Monday, April 03, 2006

HBO Takes Us To New Depths

Thanks to a new HBO program called Big Love, which takes on the subject of polygamy without judgment, a new marriage debate is underway. We haven't even finished the gay marriage debate yet, people.

Some conservatives have unfairly linked the gay marriage/civil union debate to things such as beastiality. The opponents also mention polygamy. While the former does not follow, the latter certainly does, in my opinion, logically follow.

Many people like Andrew Sullivan think it unfair to link the two debates.

I believe that someone's sexual orientation is a deeper issue than the number of people they want to express that orientation with. Polygamy is a choice, in other words; homosexuality isn't. The proof of this can be seen in the fact that straight people and gay people can equally choose polyandry or polygamy or polyamory, or whatever you want to call it. But no polygamist or heterosexual can choose to be gay. If you're not, you're not.

This post by Sullivan was a response to recent op-ed by Charle Krauthhammer which argued what I believe to be the future of this debate:

In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

I happen to agree with Chuck's logic here. That would not mean that one cannot chose one over the other. But one must accept as true the logical foundations of this argument. Once you knock down the definition of marriage be redefining one element of the relationship, you open the door to challenge other elements of the relationship. Krauthammer continues:

This line of argument makes gay activists furious. I can understand why they do not want to be in the same room as polygamists. But I'm not the one who put them there. Their argument does. Blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, who had the courage to advocate gay marriage at a time when it was considered pretty crazy, has called this the "polygamy diversion," arguing that homosexuality and polygamy are categorically different because polygamy is a mere "activity" while homosexuality is an intrinsic state that "occupies a deeper level of human consciousness."

Many libertarians whome I respect are easy prey for the polygamist argument. After all, in their mind marriage is really nothing special. It is merely a state intrusion into what should be a private contract. As Doug at the Liberty Papers argues:

One of the strongest arguments in favor of gay marriage that I’ve encountered is the one that says that the government has no right to intrude into the personal relationships of consenting adults and forbid them from entering into a legal status, in this case marriage, that they wish to enter into freely. This doesn’t mean that government is endorsing the relationship, any more than it endorses a producer of pornographic films who forms a corporation to run his busines. It merely means that the government is allowing people to engage in consenual activities that affect nobody but themselves. The logic, if you accept it, seems to me to be unassailable and its hard for me to find an argument that says that polygamy is per se different.

The libertarian argument proposed by Doug and some of the comments seems to refuse to recognize the reality that the State is involved and simply will not and cannot, dare I say, divorce itself from the regulation of marriage. That approach is the one welcomed by many libertarians, though not me. Doug's conclusion:

Kersten is obviously opposed to gay marriage and is using the polygamy argument as an argument against gay marriage itself, but her doomsday prediction of what marriage might turn into if society keeps going in the direction it has been doesn’t really sound that bad:
What’s the likely endpoint? Marriage may be redefined out of existence, and replaced by a flexible, contract-based system of government-registered relationships.
In other words, people would live their private lives in the way that they wanted. What’s so wrong with that?

Well, for one it is not a realistic political goal. For two, it not desireable.

Krauthammer concludes his essay, focused on the nature of the debate, nicely.

What is historically odd is that as gay marriage is gaining acceptance, the resistance to polygamy is much more powerful. Yet until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history. On the other hand, polygamy was sanctioned, indeed common, in large parts of the world through large swaths of history, most notably the biblical Middle East and through much of the Islamic world.

I'm not one of those who see gay marriage or polygamy as a threat to, or assault on, traditional marriage. The assault came from within. Marriage has needed no help in managing its own long, slow suicide, thank you. Astronomical rates of divorce and of single parenthood (the deliberate creation of fatherless families) existed before there was a single gay marriage or any talk of sanctioning polygamy. The minting of these new forms of marriage is a symptom of our culture's contemporary radical individualism -- as is the decline of traditional marriage -- and not its cause.

As for gay marriage, I've come to a studied ambivalence. I think it is a mistake for society to make this ultimate declaration of indifference between gay and straight life, if only for reasons of pedagogy. On the other hand, I have gay friends and feel the pain of their inability to have the same level of social approbation and confirmation of their relationship with a loved one that I'm not about to go to anyone's barricade to deny them that. It is critical, however, that any such fundamental change in the very definition of marriage be enacted democratically and not (as in the disastrous case of abortion) by judicial fiat.

Call me agnostic. But don't tell me that we can make one radical change in the one-man, one-woman rule and not be open to the claim of others that their reformation be given equal respect.

