This year’s worst idea: Lowering the drinking age

Something I almost posted just before leaving for PA Sunday, but didn’t have time… Reacting to this story in The State Sunday morning:

South Carolina’s legal drinking age could return to 18 for the first time in more than 25 years if two recent court rulings in Richland and Aiken counties are upheld on appeal.

Longtime Richland County Magistrate Mel Maurer on July 15 ruled that the state law prohibiting youths ages 18 through 20 from possessing or consuming liquor was unconstitutional. The current legal drinking age is 21.

On July 23, Aiken County Chief Magistrate Rodger Edmonds ruled that law and a similar law involving the possession and consumption of beer and wine in the 18-20 age group were unconstitutional.

Actually, I did post something about it on Twitter, and it caused a discussion on Facebook — not about what the law IS, but about what it should be.

There were the mature-minded folk (of course) who agreed with me that letting kids drink was a particularly horrible idea, and jeers and protests from the Party Hearty crowd. I heard the usual non-sequitur arguments, such as, if they’re old enough to fight for their country, etc. Folks, the two things have nothing to do with each other. The qualifications to be a soldier and those required to handle drinking responsibly are not the same — entirely different skill set. Ditto with voting. You might be qualified to do all three, but you might not. There’s no cause-and-effect relationship there.

Having been an 18-year-old who could drink legally I know whereof I speak — this is a HORRIBLE idea. And I marvel that anyone could advocate for it. It just can’t be rationalized in any way that is persuasive.

Oh, and while I’m at it, 16-year-olds shouldn’t be driving.

Anyway, Joe McCulloch says we need to amend the constitution if we want drinking by 18-year-olds to remain illegal. Let’s get started. Anybody have a petition? I’ll sign it.

32 thoughts on “This year’s worst idea: Lowering the drinking age

  1. doug_ross

    Someone used a similar scenario on your facebook page I think:

    So an 18 year old can enlist in the Army, fight in Iraq for two years, come back, get married, get a mortgage, get a credit card, get a car loan, have a kid, and then get arrested for drinking a single beer.

    Ridiculous. An arbitrary number established by Brad Warthen as to the proper age when a legal adult can have a drink is big government mentality at its finest.

    I could accept a “no drinking while under 18 or still in high school” law… but after that, forget it. 18 is the age society has decided a person is an adult.

    The 21 limit hasn’t limited underage drinking in any significant way. In case you didn’t know it, it goes on every day of the week in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools.

    It takes individual responsibility to deal with drinking responsibly, not nanny-state directives.

    FYI, I never had a drink until I was 21 despite plenty of opportunity. Stop playing Big Daddy to the world.

  2. Birch Barlow

    18 year olds are immature and irresponsible. They are susceptible to pressure from others. They should not be making potential life-altering decisions at such a young age.

    We should raise the age limit for joining the military to 21.

  3. Greg Flowers

    18 to 20 year olds drink on a regular basis, many if not most having fake IDs. Laws which protect people against themselves and cannot be effectively enforced are a drain on scarce resources and should be eliminated. We already have laws against drunk and disorderly, DUI etc. This unenforceable law makes no sense particularly as an 18 year old is legally an adult for all other purposes. Society is a balancing of rights and responsibilities and any citizen with the responsibility of defending the shores, carrying out contractual obligations etc. should have the rights of all other citizens accorded those obligations (those who have committed felonies are in another category for reasons I will not go into here). The guiding principal for government should be that all actions which do not directly adversely effect the person or property of others should be permitted.

  4. Greg Flowers

    Oh, Brad, even though my opinion, in your view prevents me from being mature minded, I assure you that I am not a member of the Party Hearty crowd. I thought (hoped) that your oft repeated calls for civility would preclude you from negatively pigeon holing all of those who disagree with you.

  5. doug_ross

    Brad says: “Having been an 18-year-old who could drink legally I know whereof I speak — this is a HORRIBLE idea. And I marvel that anyone could advocate for it. It just can’t be rationalized in any way that is persuasive.”

