Is Polygamy the Next Gay Marriage? Is That Bad?

Posted: August 28, 2011 in Political and Social Issues, Thoughts
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Well, the social conservatives have long argued that legalizing same sex marriage was a slippery slope which would end with the legalization of, among other things, polygamy, and it looks like their predictions are coming to pass. (Story here).

Gay rights advocates are understandably worried by this, but for them to criticize the professor’s attempts to legalize polygamy on the same grounds used to legalize same sex marriage in California is to ignore the bigger picture, which is civil rights and the freedom for an individual to conduct his/her private life as s/he sees fit. LGBT is just the contemporary form of that movement. At one point it was about racial equality, today it is about equality across sexual orientations, tomorrow it will be equality for polygamists, and as a social libertarian I am absolutely fine with that. If one is truly devoted to the cause of liberty, one must fight for it consistently, across the board. I cannot imagine being in a polygamous relationship, I don’t think I could be a part of a successful such relationship, yet I can no more do so for a homosexual relationship. (Hell, after my last serious relationship I shudder to consider joining another human even in heterosexual matrimony). Does my inability to romantically love another male give me the right to prevent other males from making the plunge? If any number of consenting adults wish to be joined in civil union, who am I to deny them those basic civil protections?

Now, I should make it clear that, while I will often use the term ‘marriage’, I am talking about civil union in the eyes of the State, not the religious ceremony of marriage in the eyes of the Divine. Separation of Church and State means that the State can no more decide Church policy than Church can set State policy. If a religious body believes a marriage to be invalid in the eyes of their god(s), then that religious body has every right to withhold its sacraments. If the affected parties are unhappy with that, I suggest they convert to a more compatible faith, or take the initiative to petition their creator’s blessings without an intermediary. If, however, the State is to intervene in the personal affairs of the citizen, and deprive that citizen of a human right, then it must first demonstrate conclusively that damage which society would sustain through the exercise of that right. Looking at polygamy from a historical perspective suggests that it would actually be beneficial to society, and not damaging at all. Polygamy has been practiced in many thriving civilizations. Social conservatives should be pleased to note that even Confucianism with its strict emphasis on family as the basic unit of society allowed for it, and in the times of Mohammed it was a mechanism by which economically established males could provide for widows and their children by incorporating them into the wealthier family. (Of course, in our modern and progressive society polygamy cannot be defined simply as one husband with multiple wives, but rather more generally as a union of three or more parties).

Now, I can see this issue being skewed as a feminist one. And while it is important that polygamy be defined as a union of three or more parties rather than as one husband with multiple wives, as I stated before, I’ll admit that I imagine polygamy will tend towards the latter. I imagine that most of those interested in pursuing polygamy will be those involved in faiths which push such a traditional model, and I agree that women seem to get the short end of the stick in this situation. Having said that, those females who choose to be the many to the one have the freedom and the right to do so, regardless of how others feel, just as females have the right to be subservient to their husbands if they feel that is how they should live, or be housewives if that is their wish, or wear stilettos and bras and comply with any of the myriad awful demands society has of them. I have a female, mormon friend who believes her church is right to prevent females from entering the clergy. As a feminist myself I believe this is wrong, but more importantly I believe that it’s none of my business. I’m not a mormon, so I am unaffected entirely. I have the right to disagree with them, and even to be vocal about that disagreement, but I do not have the right to interfere with their affairs so long as they do not break the laws of the land. As a feminist I am perplexed by females who willingly subjugate themselves, but I do not have the right to make them live as I see fit. So long as those women have the freedom to choose in the first place, my fight is won. The belief in gender equality is a good one, but if the fight for that interferes with the fight for civil rights than the forest is being missed for the trees.

Polygamy may seem backwards and oppressive to some, and it is linked for many to times of antiquity when women were second class citizens. I myself am baffled by it. However, those who claim to be champions of freedom must realize that true freedom means a certain amount of discomfort. It means not only the freedom for you to live how you will, but also freedom for others to do the same. Will this lead to discussion of allowing incestuous marriages? Bestiality? Likely so, and a defender of personal liberty will continue to fight when those debates come up. For the present it will suffice to say that if three wives are happy sharing the same husband, (or three husbands happy with their one wife, or for that matter any gender distribution of any number of people of any sexual orientation), then I am happy for them and stand by their right to share each other even as I shake my head in wonder.

