We often forget that Socrates was more than a philosopher. He was also an honored warrior and a prolific drinker. It is said that when he drank with his friends, Socrates would stand like a stone as they passed by the way. That is to say, he would drink them under the table without ever faltering himself. An impressive feat, to be sure.
This is not to say that he was an alcoholic. Socrates surely drank in moderation-of the times he drank and of the amount he drank. Moderation seems to escape us today in so many respects, but especially in drinking. Among the youthful, drinking appears as a question of extremes: one is either a teetotaler or a sloppy drunk.
Nothing is more evident of this phenomenon than the death of a fraternity pledge at Louisiana State University earlier this month. After Rush Week, the fraternity members and the new pledges began drinking. Heavily. At these events, phrases like "Here's a fifth, drink it" pop up frequently. After an afternoon and evening of such drinking, a new pledge (and several others) passed out in the fraternity house. Thinking that they had simply had a little much, the other members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon let them lie there. Only after several hours did they take the unconscious members to a hospital. Doctors said they all suffered from alcohol poisoning, and pronounced one DOA.
What began as a night of celebration ended in a morning of grief. The episode illustrates what is wrong with youthful drinking today. Drinking in itself is not a problem. Alcohol is a wonderful social lubricant and a relaxing way to relieve stress. Among friends, drinking is pleasurable and fun. The problem is that most kids do not know how to moderate their drinking (or anything else). We are, after all-or maybe before all-kids.
What makes the situation even worse, however, are laws regulating alcohol. Ill-conceived and ill-enforced, these laws nod and wink at kids, encouraging them not only to drink (which wouldn't be so bad), but also encouraging them to drink recklessly.
The most important law regarding alcohol is the age limit. Most kids say the age limit, more than anything else, contributes to irresponsible and immoderate underage drinking. They argue that by prohibiting drinking, the law makes alcohol a taboo, giving kids a reason to drink. If this is true, lifting or lowering the age limit would drastically reduce binge drinking among kids.
It is, of course, not true. To say that kids drink because alcohol is a taboo is ludicrous. Kids drink for the same reason adults do: they want a buzz or intoxication. If we changed the age limit, we would not get a libertarian paradise. We would only get countless teenage alcoholics, even more than we have now.
It is prudent to prohibit drinking by people under the age of 21. The way we enforce such a law is very imprudent. Laws on carrying false identification, selling alcohol to a minor, providing alcohol to a minor or minor-in-possession should be prohibitively severe. Two benefits would come from people truly fearing the punishment that would follow these crimes.
First, kids would drink less. They could get their hands on alcohol only with great difficulty. Second, when kids do drink, they would typically do it in privacy. They would have much to fear from appearing in public while drinking or drunk.
To Harvard students, such measures may seem extreme and unjustified. While binge drinking is certainly alive and thriving here, personal responsibility and intelligence are also. Most Harvard students do not need such laws to moderate their behavior. They can moderate it themselves. Unfortunately for them, one can only legislate to generalities, not particularities, and the generality of kids in society do not have the mental faculties of Harvard students.
In addition to the drinking age, there is a question of the supply of alcohol. Here, however, the problem is not with existing laws or their enforcement, but with the lack of laws. Very few cities have zoning laws that specifically affect liquor stores. Most zoning laws simply define an area as commercial, thereby allowing any type of commercial store to open in the area.
Without restricting the location of liquor stores, cities allow vendors to pray on the most vulnerable elements of society, the poor and the young. So long as the above steps are not taken, vendors will turn their profits by selling their wares to those who are least likely to understand the consequences of drinking and therefore to moderate their drinking.
As in most human affairs, moderation is the key to drinking. Many people, however, are incapable of moderation when left to their own devices. In these cases the law must nurture and cultivate moderation in them. In the extreme cases (where many of you fall), these laws are merely an inconvenience that you must bear for a few years if you desire social order. And if you think about your last night out, you'll probably agree that the inconvenience isn't too great.
Thomas B. Cotton's Column appears on alternate Fridays.