To each his own

By-Kushagra Aniket.

There is at least one undergrad, say ‘Joe’, under the age of 21 at Cornell who consumes alcoholic beverages willingly.” No, I am not accusing you but we must agree upon this basic premise to proceed further. I am not initially concerned with the questions of, “how many?” or “how much?” when it comes to underage drinking as this statement of fact is more important than the quantity or frequency of alcohol consumption. However mark two claims of my premise carefully: (1) That drinking is voluntary and (2) That the person is strictly less than 21 years of age. Thus, we assume that Joe virtually enjoys free will while choosing to drink and does not consume alcohol under mistake, undue influence, coercion or otherwise. Joe knows what he is drinking and drinks it willingly. Also, Joe’s age is well determined and generally known for all practical purposes.

Second premise. There is a law that states that any person under the age of 25 is prohibited from consuming alcohol in New York without consent from a legal guardian. Again, I am not worried whether the law is right or wrong. To argue whether the law is just or not will only lead us to endless debates and no objective conclusions. Thus, rather than posing a normative problem that can never be solved satisfactorily, my objective shall be to analyze the implications of the drinking law and determine its feasibility.

Third premise. Joe as a person of reasonable intelligence is aware of the drinking law and understands that he is acting against its provisions. And finally, there is a police officer Barry who knows that our first three premises are true and whose duty, then, is to stop Joe from drinking.

Why does Joe break the law in the first place? Let us start with only the first premise. Let X={x1, x2, x3,……….., xn} be the set of all actions that Joe can possibly engage in. It is evident that Joe cannot choose any possible option (xi) arbitrarily. So how should Joe compare the available alternatives and make a choice? It is frequently assumed in economic theory that a rational agent makes choices with the primary intention of maximizing payoffs. However, one of the central limitations of traditional economic analysis lies in its attempt to quantify returns in strictly measurable terms such as utility or profits. But people are also guided in their decisions by other considerations such as social expectations or ethical perspectives that can regulate the payoffs derived from individual choices. Combining both these arguments, we can assume that Joe acts to maximize his satisfaction, subject to some constraints, both economic and social. In the absence of the drinking law, Joe drinks because that the total benefit derived from drinking outweighs its total cost.

Now suppose that the second and the third premises also come into force. How will the law alter Joe’s behavior? The imposition of a law influences individual behavior by limiting the choice set of the actions and opportunities available to people. The new law will impact Joe’s set of action (X) by subtracting certain elements from it. By prescribing a punishment for its violation, the law changes the incentives A gets from drinking, thereby seeking to impact his choices and the final outcome that comes to prevail.

If Joe continues to drink under the new law, it does not mean that the law had no affect on his actions. On the contrary, it implies that the law did not have sufficient effect to alter the final outcome i.e. to stop Joe from drinking even though it changed the way Joe reached this. Somehow, Joe’s altered payoffs derived from drinking still remain greater than the costs. Perhaps, the probability of being discovered by Barry remains very small. For some, the small probability itself provides an incentive to commit the action by adding a psychological thrill derived breaking the law and getting away. Or assume that Joe, as an audacious subversive, performs only two actions for recreation: knocking down pedestrians by his car and drinking. For the first, he can be imprisoned while for the second he can merely be fined. Likewise, Joe might decide to obey the law only if he expects others to obey it and if he sees others violating the law, he has no disincentive not to do so. No matter what the actual reasons are, from Joe’s perspective, drinking remains the optimal option even under the new law.

Now, officer Barry, again as a rational agent, will catch Joe only if Barry expects her superiors to catch her for not catching Joe. Barry’s superiors would, in turn, be punished by their superiors for not reprimanding Barry if he doesn’t catch Joe and so on. However, in real life, the sequence cannot continue add infinitum and must end somewhere. If the loop ends with the agent A, it implies that A punishes the person immediately subordinate to him for dereliction of duty either out of his sense of ethics or self-interest.

This is best illustrated by a tale my grandmother once told me. A bird flying with a grain of rice in her beak accidently dropped it on the ground and to her dismay, found it trapped in the crack of a carpenter’s exquisite woodwork. Helplessly, she repeatedly appealed to the carpenter to break open the crack but the ‘selfish’ carpenter refused to destroy his creation for a mere grain of rice. So, she went to the king to have him punish the carpenter but he too snubbed her appeal. Then, one after the other, the relentless bird approached the queen (to threaten the king), snake (to bite the queen), stick (to hit the snake), fire (to burn down the stick), water (to extinguish the fire), elephant (to glug down the water), trap (to ensnare the elephant), mouse (to gnaw through the mesh) and finally to the cat (to devour the mouse). While each and every creature disregarded the bird’s plea, the cat readily accepted it because the bird directly appealed to its self-interest. As the cat approached the mouse with the apparent intention to eat it, the mouse, sensing the imminent calamity, ran towards the mesh, which in turn escaped towards the elephant and so on. In the end, the carpenter, fearing that the king would thrash him with his sepulture, immediately slit open the crack and the bird retrieved her food. (Do not try this at home)

Applying the moral of this story to our example, Barry will catch Joe for underage drinking; if not, the magistrate will rebuke Barry for not catching Joe; if not, the governor will suspend the magistrate for not punishing Barry and if not, Joe (and many others) will outvote the governor for not maintaining law and order. From this relatively simple example, we can infer that laws can fail if they are unsuccessful in completing this circuit.

