Alcohol occupies a peculiar position in the culture of the United States. Like so much else besides, it is subject to the ongoing brawl between puritanism and libertarianism, two philosophies that have long jockeyed for dominance here. Americans have made many contributions to the bar — including the perfection and popularization of the cocktail. But puritanism has survived, enjoying a rich history of its own. Benjamin Rush’s inquiries into alcoholism spawned a variety of anti-alcohol movements at the outset of the new republic; in the 1850s, “temperance” overlapped uncomfortably with the Know Nothing movement’s distaste for secular principles; and in the 1920s the 18th Amendment was passed, in part on the back of widespread mistrust of immigrants and the drinks they brought with them. The role of alcohol in society, remember, is the only such question ever to have been placed within the U.S. Constitution. Nowadays, the folly of Prohibition is widely known. But in practice it still obtains for some, as a deviant exception to the rule of adulthood.
In the United States, we treat 18-year-olds as full citizens. At this age, a man may vote and he may serve as a juror — or he may search for excuses as to why he should do neither. He may smoke cigarettes and fly an airplane. He may get married, or he may eschew that road in favor of pornography and promiscuity. He may enter into contracts, max out his credit cards, and run a business into the ground. He may join the military, putting his life in danger. In some jurisdictions, he may run for public office. Less welcome but no less real are the opportunities to be executed by the state for capital crimes and to sign up for the Selective Service. But what he may not do — in any of the fifty states — is walk to a bar and buy an alcoholic drink. This is nonsense — an aberration from the usual rules. What sense does it make to deprive an adult of just one feature of adulthood, and why are the arguments in favor of doing so taken seriously?
Lobbying the federal government in the 1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving claimed that there was a connection between young-adult drinkers and the worrying number of deaths caused by drunk driving. Their evidence is by no means indisputable. Traffic fatalities in the 1980s decreased considerably less after the drinking was raised than they did during the same period in Europe, where drinking is common at 18 and below; and, as the research of Harvard’s Jeffrey Miron shows, the “drinking age does not produce its main claimed benefit.” But, arguendo, let’s presume that MADD was correct. A bigger question would still remain: If practicality wins out in that arena, why is it alone? Why is William Pitt’s “Necessity” justifiable as the “plea for every infringement” in this domain but not in others?
Should we perhaps raise the marriage age or age of consent to 21? And if not, why not? After all, young people often think they are in love when they are not, and young lust can lead to inordinately bad decisions. (Just ask Romeo and Juliet.) Should we make home ownership illegal until one has 20 years and 12 months under one’s belt? Again: If not, why not? Perhaps our young people need a little time to rehearse in the marketplace before they make the biggest financial decisions of their lives? In fact, given that purchasing a house is top of almost all common stressors, one might classify being forced to navigate the mortgage market while sober as cruel and unusual punishment.