Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Deconstructing Polygamy

Before I begin, I will state categorically that I am NOT a supporter of polygamy. I am not going to discuss the pro's and con's of polygamy itself. If you'd like to see that discussion, read Vox Day's blog for that. You can find that discussion which started with his article here and continued on his blog here, here, here, here, and here. Yes, he does prattle on a bit but it's highly entertaining.

I want to take apart an article by Jonathan Rauch of Reason Magazine. He published an article entitled, One Man, Many Wives, Big Problems. There are many problems with the reasoning in his article but they all stem from one specific point.

Rauch says:
Because a marriage license is a state grant, polygamy is a matter of public policy, not just of personal preference.
What Rauch doesn't do, is challenge the authority of the state to regulate and define marriage. Why should the state be given any control over the relationship between two people and how they define it? As it is, competent adults can already legally enter in to contracts of all sorts without government licensure and marriage is, from a legal perspective, nothing more than a contract with a nebulous set of regulations attached to it. A standard legal contract tends to be more specific and less subject to arbitrary rulings.

Democrats and Republicans both have a tendency to only question the state when it inconveniences them but rarely take the opportunity to look at the big picture when it comes to 'accepted' government policy. Currently we simply accept that a marriage is not legitimate until it is blessed by the state. We need to challenge that notion (and many others).

I don't want to venture too far in to the 'gay marriage' debate but logic follows that if you allow two people of the same sex to get married, then any number of people should be allowed to marry any other number of people as long as all parties consent to the arrangement. If the state took no interest at all, then we have no problem, people simply enter in to contracts and take any disputes to court or, preferably, private mediation.

Since the state insists on having a say in the marriage issue, gay marriage and polygamous marriage becomes an issue of the state. But the issue will get muddled. Picture this:

John marries Betty and Lucy. Their marriage is blessed by the state and they have a marriage contract that carries all of the common rights and privileges that we are all familiar with. If John is married to Betty and Lucy, doesn't that technically mean that Betty and Lucy are also married to each other since all of their affairs are encumbered by law? In a community property state, two people that are married share all property. If all property is now shared between three people then Betty and Lucy must also be married to each other. Confused? Good. So is the state. After a couple of years of this arrangement, John grows bored with Betty and decides he only wants to be married to Lucy. John files for divorce against Lucy. Hold on though. Betty, who is also legally married to Lucy does NOT want a divorce. Since they are all married in common, who gets to choose? The state has a problem now. How does it decide who gets to do what in the legal sense?

Let's muddy the waters a little more. John, Betty and Lucy are fairly happy with their arrangement but Betty and Lucy want to spice it up a little bit. Betty and Lucy get together and decide they want to marry George. But suppose John doesn't want to be a party to the marriage with George? Since, according to the state, they all share common property and Betty and Lucy want the marriage is George obligated? I don't have the answer to those questions. I haven't even discussed the issue of children and custody. That would be another can of worms. Certainly there could be contracts specified ahead of time that would prevent such arrangements from occurring and that is precisely my point.

If people were simply free to make the legal arrangements that they specified then the state simply has to enforce any breach of that contract and not pile convoluted ruling on top of convoluted ruling. Without any state interest in marriage, John, Betty and Lucy could specify in their marriage contract that no other parties could be brought in to the arrangement without unanimous consent. Any party could opt out of the arrangement and provisions could be made ahead of time for the division of assets. Custody issues could be dealt with easily enough in contract as well. The point is, we do not need the state to tell us what our legal obligations should be in regards to marriage, we should be free to decide that for ourselves according to our moral and religious convictions. Marriage is an extra-legal covenant. The legalities of such a relationship can be dealt with according to property law and private contract. The state can't possibly anticipate all of the potential ramifications of such arrangements.

Back to Rauch. Rauch calls polygamy "a profoundly hazardous policy." I agree, but there shouldn't be any policy. He also says:
As far as I've been able to determine, no polygamous society has ever been a true liberal democracy, in anything like the modern sense. As societies move away from hierarchy and toward equal opportunity, they leave polygamy behind. They monogamize as they modernize. That may be a coincidence, but it seems more likely to be a logical outgrowth of the arithmetic of polygamy.
Rauch might be right but it makes no difference. Democracy is not appropriate for everyone. Liberty is appropriate for everyone, but liberty and democracy (or republicanism) should not be linked in your mind as being the same. Is it so hard to conceive of a free monarchy? Even the kings of old were bound by their own laws in many cases. Free people are highly unlikely to overthrow their king.

Now, Rauch begins to border on the absurd:
when one man marries two women, some other man marries no woman. When one man marries three women, two other men don't marry. When one man marries four women, three other men don't marry. Monogamy gives everyone a shot at marriage. Polygyny, by contrast, is a zero-sum game that skews the marriage market so that some men marry at the expense of others.
In the strict sense he is correct. Where he begins to go wrong is where he states that "monogamy gives everyone a shot at marriage." If a woman chooses not to get married at all, she is also denying some man the chance to marry her. Why is that a problem? We are free to choose our spouses. That some woman would choose a man who already has one or more wives does not deny any other man a shot at marriage, just the reality of it. The reasons that the woman chose a polygamous arrangement are hers alone and should not be presumed upon by legislators in the interest of fairness to other men. Rauch digs himself in deeper by saying that "...some men marry at the expense of others." Technically, he's quite right but things are that way now. When a woman I would want to marry chooses another, that other man has married at my expense. From a legal and social policy perspective it's a ludicrous argument to make against polygamy.

But it gets worse, Rauch continues by saying:
For the individuals affected, losing the opportunity to marry is a grave, even devastating, deprivation.
By my estimation, a person loses the opportunity to get married based on merit. Lisa likes Alan more than Ted so Ted looses the opportunity to get married to Lisa. Rauch doesn't seem to realize that many and probably most people will remain monogamous. In many cultures that practiced polygamy, the women have not had much of a choice in the matter. Arrangements were made the women (or girls) simply had to accept it. In a free society, that is not a problem and Rauch's arguments are tossed out the window. One is only denied the opportunity to marry based on individual merit and not the existence of other potential spouses. No one has the right to be married if someone else doesn't wish to enter in to that type of relationship with them. To argue against polygamy based on how men who don't get married are going to feel about it is just wrong headed if not intellectually dishonest.

Rauch goes on to quote a book which essentially says that large groups of men that don't have marriage prospects will simply turn in to criminals. That's what prisons are for. Married men are less likely to be criminals but choosing a life of crime is still the responsibility of the individual and he should be punished according the laws he breaks. The rest of Rauch's article is that society would simply fall apart if polygamy is legal. Since social engineers have been mostly wrong about 'what would happen if...' I'm not willing to take his word for it either.

In the interest of individual liberty, get the state out of the business of marriage altogether and let us decide the terms of our own marriages.