Lindsay Perigo
Lindsay Perigo

The Politically Incorrect Show - 21/11/2001

I like to say that the only person with a drinking problem is a person who doesn't drink. I could get away with that if I didn't go over the edge sometimes while under the influence of too much of my favourite red beverage. Anyway, I've had occasion to ponder this drinking business today after the release of research from Auckland University purporting to show that since the legal drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18 in 1999, the number of 16- & 17-year olds who "binge-drink" has risen dramatically. This seems to coincide with anecdotal accounts of trashed teenagers swarming the streets of New Zealand cities. Predictably, the release of the research has sparked a clamour to have the legal age limit put back up to 20.

Libertarians argue the toss as to whether a free society would have a legal drinking age at all. When not touting the admirable proposal that drinking should be compulsory from birth, I tend to the view that a free society would not. Aside from the freedom issue (& no, I don't believe kids should be free to do ANYTHING, but it's important that the government NOT tread on parental prerogatives) there are already societies that don't have such laws, whose youth is not constantly alcohol-sodden. Japan, for instance. So what is it about New Zealand, I wonder, that makes the direst predictions of the wowsers come true when the age is lowered from 20 to 18?

I don't know for certain, but I suspect that the upsurge in "binge-drinking" among youngsters would have occurred anyway, & that putting the legal age back up won't stop it. These kids have been put through an education system that leaves them cynical, directionless & listlessly conformist. It's not surprising that they want to blot out their consciousness, not just with booze but whatever is available. I don't doubt that comparable research into cannabis use would find a similar increase in the numbers of youthful dope-smokers - and cannabis is completely illegal at any age. It's not the law that is driving kids to drink & drugs, but the culture - a culture of cynicism & nihlism nurtured by schools in which even the teachers are now illterate & in which kids have learned to disguise their native intelligence in order not be called "nerds" or "try-hards." It's that culture that needs to be addressed.

Let me add, lest I should be sounding like a wowser myself here, that I think the odd "binge-drinking" session never hurt anyone. There's nothing like one for blowing out cobwebs & shedding irrational inhibitions. But, yes, if kids are doing it routinely & en masse, there's a problem. The answer is not further restrictions on freedom - it's a culture that emphasises the flip side of the freedom coin, personal responsibility, & provides a meaningful context for the exercise thereof.

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