Another Perspective

Binge Thinking

Fun with underage drinking in Wisconsin.

By 10.22.03

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It's amazing the hoops states will jump through if you threaten to withhold federal funds. In 1984, Elizabeth Dole, then Secretary of Transportation, promised to do just that. While she had no direct control over the legislation of the 50 states, she said she would yank highway dollars unless the local legislatures raised the drinking age to 21. Most states quickly fell into line.

Wisconsin was one of the last to knuckle under, and passed the statute only grudgingly, with loopholes. In the Cheesehead state, it is still perfectly legal for those under the age of 21 to drink. As long as you are with your parents or your over-21 spouse, you can order a beer, a glass of wine, or any other alcoholic concoction, and consume it on the premises.

Unless state representative John Ainsworth gets his way, that is. Under the current version of the Republican lawmaker's proposed legislation, Bill 72, the law would be changed to allow only those who have reached that magical age of 18 to have a drink with their parents outside the home. An earlier version of the bill was even more restrictive -- it would have criminalized parent-supervised under aged drinking at home, raising questions of how deeply the government should entangle itself in private life.

In both presentations of the bill, indignant parents expressed outrage that the legislature wants to intrude on how they raise their children. Nor has Ainsworth done much to discourage the interpretation of his bill as an assault on parental rights. He told the Voice of America "in today's society, we have all kinds of parents. Some that probably are not observant as they should be. We have stepparents, legal guardians, foster parents who abuse the privilege. There should be no question in the law that it is not appropriate to publicly serve alcohol to children that young."

To judge by the editorial pages of the state, parental privileges are beside the point. The Wausau Daily Herald, for instance, wrote that "parents who take children out drinking aren't responsible and do need common sense transfusions." So, never mind them. There is no reason that children should learn to drink responsibly now; they can wait until college to learn how to binge drink.

While vilifying the "grape and grain" industry, the local guardians of taste and good sense have been quick to dismiss concerns that this legislation would simply drive underage drinking underground. The Stevens Point Journal discounted the argument thus: "Translation: Drinking in bars is good for kids because it teaches them how."

Bill 72, Ainsworth often explains, was inspired by a pregnancy. An unidentified underage imbiber was in a bar with a male claiming to be her father, got drunk, and became pregnant. While this is unfortunate, hard cases often make bad law, and it's unclear that "closing the loophole" would prevent such things from happening again. That is, should the liberty of a large swath of the entire state of Wisconsin be restricted because some occasionally abuse the privilege? Further, is the socialization argument really so dumb? Many believe that America's bizarre underage alcohol laws remove a lot of the social controls that exist under more tolerant regimes, and it isn't a stretch to see that, at the very least, they have a point.

Ainsworth hopes to bring the bill to a vote by the end of the year, but why wait? The legislature could shoot this turkey down before Thanksgiving and give Cheeseheads everywhere something to be grateful for.

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