Friday, November 20, 2009

Will Australia Raise the Drinking Age?

NOTE: This blog is primarily about the United States and is thus written from an American perspective.

Just as more and more Americans want the drinking age to be lowered to 18 over here, there is a growing movement to raise the Australian drinking age (currently 18) to 19 or even 21. The movement, which appears to be spearheaded by Prof. Ian Hickey, cites hackneyed and specious claims about "dain bramage" and alcohol-related violence. Interestingly, drunk driving in Australia is barely even mentioned at all since it is less of a problem over there than here (they are much tougher on DUI than America is), and we can really learn a lot from them. Fortunately, the government is not interested in raising the drinking age, and thus it probably won't happen. Because if it did, it would merely throw gasoline on the fire.

If they want to see what a failure the 21 drinking age is, they should come to America. We tried raising the drinking age to 19 in the early 1980s. Didn't work, so we raised it to 21 in the mid 1980s. Still didn't work. Then we added all these ancillary laws such as dram shop, social host, use and lose, zero tolerance, internal possession. And we toughened up enforcement. Guess what? It still doesn't work.

If Australia is worried about kids under 18 getting wasted, they should enforce the current drinking age better. And the biggest problem group over there, like in America, is people in their twenties. Raising the drinking age targets the wrong group. It would be best for them to raise the alcohol taxes (and make them proportional to alcohol content), shorten pub sales hours (currently 24/7), increase alcohol education, and have zero tolerance for drunk violence. Being drunk is no excuse for misbehavior--millions of people get drunk without ever becoming violent. And forcing drinking underground (where it can't be monitored) is unlikely to reduce violence in any sense. Even if it somehow did for 18-20 year olds, which is unproven, it would merely shift the behavior to 21-24 year olds (which already have a problem).

As for brain damage, there is no conclusive evidence that drinking at 18 is significantly worse than doing so at 21, all else being equal. Maybe for those younger than 18, but that's already illegal. So let's not confuse the issue. Again, lack of enforcement (in Australia) is the problem. And many young people would likely benefit from education about alcohol, which needs to start young since drinking starts young over there (and here as well).

Yes, Virginia, Australia DOES have a drinking problem, and a legendary one at that.  But America does too.  In fact, all predominantly Anglo-Celtic cultures do to some extent.   That's not news.  With few exceptions, the more Anglo-Celtic they are, the worse the drinking culture.  Ditto for pub/street violence--they don't call it a Glasgow kiss for nothing.

How Anglo-Celtic is each country? (Figures are approximate)

US:  30%
Canada:  50%
Australia: 70%
New Zealand: 70%+
UK: 86%
Republic of Ireland: 95%

Due to changing demographics, America is less Anglo-Celtic now than in the past.  This perhaps explains the decline in drinking since 1980 more than anything else, and it is less true for Australia and other such cultures.

The drinking age is irrelevant.  Drunken violence (and other problems) flourishes in cultures that tolerates misbehavior when drunk, such as Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and of course the USA.  Alcohol must never be considered an excuse. 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why Have Virtually All Prohibitions Failed?

This is a question that many people have asked, and essentially all serious scholars know the truth. Even those who admit alcohol prohibition failed, but claim the 21 drinking age (as well as the War on (some) Drugs) was a success, likely know precisely why, but are afraid to admit it. And it's more than just an inability to legislate morality or the fact that a given substance is too much a part of the social fabric. So, as Professor Charles Whitebread of USC Law School said:

Every single person who has ever written seriously about the national alcohol prohibition agrees on why it collapsed. Why? Because it violated that iron law of Prohibitions. What is the iron law of Prohibitions? Prohibitions are always enacted by US, to govern the conduct of THEM. Do you have me? Take the alcohol prohibition. Every single person who has ever written about it agrees on why it collapsed.
He further elaborates:

Large numbers of people supported the idea of prohibition who were not themselves, opposed to drinking. Want to see it? Let me give you an example, 1919. You are a Republican in upstate New York. Whether you drink, or you don't, you are for the alcohol prohibition because it will close the licensed saloons in the City of New York which you view to be the corrupt patronage and power base of the Democratic Party in New York. So almost every Republican in New York was in favor of national alcohol prohibition.
And, as soon as it passed, what do you think they said? "Well, what do you know? Success. Let's have a drink." That's what they thought, "let's have a drink." "Let's drink to this." A great success, you see.

