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America: Land of the Free?

Prior to arriving in America I imagined this country as being the land of the free. But somehow, it turned out this was a wrongly held reputation. Social restrictions and legal pressures have transformed the free Wild West into a regulated state. It seems like good things are banned. How can limiting alcohol consumption to those at least 21 years old protect teenagers when we know that in Europe alcohol related accidents are far more frequent in countries where the drinking age limit is high and strictly enforced? Where does this American rule come from?

Everyone has heard of bootleggers Al Capone and Lucky Luciano -- big faces during the Prohibition period. Both built their empires on the prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition lasted for 13 years, bringing an era of gangsters and mob wars, underground activities and crime. It is widely acknowledged that alcohol is a part of Western societies, and that societies’ efforts to regulate its consumption are futile and disastrous.

Coming out of the Prohibition America’s mechanism of “laboratory states” was alcohol regulation. The concept of laboratory states is fundamental to the good functioning of the United States. It implies that every state can test-run a regulation in its own way (e.g., taxes, speed limits, etc.) in order to see what works best. In 1984, this privilege was restrained through the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The law put restrictions on highway funding set up under the Federal Aid Highway Act (which created the Interstate system in 1956). The states could enjoy these funds if they adopted specific laws on alcohol sale and consumption.

I still wonder whether the 21-year restriction is a simple act of Puritanism or misplaced good intentions. I can understand the point made that adults want to prevent teenagers from falling for the “vices” of alcohol. We all know that there are many problems linked to abusive alcohol consumption, such as binge drinking, alcoholism, accidents, violence, and many others. But having the minimum drinking age set at 21 will not solve them. On the contrary, it will push youngsters into illegal paths.

A person that has broken a law and enjoyed it is very likely to do it again. Now, if a teenager buys alcohol with a fake ID or gets someone of age to buy it for him, what stops him from taking any further illegal action? Simply: laws of this type essentially condition people from a young age to disrespect the law. Isn’t prevention or limitation a way to awaken curiosity? Being told not to do something can in fact drive teenagers, an already high-risk demographic, to engage in more risky behavior. Positioning alcohol as a social “forbidden fruit” will merely get more minors to drink in secret – without the benefit of having parents around to monitor behavior.