Reagan's Sober Legacy

The Reagan years were unkind to college students. Cuts in student aid programs made mounting tuition bills even harder to pay. Although this in itself was bad enough, perhaps the unkindest cut of all was not financial.

In June of 1984 President Reagan kigned the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The bill, also known as Section 158, denied federal highway funds to any state which did not raise its drinking age to 21. Within three years, all fifty states were in compliance. Section 158 was written and passed at the behest of groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) who saw raising the drinking age as an integral part of their campaign to crack down on drunk driving.

Privileges restricted by age should have either a philosophical or practical basis. By linking the drinking age to the issue of drunk driving, MADD and its allies argued their case on practical grounds. Certainly, a drinking age of 21 has no intrinsic philosophical justification. The age of majority is 18. It is at that age that citizens get the right to vote, to make valid contracts and such. For men, it is the age at which they can be conscripted and die for their country. The inconsistency of soldiers being denied the privilege to drink is sufficiently jarring--so jarring, in fact, that the government included an exemption for active-duty personnel on roilitary bases. The drinking age there is 18.

Certainly, the right to purchase alcoholic beverages is wholly commensurate with the other rights and responsibilities that citizens assume at that age. And until 1984, this was the logic governing the drinking age.

But MADD and other groups didn't attack the philosophy of the drinking age. Instead, they lobbied on practical considerations. They argued that 18-to-21 year olds contributed disproportionately to alcohol-related traffic deaths, and hence pragmatic considerations about public safety demanded that the drinking age be raised to exclude this age group. Aside from the obvious question of whether a practical consideration should override a civil rights issue, there is one very big wrinkle in the logic behind Section 158.

Eighteen- to 21-year olds did not have the highest rate of involvement in drunk driving accidents. In 1983, the last year before the new law, 21- to 24-year-olds had the highest rate; 37 year olds had the highest likelihood of dying in an alcohol related crash. If practical considerations were truly the determining factor, the drinking age should have been raised to at least 24, if not higher. Twenty-one happened to be a politically expedient age. Before the early 1970's, the drinking age corresponded with the voting age, then 21.

Besides, eighteen to twenty-one year olds form a small enough segment of the population, with little political clout, so that excluding them for the legal drinking population was politically feasible.

Worse yet, this allegedly pragmatic measure has failed by its own standards: it has had little practical effect. According to a Congressional study, alcohol-related fatalities among the 18-24 age group are down 13% through 1991. That sounds good at first, but when you consider that these same years have witnessed the implementation of compulsory seat-belt laws, the air-bag, and stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, the effect seems much less dramatic.

When you add to that the orgy of uplifters preaching the dangers of drunk driving in ad-council commercials, movies-of-the-week and after-school specials, and the introduction of the idea of "designated drivers" (by the Harvard School of Public Health in 1985), the effect of raising the drinking age seems dismal.

That raising the drinking age will reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities relies on another crucial assumption: 18-to-21 year olds who drive after drinking are more likely to crash mainly because they are inexperienced drivers. Any alcohol-related impairment thus affects them more drastically. But a 1990 study by two economists showed that the relevant statistical link was between drunk-driving fatalities and drinking experience. Their conclusion: At best, raising the drinking age seems primarily to postpone fatalities.

Instead of a higher drinking age, the data indicate that a lower drinking age combined with a higher driving age would best reduce drunk driving fatalities. Plus, it's a lot harder to be an underage driver than an underage drinker. If practical considerations are paramount, as MADD would have it, this is the clear solution. This way, all new drivers would already be experienced drinkers.

Of course, such logic is most unwelcome to MADD, a modern-day reincarnation of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. To them, the issue is a simple moral equation; alcohol is bad, and cracking down on it can't help but be good.

In any case, there is little doubt that programs aimed at a pathological behavior--that is, drunk driving--certainly are more effective and philosophically justifiable than trying to restrict the sale of the substance that might lead to that behavior.

As every college student knows, a higher drinking age has had little practical effect on alcohol consumption habits anyway. A 1991 Gallup Youth Survey reports that 54% of 16- to 21- year-olds had consumed some alcohol in the last thirty days-a somewhat lower number than in 1983. Yet the percentage of those who had participated in "binge-drinking" was significantly higher. A test conducted in Washington D.C. by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that with a rudimentary fake ID, an 18-year old could buy alcohol in 97% of the establishments tested. In a similar test in suburban New York, that number was 80%. The biggest effect seems to have been the creation of a booming traffic in fake ID's. No wonder, then, that 45% of college administrators favored rolling back the drinking age.

For all its practical failings, however, the most compelling problem with Section 158 is a philosophical one--and that is the way it was enacted. The bill that Reagan signed in 1984 did not itself raise the drinking age. It compelled the states, with whom the prerogative of setting the drinking age rests, to raise it to 21 or lose federal highway funding. The Tenth Amendment reserves all rights not specifically delegated to the Federal government for the states. For the Federal Government to circumvent this protection by heavy-handedly wielding its financial power makes a mockery of the Constitution.

Section 158 is a giant shortcut. It bypasses constitutional process. It ignores the logic of citizens rights. It compromises for political expediency the very practical considerations that underlie it. The synthetic, misguided drinking age has turned out to be just another flawed legacy of the Reagan years.