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True, in modern America some polygynous marriages would probably be offset by group marriages or chain marriages involving multiple husbands, but there is no way to know how large such an offset might be. And remember: Every unbalanced polygynous marriage, other things being equal, leaves some man bereft of the opportunity to marry, which is no small cost to that man.
The social dynamics of zero-sum marriage are ugly. In a polygamous world, boys could no longer grow up taking marriage for granted. Many would instead see marriage as a trophy in a sometimes brutal competition for wives. Losers would understandably burn with resentment, and most young men, even those who eventually won, would fear losing. Although much has been said about polygamy's inegalitarian implications for women who share a husband, the greater victims of inequality would be men who never become husbands.
By this point it should be obvious that polygamy is, structurally and socially, the opposite of same-sex marriage, not its equivalent. Same-sex marriage stabilizes individuals, couples, communities, and society by extending marriage to many who now lack it. Polygamy destabilizes individuals, couples, communities, and society by withdrawing marriage from many who now have it.
As the public focuses on a subject it has not confronted for
generations, the hazards of polygamy are likely to sink in. In
time, debating polygamy will remind us why our ancestors were right
to abolish it. The question is whether the debate will reach its
stride soon enough to prevent polygamy
from winning a lazy acquiescence that it in no way deserves.
*Author's note: My wording left some readers
under the impression that the modern Mormon church may endorse or
practice polygamy. It does not. I should have made clearer that I
was referring to certain people who claim to be Mormons, not to the
church or mainstream practice.
© Copyright 2006 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.