While I realize the following essay is controversial, I ask that those who would criticize it please read it in full and, if you find it distasteful, please add a writeup here containing a thoughtful response, rather than simply downvoting or flaming me.

Footnotes are indicated by numbers in curly brackets.


The sheer hypocrisy of the underage drinking law is overwhelming. I cannot begin to describe how harshly I look upon this law; I have nothing but contempt for it. This law is nothing less than oppression.

The common arguments{1} for this law go:

"x number of lives were saved by raising the drinking age."
"x dollars were saved by raising the drinking age."
"There is a different age of initiation for everything."

These are, of course, gross oversimplifications, but they capture the gists fairly well. Let us begin with the first two:

"x number of lives/dollars were saved by raising the drinking age."

I do not contest these arguments directly, as they are quite correct. Yet I believe the same results can be achieved through different means. I propose some alternative solutions below.

More interesting is argument 3, as it strikes at the crux of the hypocrisy of drinking age limits.

Argument 3 is correct in that there are different and appropriate ages of initiation for everything, yet it fails to address the monumental importance of being required to serve the draft. Being asked to give our lives for our country carries with it great responsibility and sacrifice. It is only fair to expect that we give ourselves for the same citzenship that others enjoy{2}.

It was this revelation that ultimately led to the instatement of under-21 suffrage--in the 1960s, our youth became outraged at the inequity of their peers' sacrifices for liberties that they could not enjoy simply because of their age. Thus, the 26th amendment was born and a new emphasis was placed on the rights of our youth.

Here, I must make a painful concession. In the wake of the 26th amendment, our youth became complacent. Voter turnout among us is terrible--it is consistently the lowest, by far{3}. To borrow some timeless rhetoric, freedom is truly a flame that is easily extinguished when left unattended.

Thus, we are screwed. I postulate that the age limit laws were ultimately applied to our age group because we were the ones who would not (and, in all likelihood, will never) retaliate in the polls{4}.

This is why I have such great contempt for this law. It stands as a disgraceful reminder of the political atrophy that grips my generation. It also points to a steady erosion of a great and newfound liberty, that came only after much struggle--the right to vote and the equity it affords.

We MUST restore this equity. It is our responsibility as citizens to exercise our right to vote. A failure to understand what our apathy is costing us is only a forecast of bad citizenship to come, as our youth ages and replaces the generations before it.

That being said, I am not cold to the problems of alcohol abuse. I offer the following two ideas, which are neither original nor complete, but of which I am rather fond:


I realize that prohibition was tried and has failed, but I refuse to believe that less restrictive, yet equally effective measures do not exist. An attractive solution is a nationwide "alcohol curfew"--restricting purchase of alcohol or its consumption during certain times of day (especially later at night).


Easier said than done. Yet I think this is necessary even if the age-21 drinking laws stand. I applaud the various special interest groups who fight drunk driving in advertising campaigns. This should be extended to creating a realistic, proactive attitude towards drinking in society. By realistic, I mean an attitude which does not demonize alcohol to the point that it is seen as a "forbidden fruit{5}."

I do not believe that these options are the only measures to be taken, nor do I believe that either is a solution in itself.


Despite its good intentions, this law cannot stand. It is an abomination to the greater principles of society. Repeal it and let us work towards fairer solutions to the drinking issue.


1. Some URLS for those who would research these arguments farther:


There are other arguments, but I consider these to be the most important for their frequency of invokation and their implications.

2. This claim is self-evident to me, but I realize that there are myriad arguments against it. Particularly troublesome is the idea that drinking is not a "right," but a privilege. I disagree with this notion; if it is merely a privilege, then it is quite important nonetheless--enough to drown out previous attempts to prohibit it, en masse (and with a constitutional amendment, no less!).

3. Voting statistics for federal elections since 1972:


4. The argument can be made that underage citizens supported the age limits. Rampant underage drinking in spite of the law leads me to conclude otherwise; I welcome any arguments to this effect.

5. The forbidden fruit theory of alcohol prohibition is intruiging. For more information, see the research by Dr. Ruth Engs at http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/

The social attitude in the United States towards alcohol, especially that from many parents, is another factor which fuels binge drinking. Supporters of the age limit seem to insist that teenage binge drinking would increase were the drinking age lowered, logically this is not the case.