    And yet doesn’t offer a single piece of rational explanation (persuasive or otherwise) as to why 21 is the magic number for an adult to reach the age of reason and responsibility when it comes to drinking alcohol as compared to all other adult responsibilties.

  6. bud

    This is an issue that I’m truly conflicted about. Doug’s arguments are powerful and persuasive. The draft, voting and property ownership are all confered upon adults at the age of 18. Drinking a beer in one’s own home certainly seems like a sensible extension of those adult privelages.

    Yet there is a wealth of evidence to show that motor vehicle fatalities DID decline significantly as a result of raising the drinking age. Do young people still drink? You betcha. But they tend to be more discrete about it and do so in safer situations.

    Given the fact that our government is slaughtering thousands of people in a ridiculous war in Iraq for absolutely no reason it seems the least we can do is protect them here with a somewhat intrusive drinking age law. Tough call but I’m going to side with Brad on this one.

    Having said that, Brad’s comment about “marveling at anyone who advocates lowering the drinking age” is simply ludicrous to the nth degree. In a nation that cherishes freedom we should never take one away in the very cavalier nature that Brad seems so comfortable with. The idea that we can go to war for no reason is a much better candidate for something that “cannot be rationalized in any way that is persuasive”.

  7. Randy E

    “The 21 limit hasn’t limited underage drinking in any significant way. In case you didn’t know it, it goes on every day of the week in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools.” – Doug

    Murder continues every day of the week so let’s drop the law making that illegal as well.

    Bud and Doug make important points. “Several studies in the 1970s found that motor vehicle crashes increased significantly among teens when the MLDA was lowered.” – This is significant evidence that age 21 is not simply an “arbitrary age.” BUT it is a profound paradox to disallow drinking for people who can be parents and go to battle.

    Perhaps the societal implications are important. Does the increase in accidents that accompanies the lowered drinking age put society at greater risk? I bet someone defending the lowered age would have a change of heart if he had a loved one killed by a drunk teen driver.

  8. Brad Warthen

    Because I’m a grownup, and I say no.

    Doug’s arguments are utterly unpersuasive.

    Folks, if the limit were now 30, and someone proposed lowering it to 25, I’d oppose it. Because every year you lower it makes us all less safe. A normal person is more reckless at 18 than at 21, at 21 than at 25, at 25 than at 30. There is no reason, none whatsoever, to put thousands of lives at risk, to do something that is utterly and completely unnecessary. What is accomplished? Nothing.

    This is why companies that do things on the basis of actuarial tables are willing to take a risk on a 25-year-old that they’re not willing to take on an 18-year-old. Facts say young people are a bigger risk. The MARKET says younger people are a bigger risk. Those of you who like the market so much should see this.

    If you don’t care about that, then I’ll resort to the anecdote. Here’s a lovely anecdote from when it was legal, and it is the NATURAL result of such a legal atmosphere: In college, I lived in a private dorm that wasn’t run by the university. One of the “perks” of living there (and one I don’t think my parents knew about) was that periodically the dorm would have free beer busts in the cafeteria. Unlimited. Free. Beer. I was far from the only one who saw just how much beer it was possible to drink before the room started to spin and my body rejected it. Hey, I didn’t have to drive anywhere, did I? So it was OK, right? I mourn for those brain cells.

    Someone above notes that kids break the law now, which is one of the worst reasons in the world to remove a law. NOW they have to do it with some modicum of discretion. They have to avoid the kind of behavior that calls too much attention to themselves. So the law has SOME effect on their behavior. And more than that, adults have a very good reason to at least be careful about selling it to anyone who might be too young. This might not be perfect, but it’s infinitely preferable to a legal environment in which there is no legal objection to providing free beer to kids so the word will get out and EVERYBODY will want to pay to live in your dorm.

    Even regularly violated laws have their intended effect to some extent. And the intended effect in this case is a good one.