I find nothing to dispute in Krauthammer's words. But what about the outcome of the debate? What is the public policy position one should take on polygamy? I do not think it the answer of the Liberty Papers, which says lets all just contract our family ways and ignore thousands of years of family experience.

Reason (a hard core libertarian magazine at times which has me as a subscriber) writer Jonathan Rauch jumps into the debate and goes in depth where Krauthammer and Sullivan and Doug do not: on the merits. The merits of the debate, as he sees it, has not been addressed.

A federal lawsuit (now on appeal), the American Civil Liberties Union's stand for polygamy rights, and the rising voices of pro-polygamy groups such as TruthBearer.org (an evangelical Christian group) and Principle Voices (which Newsweek describes as "a Utah-based group run by wives from polygamous marriages") were already making the subject hard to duck. So far, libertarians and lifestyle liberals approach polygamy as an individual-choice issue, while cultural conservatives use it as a bloody shirt to wave in the gay-marriage debate. The broad public opposes polygamy but is unsure why. What hardly anyone is doing is thinking about polygamy as social policy.

Having noted the dearth of opinion that tackles the public policy issues, he does, and not in the traditional libertarian freedom of contract way.

For reasons that have everything to do with its own social dynamics and nothing to do with gay marriage, polygamy is a profoundly hazardous policy. To understand why, begin with two crucial words. The first is "marriage." Group love (sometimes called polyamory) is already legal, and some people freely practice it. Polygamy asserts not a right to love several others but a right to marry them all. Because a marriage license is a state grant, polygamy is a matter of public policy, not just of personal preference.

He next argues that the many wives model rather than the many husbands model would be the expected norm if polygamy were legalized. From this assumption, comes the public policy concerns.

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.Other things being equal (and, to a good first approximation, they are), 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.

So what, the libertarian says. Equality is opportunity, not outcomes. But why do we bring this result on us in this case? What is the outcome?

Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer, ponder those consequences in their 2004 book Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population. Summarizing their findings in a Washington Post article, they write: "Scarcity of women leads to a situation in which men with advantages — money, skills, education — will marry, but men without such advantages — poor, unskilled, illiterate — will not. A permanent subclass of bare branches [unmarriageable men] from the lowest socioeconomic classes is created. In China and India, for example, by the year 2020 bare branches will make up 12 to 15 percent of the young adult male population."

Summarizing his article, the outcome is that bare branch young men are going to be the criminal gangs and societal subclass warriors of the future. Does this help solve any of societies' problems? Hardly.

In particular communities — inner cities, for example — polygamy could take a toll much more quickly. Even a handful of "Solomons" (high-status men taking multiple wives) could create brigades of new recruits for street gangs and drug lords, the last thing those communities need.

Why do we know this? History for one. And, something similar is happening today in the United States.

Such problems are not merely theoretical. In northern Arizona, a polygamous Mormon sect has managed its surplus males by dumping them on the street --literally. The sect, reports The Arizona Republic, "has orphaned more than 400 teenagers ... in order to leave young women for marriage to the older men." The paper goes on to say that the boys "are dropped off in neighboring towns, facing hunger, homelessness, and homesickness, and most cripplingly, a belief in a future of suffering and darkness."

Some libertarians are missing out on the historic evidence of some institutions. Marriage seems to be one of them. Ironically or coincidentally, depending on your point of view, the Liberty Papers quoted this from Jonah Goldberg recently:

A bunch of readers wanted to know what I meant when I said that my views on “libertarianism” have “evolved” since my earlier, full-throated, attacks. Well, for starters, I no longer make jokes like: “Q: What’s the hardest part about being a libertarian? A: Telling your parents you’re gay.”

Again, more seriously, as I’ve watched compassionate conservatism, Buchananism, Crunchy Conservatism, and similar movements bubble-up since the end of the Cold War, I think it’s better for everybody concerned if we start from a foundation of libertarianism and build up from it. In public policy — as opposed to cultural politics — I think the default position should be libertarian and then arguments should be made for why we should deviate from libertarian dogma. I’m more sympathetic to arguments based on tradition and custom than your average libertarian.

It may be that tradition and custom have a solid basis. Or it may be that tradition and custom is a poisonous excuse for some other goal, such as Jim Crow was up until the 1960s. I think marriage is the former.

This public policy debate is better researched than my own, but I will reprint my comment at the Liberty Papers here:

You are all arguing in a dream land. No argument makes sense without first looking at your basic facts. Marx was wrong for this reason. People aren’t taught greed and self-interest. They are born that way.

