Why not legalize polygamy, too?

One of the common arguments against same-sex marriage is that if you legalize it, you’ll have to eventually legalize polygamy.  This SLT columnist who has been writing on polygamy for two decades asks, “Why not?”

Often when people think about polygamy, they think about polygyny:  one man marrying multiple women.  We think of the Mormon past when women had fewer political rights and less financial independence.  We think about the FLDS present: when Warren Jeffs “married” a 12-year-old girl.  I think part of the reason Jeffs was sensationalized was to maintain an unconscious link in the public mind between “polygamy” and “wrongness.”  The wrongness in Jeffs’ case is the result of the age-differentiation and patriarchy carried out through the institution of FLDS polygamy.  Polygamy on its own is not inherently wrong.  Take polyandry, for example — one woman marrying multiple men — which is historically more rare, and has tended to take the form of multiple brothers marrying one woman.  Today, we might imagine a woman marrying two unrelated bisexual men, a perfectly happy triad.  (Or a group marriage, and so on…)

Why not legalize polygamy, too?  Well, one answer is that it would render the concept of “marriage” under the state useless/unmanageable.  However, like good libertarians argue, why is the state in the marriage business anyway?  Why is the state “managing” our private lives?

It comes down to capitalism.  When Utah was almost raided due to Mormon polygamy in the late 19th century, a main logic behind the ban on polygamy was that it made American capitalism not work correctly.  If a man could produce umpteen children with multiple women, all of which would be his property, he would be at a great advantage over other men who only had one wife.  Mormons at the time were compared to “Mohammedans and Hindoos,” all of whom were considered culturally backwards and “un-American.”  If we look at past and present racism, it has often taken the form of whether a group’s kinship matches up to the 2-parent (man/woman)/2.5 children model, and if not, an assumption that there is something wrong with people if they won’t adhere to this “ideal” [Christian] model.  (This model not long ago also insisted upon no “race-mixing.”)  So, you can see here rather complex historical links among class, race, gender and nation.

Times are changed.  In today’s world, women are no longer property.  Capital and progeny have hardly the same discernible relation they did in the 19th century and legal same-sex marriage is proof of that.  But can we still not imagine legalizing polygamy?  I think conservatives are right to call same-sex marriage a slippery slope, but some slopes ought to be slipped down, even if we don’t know what’s at the bottom.

20 thoughts on “Why not legalize polygamy, too?

  1. As I’ve said before, I agree that it makes sense to legalize polygamy. Legalization could help curb abuses commonly associated with polygamy, plus the consenting adults would be allowed to go about their business.

    That said,

    It comes down to capitalism. When Utah was almost raided due to Mormon polygamy in the late 19th century, a main logic behind the ban on polygamy was that it made American capitalism not work correctly.

    I’m not convinced that was the only (or primary) reason in most cases. Part of the reason the anti-polygamy movement was linked with abolitionism was because when women were legally property, they had that much less leverage over their owner/husbands being one of many wives.

    However, like good libertarians argue, why is the state in the marriage business anyway? Why is the state “managing” our private lives?

    Why is the the state in the business of certifying things like citizenship and family relationships? Why is the government in the business of issuing passports, birth certificates, adoption certificates, and marriage certificates, and using them to regulate things like inheritance and next-of-kin rights/responsibilities, etc.? Maybe some “good libertarians” have some alternate social model in which such things are not necessary, but it’s more likely that they just haven’t really thought very hard about what they’re actually proposing.

  2. I think it’s about the manageability .(And is it a compelling State interest?)
    As a society, do we allow group marriage, where everyone is married to one another in a marriage, or do individuals marrying multiple times to other individuals. Or both.
    This affects how the State regulates inheritance and next-of-kin rights/responsibilities.
    And in divorce where there are children, who pays child support?
    I am curious how the regulations would affect a worldwide church, where instead of brothers and sisters, everyone is sealed to each other as spouses in a great link.
    While the debate on manageability and models goes on, many of the abuses could end by simply decriminalizing polygamy.

  3. Part of the reason the anti-polygamy movement was linked with abolitionism was because when women were legally property, they had that much less leverage over their owner/husbands being one of many wives

    Slavery was a main facet of capitalism in early America. That women were property was also a main facet of capitalism in early America. The comparison was not between “slavery” and “marriage” (in which both slaves and wives were property). It was between slavery and polygamy… that polygamy was beyond the “Christian” marriage, and went into the realm of “whoredom, adultery, and fornication.” I think you’ll find that many, many anti-polygamy writings did not simultaneously argue that women should not be property; rather that the women in those marriages resembled “whores,” which was unfair for them. That’s why I consider “good capitalism” to be at the center…and really, I’m prepared to argue that capitalism is behind abolitionism, too.

    Why is the the state in the business of certifying things like citizenship and family relationships? Why is the government in the business of issuing passports, birth certificates, adoption certificates, and marriage certificates, and using them to regulate things like inheritance and next-of-kin rights/responsibilities, etc.?

    Well, citizenship and family relationships are quite different. So are passports and marriage certificates. My point is that, yes, we need next-of-kin rights, but in order to uphold such things, must we say, “no group marriages”?

  4. Consenting adults should be allowed to enter into marriage-like contractual arrangements at their discretion. Where children are involved, things get a little stickier. They get a lot sticker when there is religious coercion (or near to it), for that is a formula for abuse, and almost certainly a de facto one. Therein, as Shakespeare said, is the rub. This is made abundantly clear in accounts of modern polygamy, such as Joanne Hanks’ memoir “It’s Not About the Sex My A**” (easy to find on google) and other books by modern ex-plygs.

