“You must be over the age of 21 to drink alcohol in the state of Connecticut.”
Since 1984, Congress has conditioned federal highway funds on states maintaining a legal minimum drinking age of 21. All 50 states have done so since, including Connecticut. And yet it is not particularly hard to imbibe while underage at Yale: you just go to a frat party, or a formal. It’s not as if the administration is unaware of this. During first year orientation, Yale Chief of Police Anthony Campbell told me and the rest of my class that if a friend drinks too much, we should call Yale Dispatch instead of 911 because the former will not get anyone into legal trouble.
Why does Yale basically turn a blind eye to underage drinking? Ostensibly, harm reduction. Alcohol is not good for you. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, no amount of alcohol is safe to drink or beneficial to your health. Drinking is much more common among the well-off: 79 percent of Americans earning $100,000 per year or more drink compared to only 53 percent of those earning $40,000 or less; 74 percent of college graduates drink compared to only 56 percent of those who did not go to college.
Once you control for socioeconomic status, the perceived health benefit of moderate alcohol consumption disappears. Booze is bad for your liver, your heart and your blood pressure. The extra calories can cause you to put on weight. It makes people more violent. The CDC estimates that drinking kills 140,000 people annually in America — that’s 380 per day — with 10,000 of those deaths coming from drunk driving alone.
The downsides of drinking are real, but it’s also great fun! And while you can quantify the increased health risks and excess deaths caused by drunkenness, you cannot calculate the joy of cracking a cold one with the boys. You can’t put a number on the memories you make with your classmates, or the new friends you make at a party.
You can think of that aspect of drinking — the memories and the fun — as a positive externality that gets ignored if you restrict yourself to a quantitative view of the world. And I think that ignoring these positive externalities has something to do with the much-discussed “crisis of loneliness,” which the Surgeon General recently released a report on. The causes are admittedly unclear. Certainly, the pandemic played a role. Nick Kristoff, the New York Times columnist, has argued that wealth itself is the cause — that greater material abundance allows people to isolate themselves from one another. Perhaps social media is to blame. (Others disagree.) I think that part of the problem is the attitude towards risk that I described.
And I think that attitude has caused people to underrate the unquantifiable upsides of drinking — including, yes, of the underage variety. In Europe, it is much easier to drink when underage and I think that contributes to a more vibrant social environment for young people. Now, teenage binge drinking is much higher across the pond, it’s just not as risky because there’s more public transit and fewer guns. I don’t think the European model would scale if applied in the United States, and I don’t think we should lower the drinking age.
But policy isn’t everything. Social attitudes matter, too. Yale’s logic is that if drinking is going to happen anyways, given that this is a college environment, it’s better to try and mitigate the downsides than engage in a futile attempt to scrub it out. That’s all well and good and you’re not going to hear me complaining about it. In fact, I think that more parents should adopt that logic. That’s not to say that they should encourage underage drinking, or ignore the risks posed by alcohol. Those risks deserve to be weighed, but so do the unquantifiable benefits of risky behavior. If the positive externalities were priced in, I think society would be somewhat more favorably inclined towards letting young people drink — socially, that is. That would be a less lonely and more vibrant society. And, I think, a healthier one.
MILAN SINGH is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column, “All politics is national,” runs fortnightly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.