Should the Drinking Age Be Re-Examined?

On August 19th the Associated Press reported that University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced that “she won’t support an initiative to study lowering the drinking age.” This plan, called the Amethyst Initiative, already has the support of 129 chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges from across the country, who hope to stem binge drinking by young adults.

According to the Amethyst Initiative’s website the group “supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”

One of the “current alcohol policies” referred to is the 1984 “National Minimum Drinking Age Act” which withholds 10% of federal highway funds from any state that sets its drinking age lower than 21. This flies in the face of 10th Amendment federalism, the idea that jobs not specifically assigned to the U.S. government by the Constitution belong to the individual states and to the people themselves. Regardless of what the drinking age should be, it’s really not the federal government’s call. [Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr addresses this very issue in his August 22 press release, which I read after I finished writing this post.]

It should be noted that signatories of the Amethyst Initiative don’t necessarily support lowering the drinking age, just “informed and unimpeded debate” about it. That makes President Mason’s refusal to sign even more puzzling. What head of a research university dedicated to the pursuit of intellectual truth could be opposed to THAT?

According to the AP article, President Mason says that she wouldn’t support the initiative because 19- and 20-year-olds can enter Iowa City bars and many underage patrons are drinking alcohol and getting drunk. What head of an institution with the previously mentioned attributes would use anecdotal evidence like that to justify unquestioning acceptance of an arbitrary (and arguably unconstitutional) national law. Even if her evidence wasn’t anecdotal, I can’t follow her logic that noncompliance with the current law is proof positive of its effectiveness and necessity. Of course I’m not as well educated as she is.

With or without President Mason, there seems to be growing interest in revisiting the drinking age debate. This is probably partially fueled by the ongoing war in Iraq. Most people see the inherent unfairness of sending legal-adults away to fight in dangerous foreign lands but denying them the ability to enjoy a cold beer if they make it home alive.

This has led several states to discuss allowing young adults serving in the military to drink before they turn 21. Another novel idea that’s been proposed would allow 18 year-olds to apply for a state-issued “drinking permit.” Any infraction by the permit holder would result in the permit immediately being revoked, leaving the young adult high and dry until he or she becomes 21. That would seem to be a good compromise between those who support lowering the drinking age and those who don’t. I know that if I’d have had a “license to drink” when I was 18, I would have jumped through all kinds of hoops to keep it.

Would it work? I don’t know. The point is, new and inventive ideas like these will never even be explored so long as the federal government tries to maintain its chokehold on the innovation of our nation’s 50 laboratories of democracy, the states. As long as leaders like President Mason unthinkingly support the status quo, the federal government has little incentive to release its death grip.

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