But here we have a paradox. Joe drinks because it is in his self-interest to do so and simultaneously outvotes the governor for allowing him to do so. The paradox arises due to a conflict between Joe personal satisfaction derived from drinking and his (and other’s) welfare resulting from the operation of the law. If Joe does not drink, everyone except him, including the police officer, magistrate and governor will be happy. But if he does drink, although Joe will surely be happy as he maximizes his payoffs at this optimal point, the other three players will be safe only if they perform their obligations by punishing Joe.

In this respect, a law can be called valid if it is compatible with at least one agent’s interest. Laws that are regarded as unjust or oppressive do not lose their validity till the point they satisfy somebody’s interest. Historically, many laws that were perceived to be barbaric or inhuman remained perfectly functional till the time they were repealed. But for a law to be effective, it must be consistent with every player’s interest in complying with it. Had the carpenter seen some good in incising the crack in the first place, the bird would not have worried about completing the loop, saving her time and effort. Clearly, by our definition, the underage-drinking law is ineffective but not invalid.

So, why should we worry about making a valid law more effective? Laws derive their efficacy not only from deterrence but also from their reputation. If a government is reputed for making laws that are not obeyed, any new law passed by it may not be followed. So if the drinking law is blatantly violated, other laws on more important issues are likely to suffer the same fate. The reputation for being powerful makes you even more powerful. A law that is valid but poorly enforced is much more dangerous than an invalid law that is well implemented.

Therefore, one should either repeal the law or try to make it more effective. To make the law more effective, we must find ways to alter Joe’s payoffs in a manner that makes him choose not to drink. We can politely ask Joe to stop drinking or try to convince him of the justness of the law, the dangers of alcoholism and the benefits of teetotalism. But alcohol education and all other efforts towards enforcing the law by the University have had inadequate success simply because our first premise is true. Some other theoretically valid but extremely impractical prescriptions can be to arrest Joe and destroy all knowledge about the techniques of manufacturing alcohol. Since these recommendations our not feasible, we must try something novel but more viable.

One such prescription I propose is to provide all students under the age of 21 with the option of accepting a token monthly sum as a “non-alcoholic recreation allowance”. Most people will readily accept this and those who don’t can be secretly marked as suspects for future reference. The allowance shall of course be given on the condition that those who accept it will sign a contract promising to refrain from consuming alcohol. The names of the signatories shall be made public. For sure, the authorities have limited ways of ensuring that the students honor the contract and will invariably lose some money in the process. But the amount lost would be smaller compared to the expenses incurred in catching all underage drinkers on campus and then instituting legal proceedings against them.

The token sum will have a threefold impact. Those who do not drink (and the University claims this to be a large section) shall be encouraged to continue obeying the law. Some of those who drink very rarely will be under an obligation to curb their transgressions, as there is a body of evidence to show that people are more likely to respect an explicit contract rather than an impersonal law. If the heaviest drinkers accept the token, they are likely to become the targets of social mockery. If rationality in social contexts lies in maximizing individual benefit subject to social constraints, public censure can motivate the heaviest drinkers to moderate their drinking habits.

However, the large body of ‘moderate drinkers’ (by official figures 3 out of 5 persons) remains the most unpredictable. But if a moderate drinker is caught in the act, he can be charged for the violation of the New York State Law, Campus Code of Conduct as well as the contract the student entered into. Apart from legal prosecution, the token amount can then be recovered along with un-liquidated damages. Unlike the case of crimes where the only respite comes from the course of law, enforcing a simple contract is swift and easy. In case of a breach of the contract, the parties can simply opt for arbitration and settle the matters out of court. Moreover, if the authorities manage to catch even one underage drinker every month, they can recover almost all of their losses and create a sound precedence.

We must realize that the efficacy of a law depends on its ability to appeal to our immediate sense of rational interest and laws that fail to do that remain ineffective. The problem of underage drinking requires us to indulge in innovative and bold policy-making but on condition that our prescription must be compatible with the interests of all stakeholders.

Kushagra Aniket is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at This article appeared in The Cornell Review on November 18, 2011 (p. 4).


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