Living in New York City in my middle thirties, I noted an odd dichotomy: My friends in Manhattan, where I worked, were almost uniformly college-educated, upper-income, and upwardly mobile, and many of them were at the time becoming parents; my friends in the South Bronx, where I lived, were less likely to be college graduates, earned less money, were less upwardly mobile — and many of them were at the time becoming grandparents.
Rationally, it really ought to be just the opposite: Upwardly mobile young people typically have the social and economic resources to enable them to become parents at a young age without irreparably disrupting their educational and professional development; teenagers from blue-collar families in the Bronx typically do not have comparable resources. But the Manhattan professionals, a bit like that yuppie couple at the beginning of Idiocracy, put off parenthood until they are financially and professionally well-established, often putting it off so long that fertility becomes a problem. Their Bronx counterparts tended more often to have children when they were young and at peak fertility. The implicit tradeoff there is between socioeconomic security and fertility, a problem that Hollywood seems to have solved in the most obvious way, though my feminist friends scowl at me when I point that out.
Our notion of when adulthood begins is a flexible thing. I find it very difficult to credit a notion of childhood that includes not only a great number of parents but also people who may be only twelve or 15 years away from grandparenthood, but that is the direction in which we are pointed: For a long time, we’ve finessed the three years between 18 — the age of legal adulthood when one can vote, get married, fight in a war, take out a mortgage, etc. — and 21, the effective age of real adulthood when one comes into the right to legally drink a beer or purchase a handgun. It is thoroughly weird — and, honestly, indefensible — that a young man celebrating his graduation from Marine boot camp could spend his morning practicing with a .50-caliber machine gun and then go to jail that afternoon for trying to buy a .22-caliber plinker, that we’d entrust him with a $25 million helicopter but not a bottle of Budweiser. Free societies that develop along organic lines are full of little inconsistencies. But that’s no excuse for reinforcing irrational practices.
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As its members suffer from the one-two punch of government micromanagement and malpractice-claim abuse (“malpractice malpractice”?), it is very difficult to sympathize with the American medical profession, which is as meddlesome and sanctimonious a bunch of blue-nosed busybodies as is known to modern man. At the moment, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is lobbying legislators to raise the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco products from the current norm of 18 to 21. (New York City already has done this; no post-coital indulgence for those precocious Bronx couples!) Its reasons are the predictable ones: Most people who smoke as adults start smoking as teens. But not on their 18th birthday, of course: 80 percent of adult smokers start smoking before they are 18, i.e., before they are legally permitted to do so. There is a dirty little rumor going around that the 21-year drinking age is routinely violated, too.
Pediatrics is the branch of medicine dedicated to the care and treatment of children. And while there is some robust debate about who is a child (see recent queasy debates over age-of-consent laws in South America), a 20-year-old man with a wife and a child is not a child, regardless of what Eric Posner, the dean of students, or Alcalde y Sandinista Jefe Bill de Blasio of Park Slope insists.
The embedded politics here are maddening. We might quibble over whether this particular AAP policy demand is worthy, but much less discussed is the more fundamental question of whether our medical organizations ought to be demanding that the state use its power — the power to throw people into prison and to ruin their livelihoods — to enforce its members’ occasionally quixotic health enthusiasms, and whether government ought to be indulging them in that. Never mind that government-backed health projects often turn out to be wrong — e.g., that starchy food pyramid — we ought to carefully consider whether they ought to exist in the first place.
Progressives cannot bear to get judgey about sex. Smoking? Yes. Vaping? Yes. Eating your damned broccoli? Yes.
“Of course they ought to exist,” the progressive argument goes. “Government subsidizes health care and takes upon itself some share of health-care costs, and it therefore has a legitimate interest in whether you smoke.” Or eat your veggies. That is, in its way, entirely correct, and it is an important part of the case against such policy misadventures as the wretchedly misnamed Affordable Care Act — or Medicare, for that matter. Once the government is in the business of financing something, it acquires all sorts of interests and leverage points, all of which it will use — reliably, and almost without exception — for political ends. A 14-year-old’s life is much more likely to be radically altered for the worse by an ill-considered though entirely consensual sexual encounter than it is by sneaking one of mom’s Winstons, but progressives cannot bear to get judgey about sex. Smoking? Yes. Vaping? Yes. Eating your damned broccoli? Yes. Having the wrong feelings about sex roles, recent American history, or global warming, keeping a gun in your house, driving an SUV, hunting, or homeschooling your kids? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and hell, yes. Our progressive friends are moral crusaders with one prominent moral lacuna.Consenting adults? Not if one of them is 20 years old and the other is Joe Camel.
We should pick an age of adulthood and stick with it. If 18-year-olds are going to be legally permitted to inflict Barack Obama on this republic, then the few sensible souls among that age cohort should be permitted to legally dull the resultant pain with a cocktail. And what’s a cocktail without a cigarette?
If, on the other hand, we’re going to decide that 22-year-old students at Harvard getting ready for law school or junior positions in the U.S. Foreign Service are not far enough removed from their diapers to be expected to deal with the micro-aggressions of Mark Twain, then they sure as Hell shouldn’t be at Parris Island preparing to meet macro-aggressions on behalf of these United States — or permitted to see the inside of a voting booth.
– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.