In North Carolina, an 18 year old can buy a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket, and get as many tattoos and piercings by yourself as you please. The age of consent is 16 here, which is also how old you have to be for the state to believe you’re capable of operating a motor vehicle alone. Rental car companies would beg to differ – they believe a driver should be 25 before using one of their cars without additional charges.
We trust our democracy in the hands of 18 year old voters, and we throw in the ability to serve in the military without parental consent at 18 along with the franchise. And of course, we know you’d never dare to raise a glass and have an alcoholic beverage before you’re 21 in any of the fifty states.
This patchwork of policies gives the impression that adulthood has no real set beginning period. Depending on where you live, the period of time from which you’re first an “adult” to when you gain the final privilege granted to adults could be a decade or more. It’s certainly true that the human brain takes years to develop, and that teenagers often really don’t know what’s best for them. The answer to this problem, though, is a policy which gives firmer guidance about navigating the transition to adulthood – not a transition that lasts so long it would be old enough to pay the adult price at Disney World if it were a person of its own.
Adulthood should begin at one age in the eyes of the state. When a law says a person can choose to get a tattoo without an adult signing off on it, the law is saying that the eighteen-year-old is capable of making decisions for herself. If we believe people are capable of making those choices about smoking or gambling at 18, why would they be suddenly incapable of knowing what’s best for them when an ominous Miller Light enters the scene?
From a different angle, if it’s true that no 20 year old should be trusted to know which vodka shot was one too many, then why do we let 20 year olds make any decisions at all? If the government has difficulty trusting 18 to 20 year olds with simple counting, then we certainly shouldn’t allow them to operate roving death machines at 75 miles per hour on I-40.
Of far greater consequence though, is the age at which the government allows people to join the military without parental consent. However you feel about the wars the military is currently fighting, I think we can agree that young adults who choose to serve their country are making a choice to put themselves in jeopardy for the continued security of the vast majority of our population. That choice involves sacrifice, often grueling conditions and great personal risk.
We trust an 18 year old to weigh the costs of this choice with the benefits. When young adults make the choice to join the military we value the sacrifices and the protections their service gives us. But we do not consider them adults – at least not adult enough to weigh the costs and benefits of something that changes the course of their life as much as whether they’ll regret that cheap whiskey in the morning.
This Fourth of July, many across the country and beyond will celebrate our country’s independence with their drink of choice. We will celebrate the victories won 241 years ago and how glad we are to have maintained and expanded the freedoms that were hard won centuries ago. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating – whether you’re at a barbecue or the beach this holiday, think hard about why we would let someone die for their country before they’re allowed to share a drink with you in celebration of it.