A bar exam to become an adult

There are many laws that prohibit minors from engaging in certain behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, marrying, etc.

Most of the arguments I’ve heard on these issues rely on the notion that the lawmakers have a better idea of what is good for a child than the child itself. I reckon the lawmakers think this because children, as a general rule, are less educated than adults about the behaviors in question. The average minor may not know the effects of smoking as well as the average adult, and therefore be in a bad position to determine if smoking is a good idea.

The problem I see with this is that age is only a very rough approximation of intelligence. In the case of smoking, it could very well be the case that owing to the barrage of anti-smoking information children are given they may have more knowledge of its harmful effects than most adults who never received that education or have long since forgotten it.

A solution I’d like to see implemented is to offer minors a test whereby they could prove they had ample knowledge of smoking, or alcohol (or whatever else is prohibited) to be able to engage in those behaviors prior to their 18th birthday (or 21st).

Take whatever information adults are assumed to possess about these subjects and then create a multiple choice exam to see if there are minors who possess this information as well. If so, those minors would be given the same freedom as adults.

A possible counterargument might be that some of those prohibitions have to do with physical aspects of the minor and not their capacity to make good decisions. Commenting on the effect alcohol has on adolescents, Dr. Linda Patia Spear remarked, “Rapidly changing body systems often are particularly vulnerable to disruption, and hence long-term consequences may result from alcohol exposure during this time of accelerated neural and endocrine system maturation.”

While convincing, I’m left wondering if the government should not also make laws that limit the alcohol-intake of adult alcoholics who are in danger of liver failure and other alcohol induced problems. I don’t see why the government should take pains to prevent minors from drinking even an ounce but turn a blind eye to adults who drink themselves to death.

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9 Responses to “A bar exam to become an adult”

  1. ATurner Says:

    It’s rather dangerous to assume we can make tests accurate enough to gauge the decision making capabilities on questions as big as these. Smoking is always extremely costly, and will oftentimes cause serious illnesses or kill you; thus, if a young person is taking a test presumably so he or she can smoke, what he/she is actually doing is deciding whether to end their life in a shorter time period. That’s quite a question to answer, and perhaps no one can answer, since it depends on the individual situations of the person(s) in question (present and probable future), among other factors. No matter how intelligent you are, it’s impossible to say what the future will hold–there are no guarantees. You could decide that the future will always be bad, no matter what situation arises, but this sort of intelligence is quite impossible to gauge, as it would require very complex and detailed thinking. Presumably more people are capable of making these decision when they are older, even though this is an inexact measurement. Therefore, although I’m sure there are 15 years old people that understand this and the consequences of smoking better than some 60 or 70 year olds, we won’t be ever able to gauge it (and we assume that on average older people do know better), so for convenience’s sake, it makes sense to outlaw smoking until 21 or so.

    Perhaps if you’d want to administer a test at 18 years of age for smoking, and have the people taking the tests bare the entire costs of the test + extra to pay for government medical care and rehabilitation programs, that would be fine for me. I’d be against 10 or 11 year olds being allowed to smoke…no matter their test scores (as I don’t believe we can design tests that work).

    Drinking, however, is a different matter, since the potential downsides of disease or death are far lower if one drinks in moderation. I’d be open to allow drinking for everyone at all ages…if it’s ok with their parents until 16 or so. Parents should have power in these things until a certain age.

    Marriage? The question here is also deep. You have to just make an educated guess on the average time one can make these sort of decisions (as very few people understand the full picture, but presumably people do understand better as they get older). The problem comes when having children. I don’t think anyone fully understands the moral implications of putting another person in this world (for that person especially, but also for society in general). Because the moral implications are very big and complex. Tests would not work (flawed laws that set certain age limits would work better and are just plain downright more convenient).

    These laws are definitely flawed, but it doesn’t mean we should change all of them. They are perhaps the best we can do, considering that some people will never be capable of of fully understanding the factors going into these decisions, but we can not force those people to restrain from poor decision making indefinitely (or good, depending on the perspective). The age limit set for smoking is a reasonable guesstimate based on:

    1. Life experiences and education.
    2. What time should people be allowed to make these decisions, even if some may be well under-qualified or well over-qualified to make them.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Therefore, although I’m sure there are 15 years old people that understand this and the consequences of smoking better than some 60 or 70 year olds, we won’t be ever able to gauge it (and we assume that on average older people do know better), so for convenience’s sake, it makes sense to outlaw smoking until 21 or so.

    When we’re debating paternalistic laws, it’s important to remember the implicit assumptions of the people voting on the laws (whether by voters directly or through elected representatives). The reason I bring that up is because when we talk of banning a 15 year old from smoking, not only are we assuming that we know better than a particularly irresponsible teenager what is good for them, but rather we assume we know what is good for all of them. After all, it is not simply the irresponsible 15 year olds whose freedom is curtailed.

    If it is the case that the only reason such laws exist is to protect the uneducated teenager – and a teenager comes along and proves they are educated – do we not cease to have a reason for restricting their freedom?

    Perhaps if you’d want to administer a test at 18 years of age for smoking, and have the people taking the tests bear the entire costs of the test + extra to pay for government medical care and rehabilitation programs, that would be fine for me.

