We Learn from our Mistakes

The Washington State Legislature is back in session and that means one thing: time once again for government to ignore the things they should be doing, like making sure they’re not releasing rapists and murders before their prison terms have been fully served; and butting into things they shouldn’t, like raising the legal age for smoking to 21.

I’m not a smoker -- Scotch and a good Tuscan Red are my poisons -- so I don’t have a dog in this fight other than the dog I like best; the dog named freedom. Yeah, yeah, that’s trite, but it’s true. And it is so because our society has, slowly but surely, like that proverbial frog in boiling water, given away many of our freedoms already, however small they may be. Is smoking as important as voting, criticizing government, or owning a gun? I’d hope not, although for some I’m sure it is. The most important thing is that it’s not for me to decide. Am I okay with limited restrictions on certain behaviors where those behaviors may impose restrictions on the rights of others? Sure. (And banning smoking in a private bar, where people can choose to go or not, is not one of those restrictions. It’s a violation of private property rights.) But beyond those very limited instances where the risk to others’ safety is beyond dispute, say in the case of drinking and driving, government needs to leave the citizenry alone. (And, no, I’m sorry, but if you think walking past a smoker 20 feet away is going to induce vomiting, an asthma attack, or early onset emphysema, you have a serious health issue, and your respiratory system is not it. Or, if it is, you need to be living inside an actual bubble.)

So why is government pushing to raise the legal age for smoking to 21? They think 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds don’t have enough sense to make an informed decision on whether to smoke. Okay, that makes sense on some level. I do agree that a lot 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds are pretty foolish. Heck, I sure did a lot of dumb things at that age. But here’s the thing; I’m wiser now than I was then not so much because I’ve aged but because I’ve made mistakes. It’s absolutely true that we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. And if we continue to raise the age to do this and that, relying on government to, quite literally become our parents’ nannies, then the age of wisdom will just continue to increase along with it. Lawmakers championing this bill point out that 90% of daily smokers started before turning 19. (I’ll go one further and bet that the large majority of those started before they were 16, which is partly why this proposed law is rather pointless.) So, okay, raise it to 21. You may prevent a fair amount of kids from smoking. But then you might as well raise the age to 25, or 30, or 99, as one person commented on the article. And I actually agree with this sentiment more than I agree with those just wanting to raise it to 21. If tobacco is really as dangerous as Chicken Little is saying it is, then, yes, ban it completely. But then we might as well ban a whole host of other things and all go live in those bubbles, where nothing can hurt us. To throw out another cliché, what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. So I, for one, want a little risk in my life; or at least the opportunity to legally choose which risks I’m going to take and which ones I’m not.

Of course, the other logical argument that many pose around issues of the age of legality is that anyone who can die for this country should be able to smoke, drink, and do anything else that is legal in the general sense, so set a limit and make that a limit for everything. I fully support that, but instead of making it 21 (or 30, as a few folks opined on the article) because “kids don’t know enough to make sound decisions”, let’s keep it at 18, or maybe even lower it to 16 or 14, or 12.

This is what scares me far more than cigarette smoke; the age or reason continues to march upward. We have become a nation of infants. College kids now need “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”; they fear “micro-aggressions” and “hate speech”. And way too many people are bringing “emotional support turkeys” on board airplanes. I wonder how our youth would do today if they had to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow.  No one can know because if you so much as let your child walk more than a few blocks away from your house unaccompanied you’re visited by CPS.

Now don’t get me wrong, some lessons are too painfully learned to be taught by the school of hard knocks. I don’t advocate giving an eight-year-old a shotgun, at least not unsupervised. I don’t think twelve-year-olds should be hitting up nightclubs and “cruising for chicks” (an activity, regardless of how it turns out, that is far more dangerous than smoking, by the way). But here’s what else I don’t advocate; government raising my children. I have two small boys, three and one. When they are old enough to understand basic logic I will sit them down and explain the benefits and downfalls of life’s various risks, drawing on, guess what, my own mistakes made in youth to guide them. And you might as well call CPS now, because I also plan on letting them sample a glass of Sangiovese before their 21st birthday (and maybe even a glass of Glen Livet if they’re good). Why? Mostly because I don’t want them turning 21 and buying a six-pack of Budweiser. (An uncultured palate is the real crime of underage drinking.)  

Jews mark the gateway to adulthood with the mitzvah at the age of 12 or 13. At this point the young man or woman becomes responsible for his or her actions. Back in the Revolutionary War, kids this young were even marching off to war with a drum or bugle in their hands and during World War II it was relatively common for young men to lie about their age just to have the chance to kill some Nazis. How far we’ve come. Now a kid that age who brings a GI Joe to class gets suspended. Our children are too old and our adults too young. It’s time to reclaim the mantle of responsibility. It’s time for us all to grow up. It’s time for us to take risks, for when we do, we fail; and when we fail, we learn. And only through learning do we mature. (Of course, the other argument for keeping the legal age for smoking at 18 is perhaps even more valid and was offered to me by an 18-year-old girl I knew my first year of college: “Live fast.  Die young. Leave a good looking corpse.”)

Mark Griswold is a conservative radio show host and writer and lives in the Seattle area.  His opinions can be read at ThePoliticalBistro.com and heard on Seattle’s AM 1590 The Answer.