The drinking age: “I think it is 18, isn’t it?”

During a gubernatorial debate in 2005, then-U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine was asked if he supported lowering the drinking age to 18.

"I think it is 18, isn't it?", he answered. Once told that it's actually 21, he added, perhaps recalling the Vietnam-era-type argument that succeeded in lowering the drinking age: "It's good enough to go and put your life on the line in the United States Army in Iraq or Afghanistan … I don't have a problem with the 18-year-old (unintelligible)."

It was a moment of honesty from a politician, erased minutes after the debate when his handlers made him correct the "gaffe." Of course, he actually opposed — no, really opposed — a drinking age of 18.

Though almost as politically unpopular as self-serve gas, Corzine had it right the first time. Our current policy is rife with contradictions.

We trust you to put your life on the line and go door-to-door in Fallujah, but don't touch that Yuengling! You're mature enough to get married, but not to celebrate that commitment with a champagne toast. We think you have the judgment to vote for the leader of the free world, but you're too irresponsible for a Miller Lite. Sure, we trust you with a .45 semi-automatic, and yet somehow, we don't think you can handle a glass of wine.

Like prohibition, the increased legal drinking age — which is almost universally ignored — has driven drinking underground and brought with it a slew of unintended consequences. Few understand those problems better than college campus administrators. Last week, nearly 130 university presidents who say that "twenty-one is not working" signed on to an effort to "rethink the drinking age" and called for "an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age." Three of the signatories represent New Jersey-based universities: Presidents Robert Weisbuch of Drew University, Susan A. Cole of Montclair State University, and Harold J. Raveche of the Stevens Institute of Technology.

In the `70s, the legal drinking age was lowered to 18 in many states when people realized the hypocrisy of sending the troops to fight in Vietnam but not letting them purchase alcohol. The trend soon reversed, and in an effort to reduce drunk driving fatalities, New Jersey raised its drinking age to 19 in 1980 and to 21 in 1983. Perhaps because of the popular support in the state, two of the leaders in the effort to effectively increase the national drinking age to 21 were from New Jersey: U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and U.S. Rep. James Howard.

President Reagan originally opposed the idea, which drew its main detractors in the Senate from states' rights conservatives. They argued that "the pending Lautenberg amendment…which would coerce States into establishing a 21-year-old drinking age, should be rejected because it would result in Federal encroachment into areas that have been reserved to the States under the Constitution." On the left, Sen. Patrick Leahy
of Vermont called it age discrimination: "Why the magic age of 21? Why not 25? How about 30, 35, 40?"

To turn the issue on its head, if we really don't think that, on aggregate, 18 year-olds can handle a beer, maybe we need to consider raising the legal adult age. Of course, I reject the idea that the legal adult age should be raised, but I also reject the idea that 18-year olds can't handle a beer. Nevertheless, the legal adult age is somewhat arbitrary, and it stands to reason that the age we choose to set as the age of responsibility should be consistent.

Proposals to reconsider the drinking age are often met with demagoguery and the prospect of more drunk driving deaths. But if the impetus for these laws is to reduce drunk driving fatalities — a goal everyone should support — why not instead increase the driving age to 21? or 30? or 55? More seriously, perhaps we can learn from the success of other countries which despite having a lower drinking age, have fewer alcohol-related fatalities.

These countries often combine much lower legal blood-alcohol limits (typically, 0.00 to 0.05) with tougher punishments. In France, a DWI is punished with one year in jail and a suspended license for three years. In Norway, it's three weeks in jail with hard labor, and after a second offense, you lose your license for life. El Salvador used to have no repeat offenders; a first offense meant death by firing squad. Maybe that one's a bit much.

We should consider stricter penalties and enforcement as one avenue to reducing alcohol-related deaths, but so long as we continue to treat 18 year-olds like children, we shouldn't expect them to behave like adults.

Juan Melli is Politicker.com’s associate editor.

The drinking age: “I think it is 18, isn’t it?”