    I don’t want to get too far off track, but wouldn’t it make more sense for the anti-smoking politicians to pay teenagers not to smoke if that’s what they want? It just seems strange that the teenagers are being asked to pay for their freedom while the people wanting to restrict it are assumed to have the right to restrict it at will.

    I wouldn’t be against a health insurance company charging a smoker more because they smoke, in fact I think that’s what many do currently (See this MSNBC story). But why would that not apply equally to smokers young and old alike?

  3. ATurner Says:

    I argued there is no way to test whether someone has the sufficient “education or smarts” to make that decision, and we can only use rough estimations because the issues and factors involved are more complex than they seem initially.

    It isn’t only the 15 year old smoker that bears the cost of his smoking. There are also future medical bills and health coverage paid by the government, damage by second hand smoke, rehabilitation, and other problems that the government could be paying for or the child’s parents… (Why should either the parents or the government pay for those things?) Furthermore, the pain if that person got lung cancer and/or died would be shared not only by that person, but also his or her family and close relations. Cigarettes are very addictive too of course, so it’s very hard to stop once you’ve started. Although these reasons may not be sufficient to put a ban on it for a person’s whole life, I think it is reasonable to at least 21, when that person is at least self sufficient financially and educated.

    Pay teenagers not to smoke? The reasons for that not functioning are obvious. Many non-smokers would end up being paid not to smoke (I’d love to be paid not to smoke).

    Freedoms and rights are socially and artificially created. We just try to do what’s best for society and the individual. These are obviously not perfect laws, but I think the imperfections are due to imperfections in our ability to measure decision making among many other things that allude us.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    I argued there is no way to test whether someone has the sufficient “education or smarts” to make that decision, and we can only use rough estimations because the issues and factors involved are more complex than they seem initially.

    I really don’t think it would be that hard to design such a test. The people asking for the prohibition are claiming, I believe, that teenagers lack certain knowledge of tobacco products to decide for themselves whether to use them. Evidently, adults have this knowledge (if they didn’t it would make sense to ban tobacco for everyone).

    All I’m asking is for the politicians who want to ban tobacco for minors to enumerate what knowledge they think minors lack. This could be the risk of getting lung cancer or emphysema or whatever (provided they give evidence that adults are knowledgeable about these things). Once a teenager proves that they have the knowledge they are assumed to lack, they would be treated on a par with adults.

    There are also future medical bills and health coverage paid by the government, damage by second hand smoke, rehabilitation, and other problems that the government could be paying for or the child’s parents… (Why should either the parents or the government pay for those things?)

    I don’t think the government should, and if I were the parent of a smoker I would strongly encourage them to stop.

    You raise a good point about the problem of allowing people to do risky things (like smoke) that other people have to pay for (out of their premiums). This is, on the one hand, a good argument for severely restricting risky behavior. But it also shows the problem of having the government cover the costs of risky behavior. A private health provider that was allowed to discriminate would either not cover smokers or make them pay higher premiums, like I said before.

    Pay teenagers not to smoke? The reasons for that not functioning are obvious. Many non-smokers would end up being paid not to smoke (I’d love to be paid not to smoke).

    The reason I brought this up was that it is a way to solve the problem of smoking among teenagers without forcing anyone to do anything, which I think should be an important consideration. In practice, you’re right that it probably wouldn’t work very well, mostly because it would be too difficult to police. But as long as the anti-smokers were using their own money to ensure kids don’t smoke, I’d say that solution is better than what we have now.

    P.S. I think the legal age to buy tobacco products is 18, at least in Iowa. Is it 21 in Pennsylvania? You’re probably thinking of alcohol, which is 21 in every state. Or are you saying that you wish the legal age for tobacco was 21 as well?

    P.S. #2. I wrote early that, “when we talk of banning a 15 year old from smoking, not only are we assuming that we know better than a particularly irresponsible teenager what is good for them, but rather we assume we know what is good for all of them.”

    This is not technically true (for reasons I won’t go into here but will if asked). What I meant was that lawmakers underestimate the variability of intelligence amongst teenagers and do not recognize that while it may improve the life of a select few very dim teenagers who would otherwise smoke (but are prevented from doing so by the law), the law negatively affects smart teenagers who understand the risks of smoking as well as adults but are denied the freedom to do so.

  5. Adam Says:

    I argue that smoking should not be allowed to anyone anywhere for any reason. 😀

    By the way, Andy come to my blog sometime and leave some comments. I am lacking them.

  6. Andy Hallman Says:

    Adam, I see you believe smoking should be illegal for everyone. Do you think minors should receive special penalties or be treated any differently from adults? I’m just curious to know your thoughts vis à vis age discrimination in this matter.

    I’ll make some comments on your blog if it will make you happy. 🙂

  7. Adam Says:

    Andy I’m still missing those promised comments… I think the penalty for smoking should be harsher on older people, and like I stated before totally and completely illegal.

  8. Jerry Says:

    Adam believes in Prohibition. I think we tried that once. Oh wait! We’re still trying it with marijuana. It’s working today about as well as it worked in the 1920s.

  9. Andy Hallman Says:

    Adam believes in Prohibition. I think we tried that once. Oh wait! We’re still trying it with marijuana. It’s working today about as well as it worked in the 1920s.

    I read the Justice Department issued a memo to its attorneys in October to stop prosecuting individuals who use medicinal marijuana provided the users are in compliance with state law. That’s not exactly an end to prohibition but it’s a step in the right direction.

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