Logic behind drinking age is too old for today's world

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Surely one of the great pleasures of being a lawmaker is to pass laws that impose upon the minority of people who are not well-regarded by the majority.

While it is always fun to look down our noses at others, the trick is best worked under the guise of some moral purpose. That way contempt for other people seems like a virtue.

The lawmakers of the land are happy to provide leadership in this matter, singling out those who are thought not to vote in sufficient numbers to be respected. Gay people make convenient scapegoats, as do foreigners. But in every age, young people stand ready to serve as handy targets.

How dare they be young when we are old! They give offense in multiple ways. According to popular wisdom, they are lazy, sleep too much, are irresponsible, slovenly in their dress and appearance and listen to execrable rap music. Even more galling, they have way too much fun.

I personally can attest to the truth of this list of indictments because I was the same when I was young back in the Pleistocene epoch, except for the rap music. Back then, Elvis Presley and the Beatles were the rage, and they were denounced by right-thinking politicians and parents as a threat to civilization. It was ever thus.

When it comes to young people, public attitudes have a love-hate component. On one hand, the whole culture has been handed over for their pleasure and entertainment, which in turn is a cause of more resentment among older people.

On the other hand, they are loved to distraction by their parents who cannot believe that their little babies are not, in fact, babies. Thus, while the legal age of adulthood is supposedly 18 in every state, no 18-year-old can have a drink. They can vote, they can marry, they can do all manner of adult things, some involving heavy breathing, but for the purposes of consumption of alcohol the law considers them children. The law, of course, is a ass.

In Pennsylvania, where the long shadow of Prohibition still falls upon the land in the form of the state monopoly Liquor Control Board, a move is afoot in the state Legislature to toughen up the laws on underage drinking because it is a big problem.

Yes, it is, and a big problem it will remain as long as the law is so out of touch with reality. Now for the inevitable caveat: Young kids should not be quaffing cold ones at a time when they are still growing their delicate brains, such as they are.

But it is ridiculous to go on pretending that a 19-year-old who is sent to Afghanistan or Iraq to fight for his country can't have so much as a beer on returning home. He or she is old enough to handle a machine gun but not a Budweiser? This offense against reason amounts to social policy as promulgated by imbeciles.

In certain civilized countries, the drinking age recognizes that young people of at least 18 are probably more grown up than at any other time in history.

Being blind to this fact costs us dearly here in America. Those who moralize about underage drinking might want to open that book they are always thumping, the Bible. A cautionary tale is presented very early on, in Genesis, where the seductive attraction of forbidden fruit is well chronicled.

If you become an adult at 18 but are told you can't drink, what is your logical response? Why, it is to try the forbidden fruit of hop and grape, drinking the full benefits of adulthood as quickly and as much as possible.

Instead of toughening up underage drinking penalties -- akin to the old management principle "The whippings will continue until morale improves" -- maybe some thought should be given to lowering the drinking age to something reasonable while at the same time increasing enforcement against drunken driving. Of course, pigs will fly before this happens.

In Australia, where I learned to drink with such success, our car was once stopped on a dirt road in rural New South Wales at 11 a.m. on a Good Friday morning to give the driver a mandatory random breath test. The blood alcohol limit there is a no-nonsense 0.05. "Crikey," the officer said, on being presented with a Pennsylvania licence, "we don't see many of those around here." In the proven absence of a liquid breakfast, we were allowed to proceed.

Australia's drinking age is 18. The Aussies aren't much for moralizing -- just common sense. Too bad that such wisdom does not apply in these United States, where hypocrisy and self-delusion rule. Why, it's enough to drive a person to rap music.

Reg Henry can be reached at rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.


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