From the Archives: It’s More than Dying for Your Country
The right to fight for your country, to enlist, serve, and potentially die, is an oft-cited justification for an 18 year-old drinking age. “If you are old enough to die for your country,” so the maxim goes, “then you are old enough to sit down and buy a beer.” It’s a powerful argument, and a common one at that. But it is only a part of something far greater that is often over-looked when used to rationalize an 18 year-old drinking age argument. There is great injustice in the fact that you can die for a country against your will (to be drafted) that doesn’t grant you with the fullest privileges of adulthood. But in some way I think it means more that you can voluntarily join the military and risk your life, yet still be denied a mug of beer.
It’s about justice. For better or worse, the United States has determined that at age 18 you become an adult. By the widest of definitions, this means that you are now legally responsible for your actions. You can buy and smoke cigarettes even though you know that, with time, they’ll probably give you lung cancer. You may even purchase property, strike binding legal contracts, or go into debt. But most importantly (for the sake of this argument), is the fact that, at 18, you can vote and hold office. 18 is the age of majority, the age at which one finally becomes part of the ruling faction, the democracy’s people. Sure, you can die for your country and not be allowed to buy a beer, and that is a travesty, but it is the over-arching disenfranchisement of responsibility for those who are in all respects legally responsible that is abhorrent.
Critics are quick to point out that 18 is not an Age of Majority, but one age amongst many that together mark the gradual path to adulthood. This argument notes that young adults cannot drink until 21, rent cars until 25, run for the U.S. Senate until they are 30, and run for President until 35. This is evidence of a graduated adulthood. But this argument is simply not sound. First and foremost, rental car companies are not legally kept from renting cars to those under 25, it is a decision made by insurance companies. In fact, some rental companies do rent to those under 25, and higher rates compensate for the potential liability. In short, 25 is not an age of increased adultness.
Neither is 30. Article II Section 3 of the US Constitution mandates that: “No person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the age of thirty years.” But strangely enough this clause has not preemptively kept individuals from running for Senate. Indeed, the man who John F. Kennedy called one of the 5 best senators in the history of the Republic, Henry Clay, was first elected to the Senate at age 28. While no one has yet to challenge the legitimacy of the Presidential Age Requirement, it is clear that the Constitutional age requirements are something quite different than graduated adulthood markers. As the lone mentions of age in all of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the are requirements are more appropriately seen as exceptions to full adulthood, rather than benchmarks of adulthood.
So as it stands now when you turn 18 you are legal to engage in all things other adults do except drink alcohol and run for President. It’s bizarre but accurate. Somewhere along the line, our society failed to remember that individuals, by becoming an adult, become responsible for their actions. Whether you are 18, 19, 20, 38, 39, or 40, you are an adult, and when you drink and drive, just as when you smoke in public areas or ignore traffic laws, you are responsible . By maintaining a drinking age different than 18, our society sends a signal that drinking and driving (the original target of the 21 MLDA) is worse in consequence for young adults than it is for older adults. This opens up a Pandora’s box when it comes to expanding the logic against real and perceived public health threats. Targeting groups by age beyond some measure of adulthood validates the fears raised in the Federalist Papers that a democratic system of government offers too little protection for the rights of minority factions against the will of the masses. Above and beyond its deleterious consequences, the 21 year-old drinking age threatens the integrity of egalitarianism in an otherwise representative democracy. 18 year-old drinking age is an act of justice.