new law, usually one put in place “to protect the children,” it is almost impossible to take it away. Why? Because they will defend their money with every lie in the book, much like the wholesalers make up fantasies about minors ordering alcohol on line.

  3. Gabriella Opaz - August 20, 2008

    This is an age old argument that has been ignored time and time again. The hypocrisy and lack of clear logic on the part of the government to say a child can risk their life, both in war and in the driver’s seat, before drinking a glass of wine is simply beyond me. I still am waiting for the study that tells a child is capable of consciously choosing to take the life of another human being BEFORE they can choose to drink responsibly!!

  4. johng - August 20, 2008

    If the well-intentioned folks behind MADD thought things through, they would realize that their energies would be far more effective in saving lives and limbs if they worked toward building a safe and decent public transportation system that young (and not so young) folks could use after a night out.

  5. Benjamin Arnold - August 20, 2008

    Great post, Tom.
    Kids can get in a one ton vehicle at the age of 16 but they have to wait 5 more years before they can have a drink.
    They are able to vote in the leader of the free world, three years before they can have a sip of wine.
    And I wonder why it’s twenty-ONE anyhow? Why not just an even number like 20?

  6. Randy - August 20, 2008

    Once again, Tom, you kick over the proverbial anthill. I salute you, sir.
    As for MADD, I get the sinking feeling it’s more appropriate to describe the group as “neo-temperance” instead of “against drunk driving”.

  7. Randy - August 20, 2008

    Oh, and another thing.
    These ideologists you mention are the same who would prohibit drugs like marijuana that have been shown to be beneficial in certain circumstances, thereby perpetuating a dangerous subculture of gangs and organized crime rather than legalize it and provide increased tax revenue to states (through sales and/or excise taxes). Hmmmm.

  8. Mark Finley - August 20, 2008

    So true, including the above comments. I personnally prefer a universal adult age of 19 just to put some distance between high school seniors and adulthood but that’s quibbling. I’m so tired of the “it’s for the children” and “it saves lives” blanket justifications. A universal speed limit of 25mph and boulevard stops at every intersection would save beaucoup lives but that doesn’t mean they make sense.

  9. Jack at F&B - August 20, 2008

    “What is it that makes an 18 year old too immature to be trusted with a Cabernet,”
    …is that they are ALLOWED to drive. They have to drive because SOMEONE has to work at chain restaurants or our entire country’s economy would collapse.

  10. Sasha - August 20, 2008

    What is even more ridiculous is that these drinking laws are indeed state laws. Every single state passed them. And why? Well, they were bullied by a very few people who (working with the support of some insignificant research) had the federal government essentially threaten those states which refused to raise the drinking age with the suspension of federal funding for highway construction/maintenance. Follow the money is right…It’s really too bad, because several studies have shown that highway fatalities in the 18-21 range changed little (if at all). Buy hey! this fits well within the general theme of America as the democracy of hypocrisy. You can sure as hell sign up to kill others, but damn it, we will not let you potentially, maybe endanger yourself with something that we (as a consumer culture) highly encourage! Drinking! This all reminds me of a line from Good Will Hunting. On Will’s (Matt Damon) 21st birthday, his buddies buy him an old beater saying, “You’re legally allowed to drink now, so we figured the best thing for you was a car.”

  11. Arthur - August 20, 2008

    How many college freshmen want to sit down with friends and a nice Bordeaux after finals and how many want to chug Keystone through a funnel?
    Young people *are* drinking before they reach the age of 21, but are we arguing against a law that makes no sense or a law that keeps potential customers’ dollars out of our hands?
    I think it’s silly of us to say it should be legal for an 18 year old to buy and consume a bottle of wine when we know damn well that the said 18 year old would rather spend that same amount of money on a case or two of beer.

  12. Kevin - August 20, 2008

    My guess is that the college administrators see changing the legal drinking age to 18 as a vehicle to absolve them of liability for alcohol consumption-related events on their campuses. And we all know that so much of business and government-related policy and decision making these days is perversely driven by litigation (or the threat thereof)…

  13. Arthur - August 20, 2008

    Very good point. If you can’t control the illegal behavior of your charges, make the behavior legal, thereby reducing your liability.

  14. Tom Wark - August 20, 2008

    Isn’t possible that the liability imposed by the law is an unnecessary liability to impose upon the institution, from both a moral and practical perspective?

  15. Arthur - August 20, 2008

    You may be right, but there is a lot of money to be made from liability litigation…
    Everyone wants a healthy baby an they will sue their OBGyn for everything he owns if something is wrong with the baby – regardless if it was preventable or not.
    Parents will hold the university, its president, the national fraternity, the police department, the director of student life and the owner of the apartment complex and the parents of the other 19 year old who kept pouring the beer and the 21 year old neighbor who bought the keg liable if their darling 19 year old son gets so drunk he does not know any better than to dance on the railing of a third-floor balcony, slips and plummets to his death.
    After all, it sends a message (conveniently in US Dollars), but to whom and what message exaclty?

