Alcohol Policy and the Need for Federalism

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Ever since the United States gained its independence, a fierce debate has raged over just how much power the federal government ought to have compared to the states. Some argue that the federal government should have more power in order to make the country’s laws universal, claiming that it is not a good idea for one state to have different laws from another if there is evidence to suggest that one set of laws works better than others. Others, however, argue that if states have more power, then they can implement policies that address the unique needs of that specific state. Furthermore, allowing the states to have more power enables them to experiment with different policies, which may be useful to both the federal government and the states because it helps to show which policies produce the best results.

The recent debates over the extent of federal and state power have generally centered on issues such as marriage, education, and abortion. One of the most interesting and less discussed cases, however, has been that of the drinking age.

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required all states to raise the minimum drinking age to twenty-one or else risk reductions in highway funds from the federal government. The law was implemented because the evidence at the time seemed to show that increasing the drinking age reduced traffic accidents among young people, significantly lowering traffic fatalities. Many groups (such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving) lobbied for the law, and anyone who was against it was accused of promoting drunk driving.

Despite the ostensibly solid reasoning that guided Congress to adopt this law, evidence has emerged since 1984 that challenges the conventional wisdom that increasing the drinking age reduced traffic accidents. A Harvard economist and a Yale Law school graduate published a paper challenging the claim that increasing the drinking age saved lives. Their study found that traffic accidents decreased in states that had increased the drinking age before they were forced to do so by the 1984 law, which changed the average for the entire nation. Furthermore, the decrease in traffic accidents did not continue after one year of adopting the new drinking age. They also found that traffic accidents began to decrease around 1969, well before the 1984 law was enacted. Most previous studies—including those that were used to justify the 1984 law—do not control for the fact that miles driven have increased over the last few decades, and for increases in safety equipment in cars in recent years. If this variable is controlled, traffic accidents have been decreasing over the last few decades, and no impact is seen after the 1984 law.

Another argument for imposing a uniform drinking age through the federal government is that it reduces drinking among teenagers. However, a study by sociologists at the University of Indiana and State University of New York–Potsdam found that underage drinking in college campuses increased after the law was passed.

Another problem with enforcing a uniform drinking age is that it creates disdain for the law. Most teenagers drink before they are twenty-one, and even responsible drinkers feel they are doing nothing wrong because they are not harming anyone. Having a uniform drinking age encourages people to ignore and disrespect the law. In general, a law is effective because it is enforced, but also because most of the citizens that are affected by it respect it and decide to follow it. If this is not the case, laws cease to be effective, and can even cause more problems than they solve. In 2007, for example, 130 university presidents signed a petition asking the federal government to remove the highway funding penalty for states that lower their drinking age. It is very difficult to enforce the minimum drinking age on a college campus, so many colleges simply stop enforcing it. When they do enforce it, however, students hide their consumption of alcohol instead of drinking out in the open where officials can intervene if necessary. Although some regulations are positive and help keep society in order, some laws simply create disdain for the law and end up having the opposite effect. Too much regulation can backfire, because it does not always have the intended consequences, and often the solution to a problem is not as simple as making something illegal. Simply because alcohol is illegal does not mean that it will automatically disappear—if this were the case, government regulations in many other policies would be more effective than they actually are.

So, should the drinking age be lowered to 18, or should it stay at 21 as it is now, or is there a different age limit that may be better? The answer to this may be different for each state, and there is evidence to support various positions on this issue, but one thing is clear: this is a states issue, not a federal issue. We may all have very strong opinions on policy issues—the drinking age, social policy, education, and so on, and we may all have statistics to support our opinions. But forcing all states to adopt one view ends debate, and prevents states from experimenting, which prevents the rest of the country from learning from several policy positions. Entangling the federal government in every issue to achieve supposed universality in the law may have a detrimental effect, because it prevents states from possibly finding a better alternative to the status quo. Any federal power could in some indirect way or another be linked to a state issue in order to justify intervention, but it is best to let the states formulate policies that address the specific issues they face.

Sofia Gallo is a sophomore from New York City tentatively majoring in Politics. She can be reached at sgallo@princeton.edu.

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