  1. The Dude in Scrubs says:

    I always wonder what business it is of the state to recognize relationships at all. Should we register our friendships, acquaintances, those-we-don’t-know-but-friend-on-facebook? I think the original argument in America was that there is a compelling interest for the State to encourage homoracial heterosexual unions because they produced more units of consumption/production (necessary to perpetuate our Ponzi-scheme economy predicated on rabid, unsustainable economic activity). Unfortunately, plenty of people are content pumping out consumption units without the approval of church or state… and an uncomfortably large proportion of these units consume much more than they will ever legitimately produce… largely invalidating the original argument. I’m comfortable extending the rights associated with marriage to any CONSENTING ADULTS in whatever arrangement they choose, but I don’t see any grounds for creating a tax incentive for anyone who is married (it’s not worth the cost).
    As far as the argument about women getting the short end of the stick in polyamorous arrangements, my wife would be much better off as Bill Gates’ 50th than my first (especially if he didn’t prenup!) The whole idea is consent without coercion so that anyone entering into a relationship can be confident that consequences (good or bad) are entirely their responsibility. These debates tend to generate many “arguments from extreme examples” (think of the women forced into polygamy against their will). The problem would be the forcing, not the nature of the arrangement. What about the women (and men) who WANT to live in polygamy? Aren’t we “forcing them out of polygamy” against their will?

  2. Trevor Smith says:

    Yeah, I don’t know anything about tax law. I’m… not quite productive enough to do much worrying about that sort of thing. Are there tax breaks for the married? Tanner’s actually studying tax code this semester, I can ask him about it, too.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the thought on coercion, the problem with forced polygamy is the lack of freedom to choose one’s own marital situation, the lack of self-determination. To outlaw that arrangement doesn’t deal with that underlying problem, and creates a separate problem whereby people perfectly happy to be a part of that arrangement are barred from doing so by a government which should have no say in the matter. We all get one life to live, do we really want to be told how we may go about living it, even when our choices do not violate the rights of others? THAT’S unnatural…

  3. Tanner M says:

    Trevor. How fine to be reading your excellent work, and hope all is well. Apologies, once again, for my delay in forming this response; I know it’s been a long time coming.

    Let me start by quoting you, in an effort to press you on the direction of your piece, if not your underlying attitude, which, I believe, is exemplary. It’ll take awhile, so bear with me. At the beginning, you wrote, “If one is truly devoted to the cause of liberty, one must fight for it consistently, across the board.”

    Yes, indeed. But—and excuse me for perhaps evading the point a little—let me ask you this: what is, in fact, this ‘liberty’ you speak of? Does it have a positive definition? Is it a state of being in fullness with dimension and vibrancy—in other words, an ideal? Or is it defined simply by absences—namely, in the manner of dear Ron Paul’s campaign slogans, the absence of government or judicial interference?

    This question nicely distills my basic problem with libertarian thought. It is the place where your thinking and mine seem to part ways, at least on the surface.

    I believe that liberty, if it is good, true, and real, is not the absence of anything. You are, of course, absolutely correct when you say that government far too frequently impinges, often tramples, other times quashes outright, our liberty. It did so, I believe (and as you wrote, quite powerfully), when it established a precedent of assassination as it did weeks ago against an American citizen. It does so when it spies on citizens using extra-legal means; it does so when it arrests and imprisons them for marijuana possession; it does so, perhaps most insidiously, when it sends them to war without congressional approval (or when it sends them to war, period); it does so when it executes them for their crimes.

    These things are to be fought against, “across the board,” as you say, precisely because they take away something good and true—in a net analysis, they restrict our human, and American, rights. And in this sense, it may be very reasonable to understand a state’s prohibition of polygamy as being a direct taking away of a right to something that, as you eloquently concede, is perhaps unconscionable to most but which we should nevertheless have the humility to refuse to condemn out-of-hand.