    Now watch: One of my libertarian friends is going to say, “Just because YOU were irresponsible…” or “Just because the dorm management wasn’t irresponsible doesn’t mean that…” and you know the rest.

    Here’s the thing: The world is full of irresponsible people. We have rules, we have laws, to curtail the damage that such people can do to the rest of us.

    And Greg, I wasn’t trying to insult you or anybody else. But it’s true that I have no patience with arguments that we should lower barriers to irresponsible and dangerous behavior by the very young.

    You see, as Wes said, I AM old. I can only think about the behavior of 18-year-olds in terms of children. Precious children, whom you try to protect from themselves, as well as from the rest of the world, until they’re fully grown and married and have their own kids to worry about. And then you still worry about them, but they’re not your responsibility to the same extent (except in that we are all responsible to each other, which is my communitarian belief).

    My children are all between the ages of 20 and 32, and my brain sees it the other way around, too — people between the ages of 32 and 18 are children, to me.

    So I guess there’s just no reasoning with the old man, is there, kids?

  9. Brad Warthen

    And somebody move the beer away from bud — he thinks our government is slaughtering thousands of people in Iraq in a ridiculous war. In the present tense.

    Randy, thanks for your support. But tell me what the connection is between being a soldier and drinking. The situations are diametrically opposed. In one, you place a kid in an extremely structured environment and subject him to rigorous training, constantly under the supervision of drill sergeants to whom calling your rifle a gun is tantamount to mass murder and treated accordingly. It’s a situation that makes the most of the physical strength and adaptability of a male of that age, and places the very tightest controls on him to prevent the kind of recklessness that is natural at that age.

    That is the very OPPOSITE situation from saying, Here, kid, go drink all the beer you want…

    Here’s the disconnect. Many people think of laws in the sense of what individuals GET TO DO, and the more stuff they get to do, the better. I think of it in terms of what makes sense for the community as a whole. A LAW is not an expression of one individual’s personal philosophy, but the result of an agreement among many people for the proper way to shape the space where they interact with each other. Yes, I care about individual rights, but largely because I think that guaranteeing such rights is a rational and moral way to run a society. And there must always be a balance between my right to swing my fist and the rights of the rest of the commmunity not to get hit.

    I could go on, but my point here is that we’re talking past each other…

  10. Brad Warthen

    And yes, I was being deliberately provocative with that “if the limit were 30 and you wanted to lower it to 25, I’d be against it” stuff.

    I guess I’m in a mood. I’m cranky already from the job search — this economic situation can make it seem like society as a whole is going to hell in a handbasket — and then somebody comes up with, “Hey, why don’t we tell 18-year-olds that it’s OK to drink!” And it’s last straw on the camel time.

    My attitude is, there are enough problems in the world. Please don’t dream up new ways to make trouble…

  11. doug_ross

    The driver statistics are not meaningful. Unless you can remove all the other factors that have impacted driving safety over the same period, you cannot point to raising the drinking age as being the sole reason. Use of seat belts, air bags, better engineered cars all had an impact.

    The problem Brad has is that he associates drinking with getting drunk and tries to claim that actuarial tables support his argument (please provide a link).

    It’s hard to imagine that the only adult activity that depends on a 3 year gap in order to preserve society is that related to drinking. It doesn’t make any logical sense.

    And Brad, if you want to look at actuarial tables, they would also say that we should start pulling drivers licenses from adults over 75. Will you sign a petition to do that as well? Would you take the keys from your parents when they reach a specific age because the actuarial tables say they are a threat to society or will you treat them like adults?

  12. doug_ross


    A question – did any of your children drink before the age of 21?

    Pull your head out of the clouds. The number of 18 year olds drinking now is more than likely within 5-10% of the number who were drinking when the age limit was 18.

    Based on the stories I hear from my high school age children, I’d say 40-50% of males and 30-40% of female seniors in high school drink on a regular basis… the age limit of 21 has little impact on the behavior. Those who want to drink will do so.

