In the early 1980s more than half the states had drinking ages lower than 21. Some let the boozing start at 18; some allowed 19-year-olds to buy beer and wine. Spurred by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the Reagan administration in 1984 ordered states to raise their drinking age back to 21 or lose 10% of their federal highway funds. The states buckled under this fiscal blackmail but—surprise!—under-age drinking did not disappear. In some ways, the problem got worse.
Besides making criminals of millions of young people, the "21" law encourages the young to binge in secret. And one new and dangerous fad is for young folk to go to a bar on the eve of their 21st birthday and, after midnight, attempt to down 21 drinks before closing time.
John McCardle, the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, is leading a national effort to lower the drinking age to 18. The relaxation would be combined with mandatory alcohol education. His group, Choose Responsibility, argues that the 21 law has done little to stop drunk-driving and, because it is largely unenforceable, breeds contempt for law in general.