Thursday, August 30, 2012

Keep it 18

This afternoon, Parliament will have an unusual three-way vote on the drinking age, choosing between 18, 20, or a split purchasing age via a run-off system. I was going to post on why I think the drinking age should stay at 18, but it turns out that I already did back in 2010. My core arguments haven't changed, so I'll simply repeat what I said then:

I oppose this change, and any attempt to increase the drinking age, for a simple reason: it is discriminatory. While the default age of majority in New Zealand is still technically 20, the Human Rights Act outlaws discrimination on the basis of age, and for the past twenty years (since ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defined childhood and therefore adulthood) we have operated a de facto policy that adulthood begins at 18. Where specific age limits have been put in place, they have been set at 18 or younger; it is very hard to find a law enacted in the last twenty years which sets an age limit at a higher age.

(I can find one obvious one: the Gambling Act 2003, which bars under-20s from entering casinos, though ironically they can still buy lotto tickets and scratch cards and play pokies. The BORA report on that is not available, so I have no idea if the matter was even considered, but I'm not sure such an age limit would pass muster today).

In our society, 18 year-olds are adults. They pay taxes. They get paid full wages (discriminatory youth rates were repealed some years ago). They can get married or civilised, serve on juries, vote. They can even sell their bodies for sex. The remaining age limits - forbidding 18 year-olds from driving trains or holding office in a building society - are legacy code, which is gradually being expunged.

Advocates of a split age or a higher drinking age argue that there is strong evidence that alcohol causes significant social harm. I agree, it does. But policies to combat that harm must be non-discriminatory. A harm-reduction policy which discriminates against 18 year-olds is as morally untenable as one which discriminates against women or Maori. And that applies no matter how strong the evidence is. No amount of evidence can outweigh the fundamental right to be free of discrimination, and if society would benefit from infringing that right, then society can go burn. These people are adults, full citizens, and they must be treated as such. If 50 year-olds can drink, then 18 year-olds must also be allowed to. Anything else is just bigoted pedophobia.

Yes, that's right, its bigotry. Age discrimination is every bit as pernicious as discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation or religion, and those advocating it are in the same boat as the racists, sexists and bigots. And if people don't like that comparison, then perhaps they should be a little less bigoted in their behaviour.