The state does, will, and always has regardless of the culture recognized and legalized the issue of marriage. The fact that this country recognizes the church marriage is simply setting aside a formality. The only issue this debate is about is benefits.

The argument that the state should “get out of the marriage business” is both absurd and unreal. It won’t, and it can’t. How do you divide up property when the contract is broken? How do you divide up kids? How do you determine child support? The answer is: by agreement with court oversight, or by court rulings. Either way, the state is involved, and always will be. There are real concerns about force and fraud in the break up of a marriage. It is not unreasonable for the state to have a system in place to make sure that a spouse who helped build a strong home by staying home rather than working is protected when the other spouse decides that it is time to buy a convertible and date his college aged kid’s roommate.


Believe it or not, even a libertarian can see that having a stable home is good for society. Messing with a system that has worked for thousands of years is not to be done lightly, and frankly I think most of you have looked at your libertarian dogma book and said, hey, this is just like a business partnership. Let everyone join in. It isn’t a business partnership, except if your name is Clinton.

Next, we have a system of benefits in this country that recognizes marriage. The State has a system, and private business has a system. The State has every right to determine that it will recognize only traditional recognized married families. No one is denied equal access under this system. Everyone has the exact same right to marry one person of an opposite gender. Of course, the govt also has the right to expand its benefits as it sees fit (barring certain constitutional issues such as race discrimination). And it does. NYC e.g. allows (or used to) “domestic partners” to get benefits from its city employees.

Of course, private benefits can redefine this system as it sees fit. And it has. Lots of companies offer benefits to domestic partners or civil union relationships. Bully for them.

Dealing with the added strain on the court system and benefits issues is a reasonable justification to limit marriage to its “forever in the history of mankind” definition, recognizing of course that polygamy has been allowed in some cultures over time — cultures where men were always dying fighting wars and new warriors needed to be made.

Finally, everyone seems to ignore the obvious — you can live "like" a homosexual married couple or polygomous couple if you want, you just don’t have the recognition of the state or certain state offered benefits. You can live together, sleep together, leave property to each other in your wills, share benefits if your employer allows it (some employers don’t insure married couples’ spouses, so that is not certain anyway), write a living will for your partner, own property jointly and even have a “marriage” ceremony if your heathen preacher will give you one (I use the term heathen only because none of the texts of the major religions can remotely be read to approve of same sex marriage, and it is a stretch to argue for polygamy in them).

Peronally, I could live with “civil union” type laws. I have no problem with employers chosing to give benefits to whomever they see fit. That said, I actually think civil unions are very suseptible to abuse and may be more trouble than they are worth for this so called “fairness” issue. As Canada’s law has proven, people just start looking for “benefits” partners, not life partners. Brothers and sisters and bowling buddies form civil unions to get one on the insurance of the other. Then they looke for another “civil union” for pay or out of friendship.

This whole issue is a pandora’s box, and it isn’t just to be dismissed as religous fundamentalists run amock.

Also, you can’t realistically talk about public policy as if the onion were peeled back to its core. The onion has layers that you must work with. We have state sanctioned marriage — always have and likely always will in the US until we are destroyed like Rome. We have lots of govt. benefits that depend in some way on the marriage recognition. They aren’t going away so we can make polygamy OK just b/c libertarians don’t like those programs.

Finally, we have a population that recognizes the historical significance of marriage as it has been understood in Western countries for hundreds of years. It has worked. It isn’t some social experiment anymore. It deserves more than a Scalia like flip of the chin.

11 Comments:

At 6:50 PM, Blogger Cassandra said...

Holy crap KJ.

I am in the middle of something horrid at work so I can't give this the attention it deserves. But I will, I promise.

I do have to say this (I was so interested I got halfway through before realizing I didn't have time to finish):

Sullivan and Krauthammer are both right, if you accept a certain view of things.

I'm not sure being gay is a choice, though I know there are folks who will argue with me here. But I'm not going to argue that one with you or anyone else. I'll stipulate your right to disagree with me. My POV is that we won't know, like, totally... fersure until we die and until then I'm content to let the Almighty judge.

Meanwhile, I've got enough problems minding my own p's and q's. I've done enough things I regret that I'm very likely going directly to hell when I die, do not pass go, do not collect 200 big ones, so who am I to sit on my high horse?

My objections to gay *marriage* as such are completely practical and semantic: don't call one thing by the name of another. Figure out a practical way to let them be happy. I think society has a public policy interest in monogamous gay couples, so discouraging some form of civil unions is not too Brite. But by the same token I have concerns around the adoption of children for reasons I won't go into here but may later, and they aren't the ones you might think (prejudice) at all.

