Public policy often illustrates the law of unintended consequences. Society's complexity -- multiple variables with myriad connections -- often causes the consequences of a policy to be contrary to, and larger than, the intended ones. So, when assessing government actions, one should be receptive to counterintuitive ideas. One such is John McCardell's theory that a way to lower the incidence of illness, mayhem and death from alcohol abuse by young people is to lower the drinking age.
McCardell, 57, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont and professor of history there, says alcohol is and always will be ``a reality in the lives of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.'' Studies indicate that the number of college students who drink is slightly smaller than it was 10 years ago, largely because of increased interest in healthy living. But in the majority who choose to drink, there have been increases of ``binge drinking'' and other excesses. Hospitalizations of 18- to 20-year-olds for alcohol poisoning have risen in those 10 years.
This, McCardell believes, is partly because the drinking age of 21 has moved drinking to settings away from parental instruction and supervision. Among college students, drinking has gone ``off campus and underground,'' increasing risks while decreasing institutions' abilities to manage the risks.
Although all 50 states ban drinking by persons under 21, technically there is no national drinking age. Each state has a right to set a lower age -- more than half had lower age limits in the 1970s -- but doing so will cost it 10 percent of its federal highway funds and cause significant uproar from contractors and construction unions.
This pressure on the states by the federal government was put in place in 1984, under Ronald Reagan. He was famously susceptible to moving anecdotes, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded in 1980, had a tragically large arsenal of them. MADD has been heroically successful in changing social norms, nudging society toward wholesome intolerance of the idea that intoxication is amusing (today, the 1981 movie ``Arthur,'' featuring Dudley Moore as a lovable lush, is embarrassing) and that drunk driving is a minor peccadillo.
The hope was that a drinking age of 21 would solve two problems. One was that of ``blood borders'' between states with different drinking ages: people from age-21 states drove into neighboring states with lower drinking ages, then drove home impaired. The other problem is immature and reckless drinking. The hope was that proscribing drinking by people under 21 would substantially delay drinking until that age.