  16. Thomas Pellechia - August 20, 2008

    Your post sounds more like an endorsement for sensible policy than you may think, and sensible policy includes breaking down the Calvinist nonsense that still tries to keep us in line with a single-minded morality.

  17. Dylan Klymenko - August 20, 2008

    I agree with Sasha.
    I am 22 years old and I can attest to the fact that my college brethren were not necessarily interested in anything less than a ‘heavy pour,’ to say the least.
    There are a lot of factors involved. The problem derives from a lack of respect for alcohol. I grew up in a house hold where, “this is wine, this is beer, don’t have too much” from a very young age. My father didn’t make it a forbidden thing and he led by example it was meant to be had in moderation. When I reached high school and kids were going crazy over it, I asked myself, “why the fuss?” Well, because for them it was forbidden, but for their wholes lives.
    The drinking age should be lowered. By parents. Introduce it to your kids early, show them how to respect it. Then we’ll be ready for a mass change of legal drinking age.

  18. Arthur - August 20, 2008

    I have no issue with a sensible policy. That does not change the fact that it will not change drinking behavior among 18-25 year olds.

  19. Thomas Pellechia - August 20, 2008

    See Dylan’s post above. That is a sensible policy.
    In other words, government, once again, should be a lesser player.
    Your 18-25 year-old comment means what? That the drinking age should be 25?
    If the problem won’t go away, no matter what, then what’s the point of setting any legal drinking age? There must be some other problem that might need addressing, and it just might start in the home, where many problems have a way of gestating.

  20. Arthur - August 20, 2008

    Dylan represents a minority of people.
    The heart of the matter is that humans (and their brains) develop at a specific (biologically predetermined) rate and maturity doesn’t happen at a set point. That is the ‘other problem’ you allude to. Unfortunately, like cancer, we cannot eradicate immature, impulsive or irresponsible behavior. That takes time for each individual to ‘outgrow’ and some never do outgrow this behavioral pattern. With every new birth comes the potential for immaturity and irresponsibility with alcohol, other substances, cars and sex. You cannot legislate or parent it away.
    The legal drinking age of 21 is a risk management effort. It represents a compromise (however arbitrary the selection of that age may seem). It seeks to keep a portion of the population most at risk of suffering (and inflicting) untoward consequences of alcohol consumption from actually creating those consequences.
    That many young people step around the law is not a valid argument against the rationale for the particular age of 21. On the contrary, it proves the point: young people in the 18-25 age group are more likely to act irresponsibly, rashly and dangerously when alcohol is involved – whether they have obtained and ingested it legally or not. This is a pattern seen in countries with varying legal drinking ages.
    There is no doubt a quandary here. The fact of the matter is that in Europe where the drinking age is 18 or 20 (depending n country) these problems are just as prevalent. No matter the family, cultural or legal attitudes.

  21. Dino - August 20, 2008

    “What is it that makes an 18 year old too immature to be trusted with a Cabernet, but mature enough to shoot an Iraqi in the face with a large caliber side arm?”
    Tom, We don’t shoot Iraqi’s in the face. We shoot terrorist in the face, so you can live to make stupid comments. Stick to the topic of wine, I enjoy reading about that on your blog.

  22. Thomas Pellechia - August 20, 2008

    Well, Arthur…and Dino…what makes that immature brain so damned mature to be able to carry a weapon and make a mature decision about using it?
    Everyone else’s issue is more important than everyone else’s issue.
    As you say, Arthur, “The legal drinking age of 21 is a risk management effort.” I don’t care for arbitrary decisions (or arbitrary age groups) for the sake of compromise. Maybe we need to prohibit alcohol completely; then, there are no risks. Wait a minute. That was tried on adults of all ages. It didn’t work then and it can’t work in the future–for any age group!