 
At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Cricket said...

Hm. Having had ancestors who did practice polygamy and got hunted down for it big time, I find it incredibly ironic that a prime time show would be devoted to this...and turn a decent thing into a mockery.

KJ, I think you raise some outstanding points and will be reading further.

 
At 3:47 AM, Blogger camojack said...

Of course the inevitable next step would be polygamous gay marriage.

 
At 10:00 AM, Blogger spd rdr said...

Man, KJ. I wish I had your briefing schedule!

I haven't seen the HBO show (and can't imagine why I would want to either), but I am of the opinion that you can only be married to one person at a time. If you are married, then any other partner you take is either a case bigamy or adultery. On the other hand, if you do not go to the state for a marriage license, and do not hold yourself out publically as husband and wife, then you aren't married and you can cohabitate with as many partners as you want. (You can also put a bullet in your head, which is probably the less painful of the two choices.)

In all honesty, I can't see how the state can stop persons so inclined from cohabitating without reinstituting (or enforcing) laws that would criminalize sex between unmarried persons. And that's not about to happen unless the nation reverts to a Puritanical theocracy. And that's not about to happen either. *shrugs*

But that still doesn't explain why this odd arrangement should be the subject of a TV show.

 
At 11:02 AM, Blogger KJ said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 12:22 PM, Blogger Cassandra said...

Well, I've seen it. That has got to be a first - me actually having seen something that's "in" on TV. I think it must have been an accident, but I was mending one of my nightgowns and needed something to watch.

It was better than I thought it would be, which isn't saying much.

And in answer to mr rdr's question (which I also wondered) my cynical answer is that Hollywood is knocking down objections to polygamy as a surrogate for gay marriage: IOW, it's an "acceptance" thang. It was really quite bizarre to watch.

 
At 1:41 PM, Blogger spd rdr said...

I buy all that "surrogacy" thing, Cass. But I still can't figure out why somebody would want to watch "The Brady Bunch x 3." Then again, I predicted that "Brokeback Mountain" wouldn't break even.

Never overestimate the taste of the American public.

 
At 5:36 AM, Blogger Cassandra said...

Oddly, I have taken to showing up here, of a morning, mainly to see what new color of text KJ is going to wing on his unwary readership.

 
At 9:57 AM, Blogger Cassandra said...

KJ, you make a lot of very good points here.

Strangely though, I think most of them could also be applied to the drug situation, and I find it odd that you do not believe public policy concern persuasive in that arena, choosing instead to argue a largely theoretical "let the individual bear the costs of drug usage" rationale that completely ignores the very real costs to unborn babies and children or addicts and people who must live in neighborhoods where drugs are prevalent. Their actions also affect everyone around them - if Mom is high she is not watching the kids, or feeding them before they go off to school (or even making sure they GO to school). My daughter in law has one little boy who only makes it to class 20% of the time. His Mom is an addict. He is hopelessly behind, but she is expected to teach this child to read and write anyway. He has behavioral problems no public school system can even begin to address.

But somehow we don't want to keep trying to keep drugs off the streets because we haven't been successful at doing so?

We should probably try to stop fighting wars too and just let the dictators and the bad guys take over, because we can't stop them either. As soon as you stop one, another just pops up like a Whack a Mole. Why even try? It just costs too much money.

Someday in a more perfect world, the public schools will have all the money they need and the Air Farce will have to have a bake sale to buy bombs.

And that little boy still won't be coming to school.

/sarcasm

Sorry - I know none of this is your fault - I'm just riled up today and anyway you shouldn't have gotten me thinking. This was a great post - one of your best :)

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger KJ said...

Simple: marriage policy has worked. Drug policy has not. The cost of keeping marriage policy unchanged is low compared to the cost of changing marriage which is potentially high with, frankly, very little benefit. The cost of keeping drug policy as is is very high, with the cost of changing not capable of being much worse even if not improved.

Being sensitive to history and tradition is not the same as turning your brain off. Otherwise I could argue in favor of segregation the same way.

And I really wish you all would do the "we can't stop any crime so let's just give up." That is not my argument and never was. When the drug use rate is the same as the murder rate, I'll admit we are winning the war on drugs.

 
At 5:59 PM, Blogger Cassandra said...

KJ, I am way too tired, and my head hurts way too much, to want to argue with you.

Why don't we just agree to disagree? You made some good arguments and I acknowledged them.

Once again, I should have kept my mouth shut.

 

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