Why Lower the Drinking Age? To Avoid Responsibility

by Christopher Paslay


I’ll tell it to you straight: The Amethyst Initiative, the movement by college administrators to lower the drinking age to 18 in the United States, is a sham.  A fraud.  A farce in five acts.


Founded by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, and supported by presidents from over 100 of the nation’s top universities, the Amethyst Initiative argues that current drinking laws actually encourage binge drinking by college students on campus. 


“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell.  “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”


John McCardell and his colleagues have dressed up the Amethyst Initiative quite nicely.  At first glance, the organization’s aim to support “informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age” seems almost respectable.  So does its mission to “call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”


But when you cut through all of Amethyst’s political rhetoric, the organization’s ulterior motive becomes clear: To free America’s colleges and universities from the responsibility of dealing with underage drinking. 


I am not the first person to suggest this.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving has spoken out against McCardell’s campaign to lower the drinking age as well.


The Amethyst Initiative’s reasoning is quite faulty when you examine it closely.  Their central tenet is that “Twenty-one is not working”.  On their website they liken the current drinking age to prohibition, and insist that “alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”


In other words, just like with sex, the “abstinence-only” model isn’t working.  If we lowered the drinking age to 18, kids wouldn’t feel pressured to “binge” drink.  They’d be exposed to alcohol three years earlier, and as a result, they’d learn to drink responsibly. 


Please.  This is the familiar “the United States is too puritanical” argument, an attempt to compare the drinking habits of Americans to those of the Italians, Spanish and French.  The argument is that Europeans—liberal and unrestrained—grow up drinking wine with meals from a young age, so there is no need for rebellious, clandestine binge drinking. 


There is only one major flaw with this argument: America isn’t Europe.  And despite the election of Barack Obama, we will never be.  Unlike Europeans, Americans can’t quite grasp the concept of moderation.  Our culture clearly believes the motto that more is better.  This is true from fast food to SUVs, from a person’s annual income to a woman’s breast size.  More, more, more, more, more.     


The problem of college binge drinking is much more complex than age.  To combat alcohol abuse on American campuses we must first fight our culture’s need for instant gratification; in short, our society must start teaching its young people about dignity and restraint. 


Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a well known American Buddhist abbot, addressed the need for Americans to resist their self-destructive impulses in his essay entitled, “The Dignity of Restraint” (I highly recommend clicking on the link and reading the whole thing).  In it Bhikkhu states, “If we don’t have any restraint, we don’t have any control over where our lives are going. Anything that comes our way immediately pulls us into its wake, and we lose our sense of priorities, of what’s really worthwhile, of what’s not worthwhile, of the pleasures we’d gain by saying ‘No’ to other pleasures.


It’s important to realize the role that restraint can play in finding true well-being for ourselves. It helps us realize that we’re not giving up anything we really need. There’s a part of us that resists this truth, and our culture hasn’t been very helpful. The lessons our culture teaches us—to go out and buy, buy, buy, be greedy, give in—are all over the place. And what kind of dignity comes from following those messages? The dignity of a fish gobbling down bait.


I find Thanissaro’s phrase “give in” very telling; that’s exactly what the Amethyst Initiative is asking lawmakers to do: give in to underage drinkers to spare universities the inconvenience of a true crackdown. 


Will dropping the drinking age from 21 to 18 temper a young  person’s urge to consume alcohol?  Not on your life.    


The Amethyst Initiative is a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  College presidents must find solutions to campus alcoholism rather than trying to pass the buck by redefining the law.