Abolish, Or At Least Lower, The Minimum Legal Drinking Age


Yesterday was my 21st birthday. Two days ago, I could not watch the Stanley Cup finals and drink a cold beer at a bar, but now, miraculously, I can! Yet, since I turned 18, I have been able to buy cigarettes, buy pornography, go to a strip club, be prosecuted as an adult, enter into contracts, vote, and even die for my country. But only as of yesterday was I finally old enough to legally purchase and consume alcohol. Something isn’t right here.

If you’re not aware of the history of why the minimum drinking age is 21, here’s a quick overview: the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition but also gave states control of the regulation of alcohol. After the passage of the 26th Amendment, about 31 states had the minimum drinking age between 18-20 and the handful of others had the drinking age at 21.

Then, of course, the feds come in to ruin all the fun.

In 1984, under President Reagan, Congress passed the Federal Underage Drinking Act which threatened states to change their minimum drinking age to 21 or lose 10% of road funding. So a few states thought, “Who’s going to fix the roads?” and ultimately buckled to the pressure.

But why change the drinking age? The federal government believed that raising the drinking age would reduce the amount of traffic fatalities due to drunk driving.

Does it actually work? Simple answer: no.

The goal of raising the age to 21 was unsuccessful in reducing traffic fatalities. Also, by making a blanket policy, states are unable to craft policy that could actually curb traffic fatalities and binge drinking. Moreover, there are many countries that have either a drinking age of 18 or younger or don’t have one at all. Between 1996 to 2005, in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where the minimum drinking age is 16, drunk driving deaths actually reduced by 10% every year on average. Even college presidents came together in 2008 urging for the drinking age to be lowered, explaining that the current law encourages binge drinking on college campuses.

As Jeffrey A. Miron and Elina Tetelbaum explain in their research,

“Our results thus challenge both the value of the MLDA21 (Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21) and the value of coercive federalism. While we find limited evidence that the MLDA21 saves lives when states adopted it of their own volition, we find no evidence it saves lives when the federal government compels this policy.”

If there’s anything that the drinking age accomplished, its teaching us that coercive government and prohibition don’t mix.

  • Brendan Morse

    Happy Birthday! Nice post too. I would just add that I think that coercive federalism and voluntary state alcohol laws have (for policy at least) equally poor results. In terms of research methodology “limited evidence” is essentially the same as no evidence because other variables could be doing the work. Unfortunately, the authors cited did not put exact numbers or links to the research they did such that we could judge for ourselves.

  • John Chapman

    Happy Birthday! I agree, 21 is too long to wait to legally consume alcohol. Way back in 1984, I was 20 and and legal age was 19 in AL, I was grandfathered in. It was easy to get booze at the corner qwik mart at 18. Different time.
    I believe that if you are old enough to risk your life fighting for your Country, you should be able to drink a cold beer. One that is under 21 and 18+ has every other right and responsibility as the average citizen. Why deny them this one?