Last weekend was Arequipa’s anniversary celebration (from when this was written not when it was posted) which included a two and a half hour long parade. This parade had wagons filled with barrels of Chica, a fermented black corn beverage (around 12% ABV). The wagons with the Chica were pouring it out for anyone who asked, anyone who looked like they might want it, and occasionally on the heads of innocent bystanders. Over the course of this parade, I saw three small children (under age 6) run up to the wagons to ask for Chica; none of them were turned away. They were each given a small plastic cup containing a few ounces of Chica. No one there, excepting myself, thought twice about this.
Seeing the degree of laxity regarding age in in Latin America has made me reassess the United States’ sharply defined legal structure regarding age. You have to be 21 to drink, 18 to join the military or vote, 16 to drive, and 35 to run for president.
I believe that the United States needs to either move towards a more flexible system which does not have such strict lines or settle on a single, low, unified age beyond which age does not matter to the government.
Do not mistake me, I understand that there are various developmental milestones in the human lifespan which enable success at various tasks. To take a fairly extreme example, two year olds will not be able to drive or usefully serve in the military. However, in limited circumstances, I observe that in the absence of law both individuals and the communities which surround them limit people to a reasonable rate of increased responsibility.
I think the best course of action is to set a relatively low age, like thirteen, beyond which everyone is legally allowed to engage in any activity which is legal for adults (thus making everyone 13 and up an adult). This would, I believe, result in a more Latin American environment in which people begin to engage in activities when they, and their communities, dub them able; rather than as soon as they are allowed to, irrelevant of their readiness.
Let’s assume we implemented my proposal and made it legal for anyone who is thirteen or older to: drink, join the military, drive, and run for president. Let’s look at both the likely outcomes and the bad outcomes.
If thirteen year olds are allowed to drink they probably will. At the bad end of the scale, they might drink too much. I do not believe this substantially differs from the current state of affairs, except that when they drink it is more likely to be with an older community, and if they drink to excess it is more likely their community will be aware of it.
If thirteen year-olds apply to join the military, the vast majority of them will be rejected and will not join. Some tiny percent of thirteen year olds will both successfully apply and be accepted; they will get a job much earlier in life than most, and will probably experience major culture shock. I do not believe this is such a bad outcome and I think the number of people it would impact is infinitesimal.
If a thirteen year old runs for president, they will not be elected, and they may gain useful experience in the attempt.
And for the last example: if thirteen year olds drive, it will probably go just as well as for all the thirteen year-olds currently driving on farm licenses. That is to say, there will probably be no more accidents than in the general population.
Now that we have looked at the minimal negative outcomes of a low uniform age of responsibility let’s address some of the advantages: A reduction in juvenile crime, an increase in civic engagement, a greater inclination to follow laws, and a more just society.
Much of juvenile crime is related to underage drinking, if the age required for underage drinking were substantially lowered, fewer youth would be criminalized for engaging in behavior they see in normal adults.
While many organizations pour resources into engaging youth in civics, I observe that until they can actually vote, no one really feels engaged. Several democratically run schools give evidence that even at a very young age, children will rise to the responsibilities of democracy.
The drinking age, in particular, trains people to disregard the law. When the government requires that you behave in a way which clearly does not follow social norms or reason people quickly learn that laws are not hard and fast rules, just things to avoid being caught violating.
We live in a society where young adults are subject to a series of arbitrary rules, which do not correspond to their level of responsibility or ability, which makes them less than others around them. We are effectively inflicting a class structure on a segment of our population, and banning them from making any effective protest against it until they are no longer oppressed and thus not incentivized to act.
The disadvantages are few, the advantages are major. Let us allow teenagers and young adults to enjoy the rights and responsibilities offered to adults, without fear of the government punishing them for behaviors which are acceptable in the general population.