Why Is Polygamy Bad?

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The Supreme Court hearings on redefining marriage kicked off with some fairly tough questions for same-sex marriage advocates. That doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on how the Court will rule, but it’s good to see the right questions being asked.

Among those questions was the thorny issue of why the number of people involved in a marriage is important, if the sex of the participants is not. There is no reason why polygamists can’t repackage virtually every argument made in favor of gay marriage – Why should society tell us who we’re allowed to love? We just want marriage equality!

Frowning SSM advocates tend to dismiss this as a “gotcha” question. I would point out that the business of setting legal precedent often boils down to “gotcha” questions. But let’s leave legal battles and rhetorical sparring aside for a moment, and ask, with all sincerity: Why is polygamy bad?

Or, to put it another way – the way a future court will probably consider the question, if the legal pathway blazed by same-sex marriage is followed by polygamy: Why is limiting marriage to only two people good?

We seem on the verge of concluding, both in the courts and society at large, that limiting marriage to one man and one woman is not good, or at least not good enough to legally protect that definition. Arguably our society began reaching that conclusion before gay marriage picked up steam. Many heterosexuals, especially younger people, believe that preserving the traditional definition of marriage isn’t worth discriminating against same-sex couples; denying them fully equivalent marriages is a pointless insult. In the early days of the same-sex marriage march, advocates would sometimes remark that straights had allowed the institution to deteriorate so much – frequently citing the high rate of divorce – that it’s a wonder they bothered to defend it at all.

Other SSM advocates would say they fully respect the value of traditional marriage, but see no reason why allowing gay marriage would diminish those benefits. A gay couple getting married down the street has no negative impact on a man and woman joining in wedlock at the same time.

Are all of those arguments truly off-limits to polygamists? Why should a man marrying five women have any negative effect on the two men, two women, or one man and one woman getting married on the same day? How does the polygamist union make any of the other marriages less special to the participants?

Are we meant to assume that group marriage will never become a serious issue because there aren’t very many people eager to legalize it? That didn’t stop the gay community from punching far above the weight of its numbers, but let us stipulate that interest in polygamy will always be far smaller than interest in same-sex marriage. A sacred principle like “marriage equality” shouldn’t be denied to a particular group because their numbers are small, should it? Or because they don’t have much political and media clout?

We might consider sociological studies that conclude polygamy has highly deleterious effects on society. Among other things, it drains away the pool of prospective partners for young men of limited means. But is that really important if marrying young men off to young women isn’t terribly important for society? Particularly since recent generations are getting married later in life, when they bother to marry at all?

Polygamous marriages are also thought to be rough on children. That might prove to be one of the big roadblocks on the pathway to legalized group marriage. You know what else is extremely rough on children? Growing up without married parents.

Healthy decisions for a society of millions are a numbers game. Decisions should not be made based on anecdotal evidence. With all due respect for everyone who doesn’t participate in nuclear family formation, there’s no way for population to remain stable, and society to remain healthy, without a very large number of married men and women raising two or more children. A great many of those couples must be prepared to raise more than two kids, in order to preserve the population. There are many reasons this is necessary, including the painful detail that our welfare and entitlement systems require a huge population of working young people to support the government’s dependents.

The benefits of married parents raising their own children are so well-documented that they might be counted among the few absolute truths of sociology. Few sciences can claim to be so thoroughly settled. The perils of illegitimacy are so great that even hardcore statist liberals mention them nearly every time there’s trouble in the inner cities, as President Obama did when discussing the riots in Baltimore.

It’s also important to promote marriage to young people. For one thing, the longer they wait, the greater the likelihood that young women will give birth to children out of wedlock… at which point efforts to convince men to marry the mothers of their unexpected children can, sadly, prove more difficult than the young ladies might hope. Alternatively, we end up with both a horrific number of abortions, and the demographic backlog that does so much damage to our social and financial resources: not enough young workers. Also, if we acknowledge the clear statistical importance of encouraging families with more than two children, we can see those families need to get started on child-rearing fairly early in life.

This brings us back around to the question of why legalizing same-sex marriage would make it more difficult to encourage men and women to get married at youthful ages. The problem is that society has few resources beyond a special reverence for male and female marriage to deliver such encouragement.

The other obvious method would be cash subsidies from the government, particularly for families with children. We have many such programs, and there are occasionally proposals to dramatically increase family subsidies.

Of course, with legalized gay marriage, it becomes more difficult to target encouraging subsidies at male-female relationships (although given the nature of our big-bucks money-no-object deficit spending, there’s no reason to think subsidizing a comparatively small number of same-sex marriages would bankrupt efforts to get men and women together.)

Targeting subsidies at families with children doesn’t really work. When implemented poorly, such efforts end up subsidizing illegitimacy. Is it conceivable that our government would provide hefty support – through anything from tax credits to direct payments – for married couples with children that would be strictly denied to needy single parents, especially since they tend to be even more needy?

Furthermore, paying men and women off to stay together and raise their kids is rather demeaning, and it puts the cart far before the horse. There is positive social benefit to actively encouraging young men and women to marry before they have children. It’s clear that social trends have been moving in the opposite direction, driven by an arguably misguided perception that unmarried young people can easily afford comfortable lives in the modern high-tech world. (Obviously we’ve come a long way from young folks needing to couple up just to stay alive on a harsh frontier, but the difficulty of living alone with modest means has been greatly underestimated, especially when young people have trouble finding good jobs. Also, more people are living with their parents for extended periods, which isn’t getting us closer to the desirable social goal of new, stable family formation.)

Imagine of the level of coordinated social energy poured into marginalizing opponents of gay marriage could be diverted into encouraging marriage and fidelity! Obviously we all agree that social pressures are very powerful, and not inherently wrong – we just disagree on how they should be directed. It sure does seem like a great deal of compulsive energy, including government force, is needed to get everyone on board with same-sex marriage, to the point of absolutely forbidding dissent and punishing resistance.

Contemplating polygamy brings us a long way toward appreciating why the traditional definition of marriage is important. We should all hope it’s true that redefining marriage to include any two people of any sex doesn’t make it harder to encourage young men to marry young women. We’ll soon enough hear a serious argument that redefining it to include any number of people doesn’t hurt people who sincerely believe coupling is superior.


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