Marriage, drinking or military service. Who counts as an adult?

Mark Oppenheimer, writing at Los Angeles times, revisits a favorite subject of mine this week when he once again tackles the thorny issue of minimum age requirements for various facets of American life. Mark lives in Connecticut, where they are currently considering moving the minimum age for marriage up to 18 with virtually no exceptions allowed. As he notes, this would be one of several states taking such an action but we still have a far from homogeneous set of rules across the country. And it’s not just marriage of course. The age at which you can get a drivers license is also quite variable. Over the years we have experimented with different age limits for everything from serving in the military to drinking alcohol.

Oppenheimer rightly asks the question of why we can expect someone to put on a uniform and go die for their country but not head out to a bar and relax with a cold beer at the end of the day if they manage to survive the battle. I agree that the marriage question is probably one of the most thorny ones, particularly when we have children getting married at an alarming rate. (The author notes that there were 14 children at the age of 14 who were married between 2000 and 2014 in Connecticut.I’ve written about this here before.) So what to do about it? Oppenheimer has an idea.

But the fact that any age of maturity we choose will necessarily seem arbitrary shouldn’t blind us to the common-sense wisdom of having a uniform one. Eighteen — when most people are done with high school — seems as good an age as any.

If we raise the marriage age to 18, and lower the drinking age to 18 — where it used to be in most states — then we’d have one meaningful age of majority for marriage, voting, drinking and military service.

Not to mention signing contracts. “We don’t allow children to enter into significant binding contracts before 18,” said Derek Slap, a Democratic legislator from West Hartford who said he’ll probably vote for the Connecticut marriage bill.

But what, I asked, about a couple of 17-year-olds who are truly in love? “Maybe once in a while Romeo and Juliet would have to cool their jets for a year,” Slap said. “But I am OK with that.”

It’s clear that Mark is talking about is a national age of consent for essentially everything. We could draw a line in the sand at 18 years of age and declare in one voice, “you are now hereby an adult with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that go with that.” This could apply to everything discussed above, including military service, marriage, alcohol consumption and driving. It’s a tempting thought, isn’t it? We could just be done with it once and for all. Sure, some might quibble over whether it should’ve been 17 or 21, but at least we’d have some uniformity.

Therein lies the problem. Uniformity. Is uniformity truly the goal? As much as I might like to think so I’m forced to remind myself that we live in the United States and the founders did not set up this whole show with the idea of uniformity in mind. The nation is comprised of a significant number of states of different sizes and ideological makeup. The founding fathers knew that they weren’t always going to agree, but the people of each state were to be allowed to make their own choices for better or worse and not have every last aspect of their lives dictated to them by the federal government. In fact, they set out a rather strict set of rules (though we bend them far too often) regarding precisely which parts of our lives Washington could control. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that a handful of people inside the Beltway should hold sway over questions regarding drinking beer, getting hitched or your preferred mode of transportation.

So as tempting as it might be, I have to reject the idea of a national age of adulthood. If you don’t like where the age is set in the state where you live you can either work to convince your fellow citizens to change it or you can move to a state with more like-minded people if it’s that important to you. But with all that said… yes. I would love to see the age of consent for marriage going up and the drinking age going down. And 17 or 18 sounds about right to me. But the rest of you will have to decide for yourselves in the states where you live.