Raising the drinking age is condescending and tyrannical; doesn’t work either

07 March 2018
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Government appears intent on steaming ahead with the Liquor Amendment Bill, which will, among other things, raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. This is as condescending as it is tyrannical, and South Africans should resist this and other programmes by government to take freedom away from the people and vest itself with paternalistic powers.

People the government deems mature enough to vote, marry freely, choose careers, drive cars, and enter into contracts, will no longer be allowed to drink with friends or at a meal or even at their own weddings if this Bill is adopted. Individuals currently between 18 and 21 who consume alcohol will be criminalised. But, as is the case almost universally, this new law will be ignored, becoming a needless leech on the taxpaying wallet of South Africa.

South Africa’s recent swing back to authoritarianism, with expropriation without compensation, threats of disarming law-abiding citizens, and raids on investigative journalists who expose corruption, should not be supplemented by also confirming the position of the South African citizen as a perpetual minor. As government oppresses us, it should at least treat us like adults.

Current under-18s drink illegally, and widely so. The difference between them and those who are over 18 is that they drink in secret, where their parents and other responsible adults are not present. By raising the drinking age even more, everyone under 21 will continue to drink – shocking – but will now do so in uncontrolled environments, exposing them to the same danger that underage drinkers currently are exposed to.

Prohibitionists enjoy linking crime rates with heavy drinking, and, with South Africa’s violent crime problem especially among youths, it would apparently be prudent to raise the drinking age.

The average rate for heavy drinking among drinkers in the most peaceful countries on Earth is 25.76%, ranging from a high of 52.4% in Austria to a low of 5.6% in New Zealand. South Africa, in comparison, has a rate of 25.6%. 23 countries qualify as the “most peaceful” according to the 2015 Global Peace Index, yet violent, crime-prone South Africa has a heavy drinking rate that is below 10 of the most peaceful countries and comparable with another three of them. Heavy drinking doesn’t seem linked to how violent or peaceful a country is.

Raising the drinking age will also not reduce the incidences of drunk driving on our roads. The only solid deterrence from drunk driving, or committing crime in general, is the fear of getting caught. If someone believes they won’t get caught, threatening them with fines or even the death penalty will not change their behaviour. This is, indeed, why countries have progressively abandoned the death penalty. Regardless, the vast majority of drunk drivers are over the age of 21, meaning that if decreasing the death toll on our roads is an objective of the new policy, it will be misfire completely.

It would appear, as far as crime is concerned, that raising the drinking age is not intended to address the pressing problems South Africa faces, but to divert attention away from the lack of effective law enforcement. If current liquor laws and regulations cannot be properly enforced, our problem is not with a lack of law, but with a lack of good law that isn’t difficult to enforce.

The United States is the only large country to have tried the experiment of reducing road fatalities by raising the minimum drinking age – just as they were the only large country to impose a total Prohibition on alcohol as well, in the 1920s. Neither of these experiments turned out as they hoped. The prime justification used in America was this intervention would reduce driving fatalities; but the trend of road fatalities been decreasing for decades already, and continued apace as it did before raising the drinking age.

As a lifelong teetotaller who has never touched alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs, I can comfortably say that I do not want my fellow South Africans to be forced to be like me. We are supposed to be a free society where adults can make decisions for themselves without an ever-present parent-government accosting us. Fundamentally, we need to be responsible for ourselves and not outsource this role to government.

Author Martin van Staden is Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the FMF.



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