Should teens drink?

I’d always been somewhat agnostic about the right drinking age – but now Jeff Miron (libertarian and ex-blogger) and Elina Tetelbaum have suggested that perhaps Australia’s 18 is better than the US’s 21.

Does the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Save Lives?
Jeffrey A. Miron & Elina Tetelbaum 
The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) is widely believed to save lives by reducing traffic fatalities among underage drivers. Further, the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act, which pressured all states to adopt an MLDA of 21, is regarded as having contributed enormously to this life saving effect.  This paper challenges both claims.  State-level panel data for the past 30 years show that any nationwide impact of the MLDA is driven by states that increased their MLDA prior to any inducement from the federal government.  Even in early adopting states, the impact of the MLDA did not persist much past the year of adoption.  The MLDA appears to have only a minor impact on teen drinking.

Of course, the natural question to ask now is whether Miron and Tetelbaum think there should be a minimum drinking age at all.

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9 Responses to Should teens drink?

  1. Damien Eldridge says:

    The US position is ridiculous. They let their 18 year olds join the armed forces and send them off to possibly kill, and maybe die, for their country, but they don’t trust them to drink alcohol responsibly.

  2. christine says:

    Well, I don’t necessarily trust 18 year olds to drink responsibly – but nor do I necessarily trust 50 year olds to drink responsibly. I guess I’m just not a very trusting person. Not that this means I think we should ban alcohol, btw.

    If it’s all about drunk driving, is there a case for separating in time the introduction of driving and drinking? Perhaps drinking should be allowed first, in which case teenagers could learn a bit about the effects of alcohol before they’re allowed to drive, and could perhaps get into a habit of not driving to parties where they’re going to drink? Or is it better to have a few years of driving experience when you’re not allowed to drink at all be better?

    (All that sort of assumes people actually follow the law, of course, which it seems they don’t, esp in the US – do we know if compliance is better in Australia than in the US?)

    Even if there are no road death externality concerns, the authors could argue for a minimum legal drinking age anyway on physiological/brain development grounds, I’d think. Not that they necessarily would.

  3. Kevin Cox says:

    Any banning of behaviour such as driving, bearing arms, drinking, drug taking, sexual activity, etc can be justified on the basis of responsibility and capability. Once a person is capable of making their own judgment and are physically and mentally capable of doing the activity and taking responsibility for their actions then it would seem difficult to argue that they be banned from the activity. The question could be not the age at which some things happen but whether the person is competent. We do this with older people with driving where they continue to get tested to show competence. Perhaps we should do it for younger people.

    Perhaps we ban young men from driving on public roads until their brains are wired as adults which I read somewhere averaged about 25 whereas women could be allowed to drive at 18:). Perhaps we can test competence with some physical and mental test so that some people might get their driving licence at 12 and others never pass the test.

  4. Patrick says:

    More to the point, why not just ban p-platers from driving unaccompanied (by a fully licensed person under .05) after 9pm (with an exception for to and from work, maybe), extending probation one more year and making the licence actually slightly harder to obtain?

    I don’t think there is any reason to discriminate against men or the young on a blanket basis – clueless drivers are as much a hazard as any other, including the halfwits who think that they can drive in the fast lane just because they are near the speed limit, or worse, people who think that indicators are only for turning and are superfluous when changing lanes.

  5. Yobbo says:

    I agree with Damian. The US Drinking age is ridiculous when you realise that not only can 18 year olds fight in a way, recieve the death penalty etc, they can VOTE. How can have not voted away this restriction already? There is some kind of failure of democracy there.

    Basically it’s a particularly obvious example of tyranny of the majority. Since the majority of voters are over 21, the law doesn’t affect them so they don’t give a stuff.

    By the way, my parents let us start drinking when we were around 15. We could even be served in the local (country) pub at that age (Dad gave the bartender permission to serve us small amounts.)

    Perhaps we can test competence with some physical and mental test so that some people might get their driving licence at 12 and others never pass the test.

    That is the whole point really. The driving test simply isn’t hard enough. It doesn’t test much of anything except basic mechanical skills. Make the test hard enough that only 20% of people can pass it instead of 95%, and you have gone a long way to eliminate the problem of bad drivers. They either get better or they don’t drive.

  6. harry clarke says:

    I favour keeping a ban on alcohol (and more particularly smoking) until at least age 21. Modern theories of brain maturation in fact suggest the brain goes on developing until age 25 – the cognitive reasoning parts of the brain take over from the adolescent impulsive parts.

    Experimentation and impulsiveness are essential to achieving an adult role – its unfortunately also the period where almost all get addicted to drugs. The average age people initiate smoking in Australia is 15.9 years.

    Kids who drink or smoke early find it harder to quit and are more prone to abuse these drugs. There is good evidence both types of drugs delay brain maturation.

    The argument that we send young kids off to war so we should therefore allow them to kill themselves with smokes and alcohol is a poor one.

  7. Yobbo says:

    The argument that we send young kids off to war so we should therefore allow them to kill themselves with smokes and alcohol is a poor one.

    That’s not the argument Harry and you know it. The argument is that if a person is considered “adult” enough to vote in an election, or to sign himself up for the armed forces, then he is also adult enough to decide for himself whether to drink and smoke.

    And nobody should forget that only in recent times has 18 been the age where we consider people “adults”.

    For most of human history, you were considered an adult when you reached adolescence, and could have all the rights and responsibilities that goes with it.

  8. ChrisPer says:

    We just had a US high school student visit us, and the day she arrived her brothers best friend was killed by another drunken teenager (in a boat).

    Our guest came from a middle-class social circle, where just about all 16 year olds drink to excess and a great many use drugs, including her last two boyfriends. They also are drivers at 16.

    She was stunned by the idea of RBT; they don’t do that.

    Certainly doesn’t sound like the age 21 limit is working.

  9. Yobbo says:

    RBT is a violation of the US Bill Of Rights. “Unnecessary Search And Seizure”.

    US Cops need to have probable cause to breath-test you. I.E. you have to be driving badly and/or fail a field sobriety test (touch your nose etc) before they can put the bag on you.

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