    What we need is laws that punish drunk driving severely. I wonder if you might comment on the recent case of Solicitor Giese who was able to refuse a Breathalyzer test and fail 3 field sobriety tests and yet somehow find a way around what should be a fairly explicit law against drunk driving… What happened there? What message does that send to kids?

  13. doug_ross


    Perhaps the reason 18 years olds are recruited into the Army is because they are impressionable and immature and can thus be “molded” into killers who will take orders.

    I know you’re an Army brat and all that but the fantasy of GI Joe isn’t reality. There’s plenty of “kids” in Iraq and Afghanistan killing people every day without any real concept of what it means.

  14. Randy E

    Use of seat belts, air bags, better cars all occured in the months immediately subsequent to the drop in age? Please provide a link.

    Brad, I’m sorry you’re having a tough time. Even math teachers are having trouble finding a position. That is freaky because we’re ALWAYS in demand…until now.

  15. doug_ross


    I actually went out and looked at one of the main research papers the AMA used for it’s claims.

    The research paper had all sorts of caveats in it about the quality of data not being sufficient to do anything but hypothesize:

    “Accident rates among 18-20 year olds did increase significantly–
    about 40% for involvement in fatalities. Nevertheless, the results
    are consistent with the hypothesis that, as a result of the reduced
    drinking age, 18-20 year old driving-after-drinking behavior has become
    comparable to that of older drivers.”

    So the problem doesn’t appear to be underage drinking – the 18-21 year olds just performed about the same as older drivers. Not surprising. Drinking and driving is a bad idea at any age.

  16. Birch Barlow

    I do not in any way support lowering the drinking age to 18. But Brad you’ve gone quite a few steps farther and taken what is probably a bold but unpopular — which doesn’t mean wrong — position.

    Which brings up so many questions…

    Would you support passing a law to raise the legal age limit to 25?

    I support keeping the age limit at 21 but do not support raising it any higher. I know that by not raising the legal limit to 25, some lives may be lost. Am I immature-minded for supporting letting 21 year olds drink alcohol — or “party hearty” as you say it? Can my position too not be rationalized in a way that is persuasive?

    Do you believe alcohol should be banned?

    Is it acceptable to serve wine to an 18 year old at Seder during Passover?

    What other harmful but “utterly and completely unnecessary” things do you think should be banned or have age restrictions? Fatty foods? High school football? NASCAR? Boating on the lake?

    I want to know because there are a lot of obviously harmful things we do in this country for no other reason than to have fun.

  17. Greg Flowers

    Sign all the petitions you want. Article XVI sec. 1 of the S.C. Constitution provides that it may only be amended by action of both houses of the General Assembly and subsequently approved by the voters.

  18. Bart

    The legal drinking age across the world ranges in age from zero to 21 in the U.S. We are the only country with 21 as the legal age. However, as with all laws, there are exceptions. You need to read about what conditions allow underage drinking because varies from state to state.

    Drinking at any age comes with responsibility and some 18 year olds are more responsible that 40 year olds. However, most are still in the maturation process and make decisions based on peer pressure and let’s be honest, hormones. Getting together with your buddies and showing off or drinking a beer or two to be part of the group dynamic is natural.

    I don’t advocate one way or the other for others but for me, I believe if an 18 year old male or female can join military and possibly sacrifice their life, they should have the right to have an alcholic beverage if they want to. Maybe the beverage rule should be suspended for members of the military while still in service.

    If we trust an 18 year old to cast a vote, then isn’t it logical to trust them to make a decision about drinking as well?

    I say this in light of too many visits to the emergency room and attending funerals for friends and family over my life due to drinking and driving by themselves and others. During the course of my lifetime, I have experienced the pain of losing friends and family due to drinking and driving.

    In spite of the early loss of my brother, when I reached 16, I tried alcohol and spent a few nights in a haze, spending the next day worshipping at the porcelain altar.

    You can’t legislate common sense or morality, you can only try to provide guidelines for society and hope for the best. All parents can do is teach, and encourage kids to do the right thing. Once they leave the house, they are on their own.

