Sunday, February 16, 2014

Republicans Should Push for a Lower Drinking Age

Let's face it, most 18 year-olds wouldn't be caught dead registering Republican. Not that they give the reasons why much thought; that would require putting down their smartphones for a few moments. It's an image thing, a posture. Republicans are for old people and stiffs. Definitely not cool. They might as well erect a fortress that says, "Enter here and never get another date." Obama, on the other hand, knows how to tweet, and hangs with Bono and Jay Z! 

At that crucial moment when someone first registers to vote, this is what Republicans are up against. It is a branding problem almost beyond repair. And once someone registers for a party, they usually stick with it for life, so the stakes are huge. 

The irony is that Republicans are far more consistent in their support for personal liberty, something that should resonate with libertarian-leaning youth. It doesn't, though, because the average 18 year-old isn't intellectually equipped enough to understand why, say, deficit spending or the 74,000-page tax code are threats to our liberty. The teachers unions have seen to that.

Social issues, on the other hand, are easy enough to grasp, and our schools make sure students are up to speed on those. Here, the young lean left and the GOP seems like the party of "no." Oh, I know, it's not really the case, especially when you get past abortion. It's liberals who want to ban everything from trans fats to large sodas to Happy Meal toys. But no matter, image is everything.

My humble suggestion is that the GOP rally around lowering the drinking age. Go on offense, make the Dems say no on a social issue for once. Let them be the wet rags. They will definitely be caught flat-footed. The best part about this is that it's actually the right thing to do, and consistent with conservative principles of personal liberty and responsibility. It's one of those pleasant times when principle and expedience come together. 

The drinking age was raised nationally in 1984 to combat drunk driving, and indeed, driving fatalities have declined since, but they have declined among all ages. This can be attributed to stiffer penalties and enforcement. Drivers take a much bigger legal risk when they drive drunk, and they have responded accordingly. Does anyone think the reason is really because teenagers are drinking less?

Younger drinkers have switched to more concealable forms of alcohol, i.e. hard alcohol over beer. This only makes sense; getting caught with a flask is less likely than getting caught with a case. But the problem is that too much hard alcohol kills, especially amongst the inexperienced. “Pre-gaming,” or drinking a considerable amount of hard alcohol in a short period before going out has become the norm. Collegiately, this has led to unintended social consequences as students break down into smaller and smaller cliques to reduce the odds of being caught. Larger, more egalitarian social events are no longer the norm, and if anything, campus binge drinking is a far greater problem now than before 1984. 

Then there's the argument that at 18 you can take a bullet for your country, get married, pay taxes - in short, do all the things consistent with adulthood - but not drink. As long as we treat it like forbidden fruit, it will be treated as such, and the thrill remains. The rest of the world seems to have figured this out, as only seven other countries (out of 149) have drinking ages as high as we do. We are keeping good company with the likes of Oman, Kazakhstan, and Sri Lanka. 

To be consistent with conservative principles of decentralized authority, Republicans should advocate that the federal government should allow each state to make up their own mind on this. Alabama is very different culturally than, say, Maryland. But I would suggest for most states 19 is the right number, because that draws a clear line between high school and college.

So, go ahead Republicans. Cut loose for once.