Overseas, where the drinking age is virtually non-existant, alcohol is treated with a different type of respect. Teenage drinkers know how much they can handle, it is looked down upon to binge drink and people are taught to drink for the taste. Their parents know that their kids consume alcohol and recognize that they do so responsibly, encouraging behavior which is expected later on in life.

American parents, to the most part, demonize alcohol at home, making it accessible to kids only at rare occasions. The idea of having a beer or glass of wine with food never comes up, alcohol is available only as a device for getting drunk. The worst drinkers in college are those who lived with overly protective parents, and always held college as their oppertunity to party as hard as possible, not learn.

England has a good approach to drinking, namely that one can order alcohol in restaurants at any age when accompanied by a parent and alone only when 16 -- Bars and Clubs are still 18 and up. Growing up in a traditional German household, I've had a beer with dinner since I was thirteen, and still drink more or less regularly while rarely becoming intoxicated. Agreeing with smoker4, the drinking age is indeed counterproductive when teaching our youth to handle alcohol.

Please read the node Some thoughts on drinking age limits in the United States to get my writeup in context. This is a long post as well, so be warned :)

An Analogy
Allow me to draw upon an analogy from my personal experience. I live in a university residential College in Australia (ie most of the residents are teenagers). Technically, my Colllege is a 'dry' College (ie no alcohol consumption is permitted). However, the Dean of the College takes a relaxed interpretation of this rule. Our College tends to have this policy instead:

"You can drink alcohol in your rooms and at College events. There is to be no drinking in public areas within the College and you must not show adverse effects of alcohol (ie rowdy behaviour in College will not be permitted)"

There is another College in the area which has no policy on alcohol consumption - basically, they can drink when and where they like.

Finally, a College just up the road has a very restrictive policy. The residents there are not permitted to consume any alcohol while in College and random room searches are done to check for alcohol. If you are caught with any alcohol while on College, it is an instant $50 fine.

So what is the results of these three policies?
In the College with no policy, there are always a bunch of residents who are drinking. There is a very boozy culture at that College with the associated problems - eg sexual harrassment, intimidation. I don't want to sound like that College is a shithole or anything - but those problems do exist and are known.

The College with the ultra-restrictive policy naturally has no drinking on the College premises. However, when the residents go to the local pub or they have external events away from the College admin, they all go crazy. With no idea how to handle alcohol or what their limits are, they often become blind drunk and invaribly they cause trouble at these events.

I'd like to think that my College has the right attitude. They encourage sensible drinking and it is possible to safely find your limits while at Collegge.

So to tie it back to the original node ...
I definitely don't think we should be restricting alcohol consumption like during the Prohibition nor should alcohol curfews be introduced. They would be expensive to police and would be as ineffective as a total ban on alcohol. And just like the College with the ultra-restrictive policy, simply hiding the problem doesn't prevent them from occuring.

However, just like the College with no alcohol policy, I don't think that a fully unrestricted drink driving age should be permitted either. When people are young, they like to experiment - except, experimenting with drinking and driving are lethal combinations. And worse, other people can be inadvertently drawn in.

I think a moderate policy needs to be taken. One where drinking is not demonised, but that people are strongly encouraged to be responsible and that an environment is provided where drivers are learn their limits.

In Australia, our legal drink driving age is 18. We also have highly effective massive media blitz warning about the effects of drink driving which show bloodied and dead people trapped in their crashed cars. We also have a vigilant police force which frequently set up road blocks to test for drunk drivers.

In addition to this, for the first year after you get your drivers license, you are not permitted to drive with any alcohol in your blood. If you get caught, bye bye license.

All this works fairly well (you can't stop all drink driving obviously) in providing an environment where young people can be encouraged to drink and drive responsibly.

While the law opposes underage drinking—or any kind of drinking in a public place—it seems to me that the bigger problem is not so much the law, as the culture.

I live in London, travel to mainland Europe very frequently, and visit the United States every so often. Each time I visit, I am struck by the influence the Puritans and prohibition have had on US attitudes to alcohol consumption, and especially the attitudes of parents to their childrens' drinking habits.