  19. Lee Muller

    The spendthrifts in the legislature are just looking for any way to bring in more tax revenue.

    Maybe they will lower the smoking age back to 14 and legalize marijuana, which they can sell in state-owned narcotics stores.

  20. Randy E

    “I actually went out and looked at one of the main research papers the AMA used for it’s claims.” – Doug, I’m interested in this. Can you post a link?

    Birch, generalizing this issue, e.g. “boating” is dependent on societal considersations. Why are pot and coke illicit? Why are there DUI laws? Why are there nutritional labels on foods? Why can’t we smoke on airplanes?

    “If we trust an 18 year old to cast a vote, then isn’t it logical to trust them to make a decision about drinking as well?” – Bart

    The drinking and voting ages were both dropped in the early 70s so the precedent is set. I think this is the most salient point made so far.

  21. Lee Muller

    Raise the age of adulthood back to 21 for everything.

    It was lowered to 18 so the car dealers, banks, and loan hustlers could prey on a more naive bunch of customers.

  22. Randy E

    “The research paper had all sorts of caveats in it about the quality of data not being sufficient to do anything but hypothesize”

    This was true for part of the data but the authors explicitly differentiated. From the data that was valid, there was a distinct relationship between drinking age and accidents (p.26 of the original document). In fact there was a “40% jump.”

    That is significant.

  23. Jerry

    One thing I have noticed on here and it is human nature and am guilty of it myself, is that the only statistics or “facts” that anyone pays attention to are the ones that already reinforce what one is thinking. I wonder if any minds are ever changed or second thoughts given. Sometimes I can agree with some of things I read but have serious problems with the tone or degree of how it is presented.

  24. Bart

    I realize this is a change of subject matter but I hope someone else out there has heard about the latest recommendation coming from Washington on how to save water.

    I know, I know, we were taught as kids not to “pee” in the shower. Yet, when we didn’t think Mom would find out, I believe most of us tried it anyway.

    Now, if what I heard is correct, we are being told that it is o.k. to “pee” in the shower in order to save water. I won’t swear to it but I was told the story is true.

    Anyone able to verify? Anyone willing to save water this way?

    Is this a “what happens in the shower, stays in the shower”?

  25. Lee Muller

    I have changed my opinion, or shifted it, on many subjects over the years.

    But I don’t form an opinion on something until after having studied it a bit and thought about it a bit more, so it is going to take a lot of real, new information to alter something which is based on a lot of real facts.

    It is easy to believe in some things, like “global warming”, because they seem to make sense, without putting much thought into it. But the more you examine the facts, the more bogus the entire concept becomes. Along with that process, you come to find out the motives of a lot of people pushing such bogus theories are not honest objectivity, but just a new angle for their core political agenda, which usually coincides with transferring someone else’s earned wealth into their own lazy hands.

  26. Maude Lebowski

    “Raise the age of adulthood back to 21 for everything.”

    I think this is a good idea as well. The latest brain research has shown that the human brain retains most of the characteristics of adolescence(such as impulsivity) much later than previously believed, until roughly age 25.

  27. Randy E

    LOL @ Bart. Lee, how old are you?

    Jerry, I think that was a pretty good exchange between Doug and I. I posted a reference to a study. He reviewed some of it and challenged me. I in turn challenged him. At least this is evidence based.

    I for one respect someone who will do that and often respect Doug’s insightfulness. The other times it’s a street fight and I give him an in print Wahoo McDaniel chop to the throat.

  28. Lee Muller

    I am old enough to know better.

    I got my driver’s license at 14, and was driving a school bus at age 16.

    Since you like statistical data, did you know there were fewer accidents per mile when students drove the busses than there are now with adult drivers?

  29. Bart

    Actually, a lot of what is posted here has led me to thinking in another direction and on some issues, have changed or altered my opinions to varying degrees. It all depends on the subject and objectivity of the information presented and the presenter.

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