19 August 2008

Let's all drink to NIMBYism.

Reason's Hit & Run blog praises the "Amethyst Initiative", a petition by dozens of college presidents to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. The initiative signatories suggest that "twenty-one is not working":
A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.

Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

That's all well and good; I certainly support returning the drinking age to 18, where it was in many states before the federal government began meddling with highway funding at the behest of groups like MADD. Those college presidents behind the initiative correctly note that "A culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking'—often conducted off-campus—has developed" but they do it passively, without acknowledging the significant roles many colleges have had in aggravating that situation.

Over the past several years, numerous colleges have cracked-down on on-campus drinking by all students, not just underage ones. Underage drinking has certainly been dealt with more harshly, of course, but all students at many universities have found their ability to drink socially in what is essentially their own homes and neighborhoods. The result is not less drinking, but instead more drunk driving between off-campus sites and on-campus residences. Whether the motivation is promoting law-and-order on-campus, shedding a "party school" image, or simple paternalism, the net effect is to magnify what was a problematic situation that was more-or-less contained on-campus to one which has more severe consequences and is shifted to the streets and areas beyond campuses' borders, where it is more difficult to police effectively. You can't address the neighborhood's waste management needs by tossing your trash into your neighbor's yard.

My own undergrad institution -- Washington State University -- was a noted party school before and during my time there. In the years since I've left, the college's overseers have cracked-down on drinking -- even legal drinking -- on-campus in residences and in the Greek system and have pushed walking-distance watering holes off-campus. I strongly suspect that any gains made in terms of on-campus temperence have been lost to the "culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' . . . conducted off-campus" to which the university's NIMBYism made a significant contribution. Short-sighted or self-interested bureaucrats though they may be, at least Washington State's leaders aren't hypocrites -- they didn't sign onto Amethyst's lament of "dangerous, clandestine" off-campus binge-drinking.

Perhaps I'm overly cynical about the motives of some of the Amethyst Initiative's signatories, but I can't shake my suspicion that their main concern is that the appearance of problem underage drinking on their campuses is diminished. Lowering the drinking age to 18 -- coincidentally the same age at which most students begin college -- does little to affect the prevalence of drinking by students (alcohol is rarely in short supply at any university), but it does eliminate underage drinking by suddenly making everyone of age. If it happens to curb binge-drinking and other problematic consumption, that's merely a desirable side-effect.

For my part, I'll seek to teach my daughter about the dangers of excessive drinking, rather than avoid those difficult discussions and rely on college functionaries to parent her in my stead. I hope that she'll take those lessons to heart, but I expect that she'll fall short from time-to-time. I hope that she'll be as fortunate as I have been, to have avoided serious injury to myself and others during my own problem drinking years. If she learns from her mistakes, as I hope that I have, she'll be a better person for it all, even if her improved judgement about alcohol consumption disqualifies her from a leadership position in academia.

No comments: