The Corner

The Rule of Law

Instapundit asks whether we should lower the drinking age. I’ve long thought it should be lowered. And I still do. But, as I think we discussed around here a while ago, one of the things that astonishes me when I visit college campuses is how successful the 21 age limit has been. I’ve met a large handful (though still a minority) of under-twenty-one-year-olds who don’t drink alcohol, save perhaps sparingly with their parents, because it is against the law. Believe me, I’ve quizzed them at length about whether the legality issue was cover for some other, perfectly legitimate, justification for abstemiousness. But, no. The law says it’s wrong, so they don’t do it.

Obviously, not all of them are taking moral instruction from the state so much as just trying to stay out of trouble. Still, this would have been impossible to imagine in my youth, at least among my peers. However, it is very close to the dynamic with pot. I knew lots of people who wouldn’t smoke pot when pot smoking was “cool” simply because it was against the law. Again, some simply didn’t want to get into trouble. This was when pot-smoking seemed to look really bad on your “permanent record.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, politicians were “confessing” to past pot use and it was seen as a very risky thing. The Douglas Ginsberg Supreme Court nomination was derailed in 1987 by allegations he’d smoked pot years earlier. But there was a moral ingredient to all of this as well. Not only was there the presumption that pot-smoking was against the law for a good reason, it was difficult to tease out the difference between the wrongness of smoking pot from the wrongness of breaking the law against pot-smoking. And I find it fascinating that today some 20 year-olds see drinking beer the same way.

Similarly, I think anyone over 30 can remember how wearing a seat belt was seen as incredibly uptight not long ago. Now, I’m amazed at how young(er) people un-self-consciously click their seat belts even in back seats. And, as a parent, it’s impossible not to notice how child car seats are the subject of such anxiety. When I was a kid, crawling around in the back of a station wagon on the highway was a common treat. Today letting your kid ride in the back of the car without a six-point F-16 harness feels like child abuse.

Anyway, I bring all of this up because I think a lot of us downplay the power the law has to change attitudes. I’m for lowering the drinking age, but we should have no illusions about the fact that this will create more “underage” drinkers because an important and ambiguous barrier will have been lifted. Similarly, drug legalizers should at least concede that legalizing, say, coke will create more coke users (at least in the short term) — not just because the risk-premium will be lowered, but because the stigma of illegality will be lifted.

Update: From a reader:

Three points about your post on college students (from an observer in the drunkest college town in the US — Madison, WI):   1.    College students lie about drinking to anyone over 30. 2.    College students drink constantly, 21 be damned. 3.    The kids who talk to you are, probably without exception, nerds who don’t drink.

Me: All of these are defensible propositions with ample truth to them. But, there are some empirical problems. Almost all of my interviews with non-drinking college students were conducted over beers and other libations. Indeed, these informal interviews begin with me asking the holdouts, “Why aren’t you drinking?”  It seems odd to lie to me when I’m drinking a beer amidst ten other college kids drinking beer. As for the nerd thing, that’s totally possible and in some cases objectively true. But, I would find it all much less amazing if that were the only explanation. I quiz these kids about this as best I can without seeming like a bully of some kind. I don’t care if the 20-year-old doesn’t drink.  I just think it is interesting that he doesn’t. Last, Madison is different. Indeed, I was just up there last month and I asked my companions about this phenomenon and they looked at me  as if I was crazy. It was like I was in 11th century Norway asking the local vikings whether veganism had caught on.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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