The Arizona Desert Lamp

Drinking age disaster

Posted in Culture, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 18 April 2009

More on the Amethyst Initiative and the flaws of a federally-mandated drinking age from economist Jeffrey Miron and researcher Elena Tetelbaum in Forbes magazine, where the duo explain their investigation into the effects of a 21-and-up drinking age (wonkily referred to as the “MLDA21”), and the federal legislation that forced states to set it there:

Our research compares traffic fatality rates in states before and after they changed their MLDA from 18 to 21. In contrast to all earlier work, however, we examined separately the impact in states that adopted an MLDA21 on their own and those that were coerced by the [Federal Underage Drinking Act].

The results are striking. Virtually all the life-saving impact of the MLDA21 comes from the few early-adopting states, not from the larger number that resulted from federal pressure. Further, any life-saving effect in those states that first raised the drinking age was only temporary, occurring largely in the first year or two after switching to the MLDA21.

This makes sense if a higher MLDA works only when state governments can set a drinking age that responds to local attitudes and concerns–and when states are energized to enforce such laws. A policy imposed from on high, especially one that is readily evaded and opposed by a large fraction of the citizenry, is virtually guaranteed to fail.

The major implication of these results is that the drinking age does not produce its main claimed benefit. Moreover, it plausibly generates side effects, like binge drinking and disrespect for the law–the very behavior that events planned for this month’s alcohol awareness theme are designed to deter.

Our results thus challenge both the value of the MLDA21 and the value of coercive federalism. While we find limited evidence that the MLDA21 saves lives when states adopted it of their own volition, we find no evidence it saves lives when the federal government compels this policy.

Here is the paper itself, available at SSRN. Earlier this year, President Shelton dismissed the Amethyst Initiative, citing some studies and listing a number of educational programs at UA targeting alcohol abuse. Here’s some evidence for the former category. As for the latter, well, Playboy‘s covered how well those programs are working out.


3 Responses

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  1. Jimi Alexander said, on 18 April 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I’ve actually just started a blog about this very topic after being prompted to do so by my ENGL class for an assignment. Link in the name, of course.

    I, too, believe that it is the states and not the federal government that should be responsible for their minimum drinking age. The MADD lobby is very influential, though, and I imagine attempts to introduce this will be met with shrieks of “YOU’RE KILLING THE CHILDREN!” And come to think of it, when was the last time you saw anybody in DC relinquish federal power and allow the states to have sovereignty on an issue?

  2. Jimi Alexander said, on 18 April 2009 at 10:02 pm

    OK, I thought the link was in my name. *sigh*

    There! Sorry about the double post!

  3. Jimi Alexander said, on 19 April 2009 at 2:16 am

    OK, I thought the link was in my name. *sigh*

    There! Sorry about the double post!
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

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