  23. Arthur - August 20, 2008

    I have never contended that 18 year olds are mature enough for combat or the stresses of a combat environment. I have said it represents a serious paradox that an 18 year old is expected to handle battle but not beer. Recurring stories from this war and others before it, suggest that rank-and-file soldiers are not always exercising the best judgment, but those scenarios are clouded by stressors of the combat environment to which neither of us can relate.
    I said the age *seems* arbitrary, but it is not.
    I will reiterate now: When faced with incontrovertible data that the brain (particularly the regions responsible for judgment and impulse control – and, incidentally, those most immediately and significantly impaired by alcohol) do not fully develop until the mid-twenties AND you couple that with: 1) data on alcohol-related road accidents as well as other injuries and 2) the fact that the 18-25 year-old (particularly male) subgroup is especially prone to these problems, then it makes more sense that a public policy which aims to reduce risk and minimize unfortunate consequences (and costs) of irresponsible alcohol consumption would set a legal age of consumption at 21.
    The compromise is between absolute prohibition, a legal age of consumption of 25 (or whatever) and the consequences of not regulating access to alcohol. It seems un-American, but this is the case of the needs/safety of the many outweighing the desires of the few.
    I think that just as with wine knowledge, we expect the rest of the population to be as responsible with alcohol consumption as we think we are. That is just not reality.

  24. Greybeard - August 21, 2008

    I’ve always been amazed how the U.S. has stuck with the 21yr limit for so long, guess it must be a left-over from Prohibition, even though that finished 75 years ago!
    I am just back from the Netherlands where you can buy Beer at 16, Stronger stuff (>15%) at 18, see http://www.minvws.nl/en/themes/alcohol/default.asp . I was realtively impressed by the idea, although it is probably too radical for your Puritarian section of the population, but lowering the age in the States to 18 for beer and wine would at least bring you closer in line with Europe….unless you think we’re all alcohol dependant crazies?

  25. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2008

    Your argument is based on your understanding of a science. Most arguments for the legal drinking age are not. They sound like the following.
    Driving while drunk is dangerous and quite risky, but it’s also difficult to stop young people from getting drunk, even with legal drinking age rules.
    What’s the next best thing than legal drinking age restrictions?
    Stop drunks from driving before they get in the car.
    Make the legal driving age 21.
    Certainly, it’s much easier to procure illegal alcohol at 18 then it would be to procure an illegal car at that age. First, the dealers won’t be open at night, when the urge to drink and drive takes over; second, think of the cost involved.
    Sure, some 18 year-olds will steal cars just so they can drive drunk, but it’s more likely that they would be so drunk by then that they probably will get only a few hundred yards before they kill themselves against a lamppost–more reason to keep them from driving.
    Another good reason: if they can always find a way around alcohol laws, force them to walk; it will slow them down, give them exercise, and maybe even give the alcohol time to wear.
    If, in the future, 21 proves too young, make the legal driving age 30. Sooner or later, an adult will emerge and the driving license will remain clean, just as the adult’s liver!

  26. Arthur - August 21, 2008

    Interesting piece on CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/08/21/drinking.age/index.html

  27. Morton Leslie - August 21, 2008

    Most of the opponents of lowering the drinking age use the argument that it is waving a white flag. Instead they argue that high schools, colleges, communities and parents are failing at their jobs. My question is how can a parent, a school, or a community teach young people about alcohol consumption, about excessive inebriation, about responsible behavior when it is against the law for the young person to take a drink until he is years out of his parents home, about to graduate from college, and , since the “minor” has been voting for three years, and as an adult is not about to listen to the idiots made their last few years of alcohol consumption of alcohol a crime.
    I don’t know how many of you know Morris E. Chafetz M.D. He is one of my heros. He wrote a pivotal book in 1962 (when I was in high school) Alcoholism and Society. He later was head of NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). I heard him speak once. He advocated “sherry hour” in high school. He advocated teaching kids how to drink like you teach kids how to drive a car….by experiencing it. He is still kicking up the dirt with his blog and his books (Big Fat Liars and Tyranny of Experts)

  28. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2008

    To add to Morton’s post, aren’t certain drugs illegal at any age? Look at the success of that program.
    In fact, many so-called alcohol-related car accidents are often poly-drug related. Which one gets the blame in the statistics, the one that is still legal of course. It’s easier that way.

  29. Arthur - August 21, 2008

    My experiences in the Emergency Room say otherwise:
    The potheads almost never come in through the ER – too busy looking for Doritos to get in trouble. Cokeheads come in with ODs or massive spontaneous intracranial hemorrhages while the speed freaks and dusters (and some cokeheads) usually get brought in on a 5150 (because they they appear psychotic). Junkies – when brought in – are often too loaded to breathe spontaneously let alone take another drug or drive.
    It’s the young men with elevated BAC that come in to the trauma unit as a result of MVAs.
    Multiple drugs are a rarity.

  30. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2008

    That CNN story illustrates clearly that there is a divide on the issue and that there are people already waiting for the 25 legal drinking age to come. But I love this line from the sailor’s wife: “You volunteered to give your life. I’m not volunteering to die at your hands because you’re trashed and driving drunk,” she said.
    I believe these young people also volunteer to take lives–have they the brain power to make such a grave decision as that? Maybe that’s why they are allowed to make the decision–because they don’t understand what it means.
    Ok, I agree. These 18 year old kids should not be making big decisions like driving that big weapon called a car, killing with the other weapons, getting married, raising children, taking on credit card debt, having a checkbook, giving over their lives to Facebook, and oh, having a beer. Someone please stop me!!!

