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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The polygamy red herring

David Warren, standing on guard against Canada’s moral decline, has declared in the Ottawa Citizen that the recent Ontario Appeals Court decision recognizing three legal parents for a child of a lesbian couple is “a straight line to polygamy”, and that “polygamy follows multiple parentage as night follows day”. This is a familiar argument from social conservatives and has been used frequently to oppose legalization of gay marriage. As Warren writes, “it likewise followed from same-sex "marriage" - for if the institution cannot be restricted to one man and one woman, how otherwise can it be restricted?” Not to worry - there are plenty of reasons to support gay marriage (and allow “multiple parentage”) and still criminalize polygamy.

Even rabid libertarians acknowledge that not all individual rights are worthy of protection. John Stuart Mill, in his great essay “On Liberty”, laid the framework that has guided most western common law rights traditions: he wrote that individuals are entitled to life, liberty and property rights only so far as the exercise of those rights does not harm the rights of others. You may have the right to keep plutonium in your garden shed, but if it makes your neighbours sick or you are planning to build a weapon of mass destruction with it, then the state is justified in restricting this right to property.

It is difficult, in my mind, to argue that gay marriage infringes on the rights of anyone else. If a homosexual couple gets married, I can’t see how this significantly harms heterosexual couples or society at large. Similarly, if the state recognizes that a child has three legal parents, I don’t find the argument that this harms children very convincing. I think it makes sense from a libertarian perspective for the state to recognize that there is no valid reason for people not to exercise their liberty in this regard.

However, a very strong case can be made that polygamy does create harm. First of all, let us recognize that in societies that practice polygamy, it almost always means that one man has multiple wives, and not the other way around. In a population that statistically has a 50-50 split between males and females, and where males take multiple wives, the logical result is that many young men are prevented from taking wives of their own. The result in these communities is that surplus young men are frequently ostracized or banished from their communities against their will. This phenomenon is well documented in polygamist communities in the U.S. and Canada. This alone would justify the state’s intervention in limiting a man’s right to take multiple wives.

Furthermore, polygamist communities have a disturbingly high rate of incest, child abuse and wife battering. In Utah, where approximately 2% of the population are practicing polygamists in spite of a legal ban on plural marriage, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2001 that polygamist communities had extraordinarily high levels of these crimes, as well as widespread reliance on welfare, unusual levels of child poverty, wide-ranging tax fraud, limited education, and over-taxed public services. It is difficult to prosecute polygamy in Utah because the victims in these cases rarely press charges and it is almost impossible to compel witnesses to testify. However, there is no doubt in most people’s minds (including most Mormons) that polygamy should be illegal - the harm it produces far outweighs the rights to liberty of its practitioners. The state is fully justified in prohibiting it.

Opponents of gay marriage (and now “multiple parents”) argue that once the precedent for “non-traditional” family arrangements has been set, there is now no argument for continuing to insist that other non-traditional practices like polygamy remain illegal. Nonsense. The state has imposed limits on heterosexual marriage for centuries; the courts have upheld traditional taboos against marrying your mother, or your sister, or your dog. It is a legal requirement for heterosexuals to limit the number of their spouses to one. Homosexual marriage has the same legal limits - the centuries-old common law traditions have not been overturned, they have been extended, to include gay couples.

Gay marriage is now legal because its opponents could not muster up enough support for the argument that it caused harm to society. Fair enough. However, it would be difficult to make the same argument for polygamy, and the courts can and will recognize this. In my opinion, the moral floodgates have not been opened - everyone take a pill and relax.


Anonymous said...

"Gay marriage is now legal because its opponents could not muster up enough support for the argument that it caused harm to society"

Whatever! Gay marriage became legal because you and I paid for the Court Challenges Program to draw the blueprint to ram it through the court system... "Bans" loophole included!

If there were a Court Challenges Program funding and strategizing both sides, Canadians would still be debating.

Anonymous said...

The argument made for polygamous marriage is identical to the argument made for gay marriage: if it doesn't affect you, why should you care?

What exactly is your objection to polygamy? The rights of women? Don't women have the right to live with who they want?

If you accept gay marriage, you accept that marriage can be anything. In this way, it looses all meaning. All we've done is render marriage meaningless.

Anonymous said...

eric, i reserve the right to disagree with you... but you sound like a reasonable person.

part of the problem for even the most easy-going heterosexual conservative has to be what i'll call homo "public relations" strategies...

maybe sticking naked guys with feather boas and squirt guns up on parade floats in the biggest cities in the country every year... isn't one of the brightest things the gay community has ever done.

maybe the not-so-secret proclivities towards reckless promiscuity and drug use could stand a little tweaking as well.

or screaming homophobia at the drop of a hat, while contemptuously referring to straight folk as "breeders"...

none of these things may have anything to do with you or your lifestyle... but for anyone who watches tv, or reads a paper it sure fudges that quiet reasonable discourse that you seem to be advocating.

or maybe it's just uptight, conservative me?

whaddaya think?

forgandenny said...

If you shift core premise of marriage from being union of TWO consenting adults to any number but CONSENTING adults (which would be even less radical than recent shift to it being gender-neutral) you can still call it 'traditional' -- only make it available for more people. And then another argument may be put forward... what if abuse among polygamic family members is caused by public and state condemnation?