I had my first taste of alcohol on vacation with my parents when I was eight years old. We had just sat down to dinner at a restaurant in Rome, and the waiter came as usual to pour wine for my parents. To my surprise, he didn’t pass over my glass. As I looked at him, puzzled, he threw his hands up and exclaimed some Italian version of, “Well, why not?” My parents explained to me that, in Italy, children were allowed to drink wine. I shrugged, unaware of the political and moral controversies, and took a sip.
My most recent experience with alcohol was accompanying my boyfriend to the package store as he legally bought his first bottle of wine. Though he was well past the drafting age, he was nevertheless “underage” when it came to drinking. As we roamed through the aisles, we couldn’t help laughing at both the excitement and absurdity of this 21-year-old rite of passage.
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Unfortunately, the legal drinking age has only glorified the appeal of alcohol consumption and muddled our conception of what ought to be our boundaries, and who or what should be blamed when we cross them.
The truth is, alcohol is a blessing, and we should be careful where we place our blame when we abuse it. By faulting alcohol itself, we curse a beautiful gift, thus offending the Giver and denying the true source of the problem. Alcohol abuse isn’t an inherent consequence of alcohol, but rather a manifestation of our own tendency to sin. (Alcoholism is a physical and psychological ailment, and I don’t mean to take it lightly; the abuse I’m describing is carried out by those without such circumstances.) When we willingly drink to excess, we reject the natural law and the proper ordering of things, making a false god out of a created good. Along with its own inherent vice, drunkenness becomes a social crutch, an opening to addiction to both the circumstances surrounding it and to the alcohol itself, and an avenue for further foolishness. If we want to deal with the issue of alcohol abuse, we need to first address our own sinful natures before resorting to laws that create more problems than they solve.
There is a contradiction at the heart of the drinking age restriction. An 18-year-old can join the military to fight and possibly die for his country, but he can’t drink a beer to celebrate his send-off. One can get drug prescriptions — even an abortion — before the 21st birthday. Even a junior high school student can readily buy glue, scissors, insecticide, and cleaning detergent — all more potentially dangerous than alcohol. Nor is there any necessary reason to assume that a 13-year-old would exercise less temperance with alcohol than a 21-year-old. It depends entirely on which 13-year-old and which 21-year-old we’re talking about.
By tossing open the gates to inebriation at a time when young adults are away from parental guidance, the drinking age restriction actually undercuts the important socialization that leads to the mature use of alcohol. I have countless peers whose parents did not allow them to drink “until college,” or their 21st birthdays. Now, cut loose in an environment not known for moderation, many of those kids are spending their Friday nights passed out. This was entirely predictable. The law, in its current state of loose implementation, allows for kids who would have been going wild already to take it to the next level with the invigorating sense of rebellion or “finally getting to have fun.”
Alcohol is neither a demon nor a god. I grew up drinking when my parents would drink (this is legal, by the way). Intoxication was not the goal — the idea never even entered my mind, since I never saw them using alcohol that way. I had been taught by example that alcohol was a nice additive to life, nothing more and nothing less.
Some argue that lowering or eliminating the drinking age would result in a surge of alcoholism, and suddenly the bars would be flush with hammered 18-year-olds. I hate to break it to the critics, but that’s already the case (hence the term “freshmen bar”). Most likely, the anticipated craziness following a drinking law repeal would die down after a few nights — a semester at most for the easier college majors. As for those young people who might drink too much, they are doing so already. Criminalizing a broad behavior just to eliminate its abuse misses the target. Would prohibiting sex get rid of sex offenders? Of course not. It would simply mean that only sex offenders would be having sex.
Prohibition turned drunkards into moonshiners, and we still haven’t learned. By scapegoating a healthy substance because of some individuals’ misuse of it, we both encourage the abuse and miss the real problem. Once we acknowledge the role of sin in all of this, we can begin to teach (by example, where possible) the virtue of moderation and learn to obey the Laws that matter most.