  31. Arthur - August 21, 2008

    I’ll have to reread the story, but I don’t recall anyone advocating for a legal drinking age of 25…

  32. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2008

    “Multiple drugs are a rarity.”
    When someone comes in reeking of alcohol, are any tests other than BAC done?
    It’s been my experience as a drug control surveyor for contracts with NIAA that poly drug use was more common than anyone may think, even the government that funded the surveys and then dismissed their findings.
    Chafetz isn’t making jokes on this matter.

  33. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2008

    Here’s the quote:
    “Munroe says that the younger servicemen who come in to work with hang overs not only endanger themselves but everyone they work with. In her opinion, the drinking age should be raised to at least 25.”

  34. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2008

    ..as if someone with a hangover at age 26 doesn’t endanger everyone at work. I love the logic of these arguments.

  35. Arthur - August 21, 2008

    yeah, I did see that.
    also, drug tox panels are routine in the ER when the circumstances raise the suspicion

  36. The Wine Commonsewer - August 21, 2008

    In my vagrant yoot I spent some time at a naval air station in Tennessee where the drinking age was 18. Can’t tell you how nice it was to shuffle over to the EM club and have a cheeseburger and a couple of beers in the evening.
    And, as of 2007 the USMC allows 18-year-old Marines to drink in foreign ports if the host country’s laws do not prohibit it.

  37. Chicago Pinot - August 21, 2008

    One thing I would like to know is if any book or article has been published with unbiased analysis on how many “lives” organizations such as MADD and DARE have actually “saved.” I don’t know much about the history of MADD, except the story about the founder (didn’t she have a major falling out with the MADD board a few years ago)?
    My suspicion is that groups like these have good intentions and maybe some initial success bringing down drug/alcohol use amongst the young, but then bureaucracy and over-publicity takes over and then their good efforts generally don’t result in much positive change.
    Sorry if this is off topic, but you made me think about this today!

  38. Chicago Pinot - August 21, 2008

    Reducing the drinking age to 18 would be long overdue here in the U.S. (I would even consider raising the driving age to 18, just to keep things consistent).
    But what I would love to see, and yes, I know this is a pipedream, is to have some kind of alcohol education/appreciation elective course taught in the high schools. Naturally, a student would need parental consent, a solid B average at least, and of course, would have to give up driving privileges to and from school for the duration of the course. Just those provisions would probably rule out most students. But the ones remaining who take such a class will learn how to truly appreciate wine and other forms of alchohol, and in my belief, handle it more responsibly over the long run.

  39. Brian Kropf - August 22, 2008

    This topic hits pretty close to home for me, and I’m not quite sure where to begin. First off, my name is Brian Kropf. My brother, Alan Kropf, is the founder of Mutineer Magazine and if any of you read the inaugural issue which came out in July, you would have seen my article in which I wrote about my experience in Iraq.
    I joined the Army at the age of 20, completed my 4 months of training, arrived to my unit and a month later I was in Tikrit, Iraq. Never had I stepped into a bar or legally purchased alcohol, and then one day I’m sleeping next to my assault rifle and waking up to enemy mortar fire. And I find it odd because I felt old at 20, being that so many people were 18 years old, which is the youngest one can be in a war zone.
    I really wish I had a valid argument for this, but topics like this get me so easily flustered I can’t think straight. I ended up turning 21 at month 4 of a 4 month deployment that ended up being 15 months long. My first legal alcoholic beverage was on mid-tour leave on the flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to my home in Seattle and was bought for me by the Captain of the plane I was on .. much thanks to him! Unfortunately it was a can of Miller Light, but I’ll never forget it. Before I knew it, I was back in Iraq with 7 months left. My next drink would be on our way back home in Germany where our plane had to refuel. We were all allowed to purchase 2 alcoholic beverages, but only if we were 21 of course. Although the legal age for consumption in Germany is 18, military law supersedes federal law and the laws of other countries. My best friend whom I just spent 15 months of combat with was told by our chain of command that he couldn’t buy a beer because he was only 19 .. but he was given the responsibility to be the decisive point of if a man was to live or die on a day to day basis. i don’t think there is any responsibility that outranks that, but a beer to just out of the question.
    As I said, I wish I could have provided a more viable argument, but these topics hit close to home and I generally can’t find the words I’m looking for. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer. In the meantime, check out my article in Mutineer Magazine. There are free PDF formats of it floating all around the Web as well, and I have a few good pictures in it!

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