There you have it. There is always an US and a THEM. Liberty for "just us," not all. And if you STILL don't get it by this point, he goes on to drive the point home even further:

I just want to go back to the [English] prohibition against the drinking of gin [in the 1800s]. How could a country prohibit just the drinking of gin, not the drinking of anything else for forty years? Answer: The rich people drank whiskey and the poor people drank [guess] what? -- gin. Do you see it?

He also points out that the rationale for drug prohibitions often follow the same pseudo-logic. Cannabis was banned partly due to anti-Mexican racism and competing business interests, opium banned due to racist fears of the Chinese immigrants, and cocaine was banned due to (largely fabricated) fears of superhuman, coked-up black men going on murdering sprees and raping white women. (Cocaine ironically became popular due to Southern liquor laws designed to keep whiskey out of the hands of lower-class blacks, thus driving them to a more dangerous substitute.) And the very first laws on the books against these other substances specifically targeted such groups. Even to this day, minorities are disproportionally targeted for Drug War enforcement, while the Clinton drug czar Lee Brown speciously claims that drug legalization would be "genocide" against blacks. You read that right. WE can handle it, while THEY cant.

Of course, Dr. Whitebread was not talking specifically about the 21 drinking age, but it too follows the same "iron law" as an age-based selective prohibition of sorts. In fact, it applies a fortiori in this case--the "us" group being adults over 21 and the "them" group being "minors" under 21, the latter being politically impotent at the time it was passed. Supporters of the 21 drinking age, who usually drink themselves, invariably say something to the effect of "well, WE can handle it, but THEY can't." And guess who takes that as a dare?

Nevermind that 18-20 year olds are judged capable of handling war, guns, cigarettes, questionable "dietary supplements," gambling, cars, trucks, motorcycles, chainsaws, dangerous jobs, sex, marriage, and even having kids. But not beer. This would clearly fail the Martian test (can you explain it to a Martian without sounding like an idiot?) for obvious reasons.

In the entire history of the world, there has never been a society in which adults drank but teens did not, nor has the reverse ever been true. While this is also true for other substances, it is especially true for those substances that have gained the widest acceptance in a society. And no substance in history has ever achieved this widespread status quite like ethanol. And that, my friends, is why the 21 drinking age is the greatest alcohol policy failure since Prohibition.

Mike Males observes that in the USA, youth have the least amount of freedom relative to adults. The key word here is relative. Look at other countries around the world and see if you can see a pattern. Ever notice how the less relative freedom teens have, the worse the excesses (of all kinds) are among adults in such cultures? The reason for that is very simple. Those adults feel they need not worry about being good role models, since teens will face harsh punishment for emulating their behavior. Do as I say, not as I do--farcical (and pharisaical) to say the least. Being "grown-up" apparently just means making better excuses for bad behavior rather than truly behaving better. And what passes for "education" is often little more than "just say no" and disingenuous scare tactics. Such cultural schizophrenia is clearly not the best way for teens to be socialized into the adult world. And the excess-loving adults they eventually become are living proof.

But why is America like that? How could these obvious farces still be with us? Dr. Males notes that it is more than just fear of young people in general, it is that today's youth are more racially diverse (i.e. less white) than the older generation, and this is more true in America than any other industrialized country. So the in-group-out-group thing is even more pronounced since there is more than one dimension to this fear/loathing of the Other. How did we get to be so primitive?