When a person turns 18, they become a citizen. People who are 18 vote, serve in the military, and even run for local political offices. But for extremely convoluted reasons, Americans are legally forbidden to drink alcohol until they are 21. The idea that citizens who are entrusted with the responsibility of voting and serving in the military are legally denied the right to drink an occasional beer is, quite frankly, bizarre.
Technically speaking, it is the constitutional right of each individual state to set its own legal drinking age. In a practical sense, however, the federal government usurped this right with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which withheld federal highway funding to those states which refused to increase the drinking age to 21. In addition to trampling upon the rights of the individual states, this law enacted age discrimination and was, quite simply, bad policy.
The United States is alone among developed Western nations in upholding a legal drinking age of 21. Nearly every other Western democracy has a legal drinking age of 18 or 16. Some Europeans countries, Norway and the Netherlands among them, have no drinking age at all. According to the logic of the anti-alcohol activists who pushed for the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, European nations should have far worse problems related to alcohol than does the United States. But a cursory glance at the facts demonstrates that the opposite is true.
Consider France, where the drinking age is 16. This is a country where wine is considered a regular part of the average family meal, and young people are raised in a cultural environment that promotes responsible consumption of alcohol. While people between 18 and 21 in France do drink more than their American counterparts, they are significantly fewer cases of dangerous intoxication. Proportionately, France has substantially fewer drunk-driving deaths than does the United States, and fewer injuries and deaths resulting from alcohol-related accidents or violence.
If the arguments of the anti-alcohol advocates were correct, France should have more youth alcohol-related problems than the United States, because it's drinking age is five years younger than that of America. Instead, France has fewer such problems. It's not a coincidence.
In addition to bad policy, the legal drinking age is effectively unenforceable in any event. Anyone who pays a momentary visit to an American college campus can see this. The major consequence of the law is to drive youth drinking underground. Rather than drinking in bars or pubs, where the proprietors can refuse to serve someone clearly intoxicated, youth drinking on American college campuses generally takes place in home parties, where it is much easier for young people to get out of control. Raising the drinking age to 21 is a classic case of a well-meaning (albeit misguided) policy having precisely the opposite effect of what it intended.
Advocates of maintaining a drinking age of 21 sometimes claim that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was responsible for the decline in drunk driving deaths since the early 1980s. Again, rational analysis refutes this argument. The decline in drunk driving deaths seems more due to the substantial increase in the use of seat belts and the inclusion of airbags in American automobiles since 1984.
Even if it couldn't be demonstrated that raising the drinking age to 21 was bad policy, an argument could be made that the law was unsound because it increased the power of the federal government at the expense of the states. If there is one tenant of Jeffersonianism that we need to regain in the 21st Century, it is the concept of federalism. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act should be repealed and the states should again have the power to determine their own legal drinking age. If this were to be done, I think we would find that those states which returned to a legal drinking age of 18 would begin to have fewer youth alcohol-related youth problems.