First, some notes on the attitudes to drinking alcohol in Europe. For those who have never visited any Mediterranean countries, alcohol, mostly in the form of wine, is a normal and expected part of family life, as well as pretty well every social occasion. In Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and many other countries, there will be wine on the table with every meal. I have sat in a restaurant in France and watched the owner eat a plate of seafood and drink most of a bottle of wine for breakfast. This is not particularly unusual in wine-growing areas. Children of ten years old and below will routinely have a glass of watered-down wine with the evening meal.

In France, your waiter will be surprised if you do not have at least a small carafe of house wine with your lunch. In Italy, it would be almost unthinkable to go to a restaurant and fail to order some wine with your evening meal, or a grappa with your coffee. In Spain, the evening meal is taken around 10 pm, or later, and again, there will almost always be wine on the table. It might not be the finest of varietals, but it will be dark, and dry and alcoholic. In a restaurant or bar anyone who looks more or less adult can order wine or beer, no matter what their passport or ID card might say.

In Germany or Belgium the drink might be beer rather than wine, but even at business events, many people will often drink either a beer or a glass or two of wine with their lunch, and most will have some alcohol with their evening meal. Even in the UK, habits are changing. Once it was normal to drink a cup of tea with the evening meal, but beer or wine is now more common. The point of this explication is that most children will have grown up with alcohol on the table and will have tried some—almost certainly with the blessing and encouragement of their parents—by the time they are 14 or 15, and in many cases well before that.

Drinking in public places is not banned in most parts of Europe, it is again, just a part of life. Cafes have outside tables. When eating a picnic in the countryside, or in a public park, it is completely normal and socially acceptable to have a bottle of wine or a few beers with the food.

Habits in the USA

As a point of law, in most parts of the USA, it is illegal for people under the age of 21 to either buy or consume alcohol in any place at any time. It is illegal for anyone (no matter how old) to consume alcohol in a public place. These rules appear to be rigorously observed by a majority of the population, even within the home.

Maybe I am not the right person to write this, and I know it is not a definitive survey, but based on the write-ups above and elsewhere, and my own experiences, I am going to discuss two young Americans. One aged 18 and living with his parents. His sister, just a few months from her 21st birthday, lives away from home in a college environment.

Both those people have access to money and both drink pretty much as they like. The young man—old enough to drive, old enough to be a father, and old enough to die for his country—hides the fact from his parents. The parents are completely unaware of the extent and regularity of his drinking habits. The young woman can talk openly to her parents about how much she drinks at college, but chooses not to consume alcohol in their presence. To do so would be seen as an outright challenge to their authority and expectations.

The parents are reasonably comfortable in economic terms. The mother has a European heritage, the father comes from old Episcopalian stock, but both are fairly liberal in many of their views and ideas.

Their son, who turned 18 in February, is in his final year of high school. Since his birthday, he has become an independent adult in the eyes of the law, and his parents now allow him a huge amount of freedom in terms of the hours he keeps and his social activities. But they will not keep beer in the house after an incident in which a few bottles went missing. In his den, there is a line of empty Smirnoff Ice bottles. His mother thinks it is a kind of root beer. His father once accidentally opened an e-mail intended for the son 'I have a bottle of Bacardi, are you coming over'? He thinks the friend who sent it is a bad influence.

Their daughter is at college three hours' drive away. She shares an apartment with three other young women. In a restaurant with her parents, she will not take a glass of wine with the meal, and her parents approve of her decision. "It's the law" they say. The four women enjoy their social life. One of them is president of her Sorority this year, and is responsible for the finances and the social events, many of which include the sale and consumption of alcohol. She, too, is 20 years old. It is unusual for any of these women, they say, to consume alcohol when their parents are nearby. Not especially for fear of being discovered, more out of some kind of respect for their parents' feelings.

As a European I find this very strange. It seems entirely wrong that the law and the culture expects a young person to change from a teetotal 20-year-old into a responsible drinker at age 21. Surely it is easier and more humane to introduce a young adult to the pleasures and risks of alcohol within the home, under good control, than it is to force him to discover it through binge drinking with a group of similarly inexperienced friends?

And if alcohol is a normal part of life, then growing children learn to use it responsibly rather than go off on illicit, irresponsible sessions, hidden from all public view. What happens then, when something goes wrong?

So, while the law may be in place, as it is in many European countries, it is more the culture which governs the use of alcohol in the home. It is this legacy of the Puritans, and its influence on alcohol—and incidentally sex—as being "Bad Things" which seems to me more of the problem than the actual law.

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