Let’s Discuss Lowering the Legal Drinking Age
It has been years since any state seriously considered raising the age at which it is legal to drink. But it’s notable that for decades that age was not near what the mark is today in all states. Most would consider it folly to make an attempt to lower the legal drinking age. And I understand that. But I’m not one of those who think it is a bad idea. And now it appears that there are others who also don’t think it is a bad idea
Last Thursday, Representative Todd Rutherford of South Carolina introduced House Bill 4512. If passed, it would lower the legal age in South Carolina for drinking and purchasing alcohol to 18 years of age. His rationale is familiar:
Today I filed a bill to lower the drinking age to 18. If you’re old enough to fight for our country, old enough to vote, old enough to take out student loans — then you’re old enough to have a drink. https://t.co/iyIPnNnnxs
— Todd Rutherford (@RepRutherford) November 11, 2021
His reasoning is impeccable. There is nothing about moderate alcohol consumption that is any more dangerous for an 18-year-old than going to war. Voting responsibly presumably requires a higher caliber of maturity and thoughtfulness than putting back a beer while watching the Clemson Tigers. And Being responsible for paying back thousands of dollars in loans must require a higher level of personal responsibility than enjoying a Manhattan in advance of consuming a dinner of Riblets at Applebees.
To my knowledge, every state in the U.S. has a legal drinking age of 21 due primarily to the 1984 National Minimum Age Drinking Act, which declared federal highway funds would be withheld to any state that did not raise its legal drinking age to 21. The blackmail worked.
The year prior to the passing of the Minimum Drinking Age Act, only 11 states had a legal drinking age of 21, the majority of other states put the legal age to drink at 18 or 19 years old.
But it’s not as though the United States does not stand in good company today with its 21-year-old drinking age. Those other countries not banning alcohol consumption that also have a 21-year-old drinking age include:
Pohnpei and Yap ( 2 of 4 Federated States of Micronesia)
Quatar (but only if non-muslim)
Every other country in the world that does not ban alcohol consumption has a lower legal drinking age than the U.S., with the vast majority of states pegging it at Representative Rutherford’s proposed 18 years of age.
Just looking at the response to Representative Rutherford’s tweet concerning his bill, it appears there is not considerable support for his proposal. As one Twitterstan citizen noted, “no one is asking for this”. And this is true. There does not appear to be any significant call among South Carolinians for a lower drinking age.
Some point to Representative Rutherford’s various alcohol-related campaign contributors and have suggested that House Bill 4512 was introduced in the service of their bottom line. But this seems unlikely. This contingent of producers and wholesalers that have contributed to Representative Rutherford’s campaigns are unlikely to ask for such a heavy lift given its very small chance of actually succeeding.
The primary argument against lowering the drinking age is the loss of federal highway funds. But this isn’t a real argument, but rather a reaction to states’ dependence on federal funding. But Representative Rutherford, anticipating this objection, had a response:
“Now is the time to do this. Between the existing state budget surplus, all the money that Joe Biden has sent us, and the economic growth that will come as a result, we can afford to do this.”
The other arguments against lowering the legal drinking age revolve around death and development. The Center For Disease Control notes all the health and safety impacts of raising the legal drinking age to 21.
But the health and safety case for keeping the legal drinking age in the U.S. (including South Carolina) does not address Representative Rutherford’s most compelling argument for raising lowering the drinking age:
“This is a personal freedom issue. If you are old enough to fight for our country, if you’re old enough to vote, if you’re old enough to sign on for thousands of dollars of student loans for a college education, then you are old enough to have a drink”
Returning to Twitterstan, it’s notable that some of those responding to the Representative’s “personal freedom” argument insisted that perhaps it is time to raise the legal age for joining the military to 21 also. I don’t have a response to this idea for the same reason I don’t have a response to the idea that the best way to fix the disparity among groups who are represented in advanced academic classes in K-12 is to eliminate the advanced academic classes.
If I were a betting man, I’d lay money that this bill does not even get a hearing in committee, let alone pass into law. Yet both should happen for exactly the reasons that the Representative provides. So, I have a couple suggestions for Representative Rutherford.
What’s a one-year difference? Moreover, lowering the legal drinking age forces opponents to make a much narrower argument, allows for a “test”, of sorts, to occur around the legal drinking age question, and still moves the state of South Carolina to a more freedom-oriented posture.
It’s notable that the vast majority of European countries have an 18-year-old legal drinking age. Yet, the majority also do not have higher rates of drunk driving or alcohol abuse issues (then there is Greece) than the United States. However, most of these countries also have a lower maximum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for their drunk driving laws.
It would be fascinating to see how either of these proposals play out. In the end, I don’t think either would pass. Inertia is a powerful force and the determination that a higher legal drinking age has been pushed upon Americans for 40 years. It would take a wave of libertarianism to was over the country for the inertia surrounding higher drinking ages to be washed away. However, I think both of these proposals get the conversation started in a more realistic way. And I think the Representative knows his proposal is likely to flounder.