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.