Unintended Consequences

In 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. States were required to raise the drinking age to 21 or lose 10% of their federal highway funds. All 50 states eventually raised their drinking age.

The main rationale for raising the drinking age was to reduce highway accidents. In fact the number of alcohol related traffic accidents has reduced since the drinking age was raised. But prior to 1984, alcohol related traffic accidents had already started to decline due to stricter law enforcement. Traffic accidents related to alcohol are the most common among newly legal age drivers no matter their age.

Raising the drinking age has had mixed results and is still hotly debated. But when you look at the unintended consequences of the legislations, the efficacy of the legislation is more in doubt.

The legislation hasn’t stopped underage drinking. It is estimated that 17.5% of alcohol sales are to underage drinkers. What the legislation has done is to create a situation where young adults violate a law as one of their first acts when reaching maturity. The respect for the rule of law is eroded at a very young age.

Underage drinking has become something glamorous and a sign of defiance of societal norms. All of the educational efforts devoted to teaching of civic responsibility are negated when young people flout the underage drinking laws.

There are pros and cons to debate about the appropriate drinking age. But there is no doubt that there are unintended consequences of this legislation. Often these unintended consequences are not examined when societal leaders are pursuing a remedy to a problem. We tend to focus on the surface level issues without considering the subsequent consequences of the remedy.

The unintended consequences are predictable when we think of possibilities first rather than answers. Possibilities can be explorative and think beyond the surface level issues. They can also encompass all of the ramifications of different approaches to the issue.

Just imagine how different legislation would look if it were initially framed as possibilities which considered a range of consequences. Just imagine the thinking required to generate these possibilities. Would it require experts or would the insights of citizens be more useful? Just imagine how the consideration of possibilities might reduce the impact of influence peddlers on remedies.

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“There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything.”  – Steve Jobs

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