  5. Also @1

    Legalization could help curb abuses commonly associated with polygamy

    True, just like legalizing marijuana gets rid of a pesky underground economy. But imagine if everyone who bought weed needed to tally it with the state if they wanted to receive a “discount.” I don’t think the libertarian position on marriage is terribly kooky, even if its logic ultimately leads to a critique of national borders. At least it’s more honest than John Huntsman’s pseudo-libertarian position that supporting same-sex marriage is good for “small government.”

  6. we need next-of-kin rights, but in order to uphold such things, must we say, “no group marriages”?

    No, I don’t think so. I think there would be some significant details to work out (eg. if you’re married to two people, which one is the next of kin? Will your two spouses have any legal rights/responsibilities towards each other? etc.), but it would be possible to come up with a system that makes sense.

    They get a lot sticker when there is religious coercion (or near to it), for that is a formula for abuse, and almost certainly a de facto one.

    I agree, and (if you follow my link @1), this is actually one of my reasons for legalizing it. It is easier to prevent abuse if the whole thing is above ground. If there are laws and contracts spelling out the polygamists’ rights and responsibilities to each other, they have legal recourse in the case of abuse, instead of being afraid to go to the authorities.

    And I’m planning to read Joanne Hanks’ memoir — it looks really interesting!!

  7. YES. An adult should be free to marry any and all consenting adults. It is absurd that in almost every US state, a woman can live with and have children by two men, but she can’t legally marry both, even though all three agree. What kind of sense is that? All of the paperwork issues can be resolved, and it will be EASIER to prosecute abusers and predators because victims and witnesses will be more willing to inform and cooperate with law enforcement. Equality just for some is NOT equality. I support FULL marriage equality.

  8. I don’t have much problem legalizing polygamous marriages.

    Because, unlike homosexual unions, polygamous unions are also unions likely to easily result in children – thus invoking the government interest.

    So polygamy has a range of compelling social policy interests going for it that are more or less marginal in the question of homosexual unions.

  9. Seth, two things. First, an increasing percentage of same-sex couples raise children, which is a big factor of why the government is taking interest in same-sex unions.

    Second, whether or not children can “easily” result from a union is less important at this point in history than the actual presence of children. This change of thinking is attributed to things like women’s raising financial independence, increased family-planning, etc. There’s less of a focus on what is assumed a “naturally” occurring phenomenon (i.e., women born to become mothers, and men born to inseminate them) to the actual choices people make (i.e, people choosing to be parents or not).

    Admittedly, reproduction and child-rearing will be a big issue in the Prop 8 decision, because if same-sex marriage is legalized, the Court will have to explain the government interest (which before now, was a focus on potentiality of children, and has been one of the central arguments posted by conservatives).

  10. Gays don’t have children without a lot of involved and often expensive rigamarole.

    Which makes the government interest in their unions categorically different.

  11. Seth, we’ve gone over this. >_> If my partner and I wanted a kid, we could go through a foster-to-adopt program, which costs nothing. So, in thinking about the interests of children, perhaps you might also begin thinking about those children that don’t have homes — as opposed to all those “potential” children in hetero marriages.

  12. I’m not convinced the gay adoption factor is going to make a huge dent in the national adoption scene – given the small percentage that gays make of the national population, and the even smaller percentage of gays who are actually interested in doing something as restrictive and outdated as getting married.

    But that aside – I have no opposition to gays adopting. So let’s reform the laws to let them adopt.

    But I don’t see that this has anything to do with the marriage laws.

  13. By the way – foster-to-adopt is only one adoption avenue.

    Many of them cost money – quite a lot of it.

  14. I guess I don’t really follow your initial argument. You said polygamy should be legal because its “right” stems from its potential to produce children, and the government has interest in that. With that logic, should incest be legal, too?

  15. I wasn’t saying you should legalize it. I was saying I had no objections.

    That said, I think polygamous unions would likely require just as different a legal framework to properly regulate and protect them as homosexual unions would.

    My only point was that polygamous unions and homosexual unions are in different categories.

    Incest is an irrelevant comparison because it’s really, REALLY rare. Nor is there a compelling reason to encourage it to not be rare. As such, it also doesn’t have the same level of government interest.

  16. My only point was that polygamous unions and homosexual unions are in different categories.

    Um, not exactly. If polygamy comes after legal same-sex marriage, which would be the case in America at this point, a polygamous marriage could be 3 or more people of the same gender.

    Do you still not object now that that fact has been brought to your attention?

  17. That’s a separate issue. If same sex marriage doesn’t happen, same-sex polygamy won’t either.

    They’re still completely different categories and different social issues though.

  18. To expound on Suzanne’s comment, I would be completely unmanageable from the perspective of the state, especially if we continued to use marriage status as a factor in determining custody, tax liabilities, ownership of assets and liabilities, etc.

    I order to be fair you’d have to allow men and women to both have multiple partners, rather than just the traditional man with many wives. So imagine these long complicated chains and rings of marriages you could have. A is married to B and C, but C is not to B but is to D, who is not married to A or B but not to E. Or would you force someone who wants to marry someone who is already in a marriage to marry all of that person’s other spouses as well? In the above example what happens to property in a divorce? Let’s say A divorces B. Do B’s other spouse have any claim on joint property? If one person has a child and wants out, which of the other spouses has parental rights? Can a child be adopted by all members of a plural marriage ad infinitum, or would they be limited to two parents?

  19. At a certain point it does pretty much make “marriage” per se irrelevant and pointless.

    You might as well say that people can commit to whoever they want, be intimate with whoever they want and leave whoever they want freely without a restrictive social structure overlaying the whole thing.

    Which is exactly why several gay activist figures have openly called for the abolition of marriage entirely. They were merely looking at the logical conclusion of this train of thought. You go down this road, you simply have to accept that the arguments in favor of even having marriage at all become weaker and weaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *