The Corner

Polygamy Wars

Yes Jonah, Glenn Reynolds has taken a dip into the debate over polygamy, citing Naomi Schaefer Riley’s interesting piece from the WSJ. Glenn thinks marriage and state ought to be separated. I don’t agree. But this does make the point that there are plenty of folks out there besides radical feminists who would like to see marriage abolished as a legal status. In addition to Reynolds, for example, Michael Kinsley has argued for abolition.

It’s tough for me to understand how people can dismiss the idea that we might someday see the abolition of marriage as a legal status, either de facto (by state recognition of every conceivable union) or de jure (by the end of state recognition for any union). Are Glenn Reynolds and Michael Kinsley merely marginal figures whose opinions are unlikely to predict the views of substantial numbers of Americans, now or in years to come? I don’t think so.

Glenn says that given its prevalence throughout history, there’s nothing “unnatural” about polygamy. I’ve never argued against polygamy because it’s “unnatural.” But I do argue that in Western society, multi-partner marriages would be significantly less stable than man-woman marriages already are. And the existence of legal multi-partner marriages would erode the monogamous ideal for all. All that would have consequences for children. Cultures that have polygamy are generally focused on groups. Family life in those societies is based on hierarchical rules, a sense of collective honor, and a radically different approach to the emotional meaning of marriage and parenting. In the individualist West, marriage as a social institution rests on companionate love. It is this cultural reason, more than any “natural” requirement, that makes multi-partner marriage problematic in this society.

Reynolds has a systematic solution to the marriage issue: privatize it. That would put traditional marriage on a par with polygamy and polyamory. Folks who are against both same-sex marriage and multi-partner marriage have a systematic perspective as well. I don’t see why Reynolds should expect same-sex marriage and multi-partner marriage to be “stand alone” issues when he treats them systematically himself. In fact, my slippery slope argument is based on the knowledge that there are plenty of people out there who see things Glenn’s way. I am not reassured by: “Personally, I’d like to see marriage as a legal status abolished, but you really shouldn’t worry about the slippery slope.” In other words, “Hey, I’m just fine with the bottom of the slippery slope, but I’m really not very influential. So don’t worry, we’ll never get there.”

Finally, I don’t think this debate is fundamentally about “polygamy.” For me, the key issue is polyamory. Polygamy and polyamory are not the same. Polyamorists can have a marriage of two men and one woman, not just two women and one man. In fact, that’s what we have in the documentary, Three of Hearts. The first polyamory court case also involved a one-woman-two-man union. And the differences between polygamy and polyamory go much deeper than just the combination of partners.

So Reynolds is right that multi-partner marriage in American won’t look like it does in Mali. But that means the key issue is polyamory. It also means that what makes multiple unions work in Mali will likely not be at work here in the United States. I’ve laid out my argument on all this in “Beyond Gay Marriage.”

I also did plenty of blogging about the rise of polyamory just a few weeks ago on The Corner, not to mention my treatment of polyamory in Here Come the Brides. As I see it, so long as folks keep talking about “polygamy” alone, they’re not really dealing with the issue at hand.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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