    But I contend that not all things that the government takes away are, objectively, a net loss of liberty (this is my problem with your “across-the-board” statement). And it is too simplistic, I think, to say that liberty is to be measured by the allowance of any private activity that can conceivably be done without causing harm to others.

    Consider that classic example of law and order: the stop light. Surely, if nothing else, the installation of stop lights on our street corners is an affront to our liberty, for once they go up we are no longer free to drive through the intersection when the light is red—after all, a ticket awaits us if we do, and what is more coercive than that? Of course such affronts are not on par with the denial of the right to marry, but nevertheless that is a matter of degree, not principle.

    And what is the imposition of income or sales tax obligations if not a pilfering by the government? But is taxation—and again, I’m speaking of the principle of the thing, not its degree—a fundamental imposition on our liberty? Is the money that we pay in taxes that actually goes toward tangible benefits—Medicare, infrastructure, etc.—an infringement on our liberty, too, or is it just the stuff government does that we don’t like that rises to that level?

    I write all this not necessarily to disagree with you on the polygamy issue; my hopes are merely to reframe the argument. We must—we simply must—concede that the government and the courts are, by their very natures, in the business of taking our liberties away, if liberties are to be as broadly defined as your piece reflects (at least under my reading; please debate me on this).

    My second point is closely related to the first, and it springs from this line of yours: “I have a female, mormon friend who believes her church is right to prevent females from entering the clergy. As a feminist myself I believe this is wrong, but more importantly I believe that it’s none of my business. I’m not a mormon, so I am unaffected entirely.”

    I do not believe that you are unaffected entirely by this. In fact, I believe the entire endeavor of government is built on the assumption that we all in fact are affected by each and everyone else.

    Now, having read over that last line, it smacks, if I’m being honest, of that same old hippie bullshit—we’re all in this together, man. Now, I passionately believe that we are all NOT in this together, man, in the way that line suggests. But I nevertheless think that as a society, and, more importantly, as a people who live under a shared system of laws, there is, as Rousseau put it, a social contract. And this brings me back to point #1: Why do we all stop at the red light? Because, to bring up that ol’ word again, we are in fact more free, our liberty is enhanced, by our shared ability to drive around town knowing that people will not careen into us when we’ve got the green. In other words, I believe that the stop light increases our liberty by making it safer and easier to get from A to B. Even though we sometimes are coerced into stopping when it’s red!

    No one truly knows how much I have affected you over the years, or how much you have affected, say, an average guy from Atlanta. That’s not my point. The point is simply to say that by our very existence, we are all acting, in one way or another, in concert. And the job of government—by the people, and (well, in some cases) for the people—is to minimize the harm we do to others as individuals, yes, but also to restrain ourselves (for we are dangerous creatures, all) under the banner of our own shared expressions, flawed though they may be.

    We can’t do better, in the way of a conclusion, than this eloquent summation: “True freedom means a certain amount of discomfort. It means not only the freedom for you to live how you will, but also freedom for others to do the same.” You wrote this, and I think it’s beautiful. But note the two types of freedom you articulate here. These are two extraordinarily distinct and conflicting types of freedom. And the point, my point, is that they must both be protected, as much as possible—that, again, is the government’s job. Surely we err often in drawing the line, in our effort to balance these frequently opposed aims. But where polygamy, at least, is concerned, the key is to balance the individual freedom to love with a respect for the freedom of others to choose whom to love. In this way, I think—and as we’ve seen in a host of news stories recently, most notably those concerning the notorious Warren Jeffs—the institution of polygamy can often serve as a mighty oppressor to the latter, even if it facilitates the former.

    Whether the balance tips one way or the other…well, who really knows? In that way I can’t really argue with you, because I’d be out of my depth. State legislatures have decided the matter, but whether they’re right or not is, of course, no sure thing. But I think the broader argument distills the dilemma: Jeffs must have had all the “freedom” in the world; can we say with certainty, however, that his wives were equally free? Whose liberty, in the end, do we care enough about to protect?

    This is the paradoxical “discomfort” of knowing that in some situations we will have to sacrifice our liberty. For that is the sacrifice we all have already made.

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