Opening Marriage

Cathy Young seemed to imply, in "Opening Marriage" (March), that polygamy, one person having multiple spouses, is the same as polyamory. In polyamorous relationships and families, various arrangements of consenting adult men and women choose to love and support each other emotionally, spiritually, physically, and often financially.

Commitment levels may vary, but love and personal freedom are prevailing factors.

Young approvingly quotes David Boaz's suggestion that polyamorists wait to get legal marital recognition until "all special laws related to marriage [cease] to exist." A group marriage would be considered too upsetting to the "social order and the raising of children." Not too long ago, however, homosexuals were considered an unfit family unit. If bisexuals can't even decide which sex to sleep with, how are we supposed to choose whether to marry one or the other? Swinging, cheating, and casual sex or dating are not options for those of us who want loving, meaningful relationships.

Young then worries that the "mere possibility of [adding multiple partners] could cause enough anxiety to destabilize a marriage." If true choice were an option, socially or legally, more people might experience…well, more people! Of course that would be destabilizing to marriage, as it is currently defined as a union between two people. No more. Ever. Unless, of course, you cheat or get divorced, which are the currently popular, far more "destabilizing" ways to experience multiple partners.

Why should the possibility of expanding a marriage leave a spouse any more anxious than the possibility of divorce? "Serial monogamy" and cheating are proof that human beings enjoy being with more than one mate in life. Polyamorists strive to act on their desires in open, honest, loving manners. Jealousy and temptation are always realities; prohibiting the true opening of marriage will not make them go away.

Jen Rog
New Paltz, NY

Cathy Young's columns are always a joy to read. Her article "Opening Marriage" highlights the quicksand of legal conundrums that could make court rulings about gay marriage a nightmare. The potential for court-ordered polygamy is one example, but only one: If the courts find a "constitutional" right for two men to marry, then under what conceivable legal standard could two brothers be barred from marrying each other? There would, of course, be none of the health concerns normally related to incest. 

Regarding marriage law, libertarians need to stick with what they truly believe in: limited judicial power. The time for legalizing gay marriage, or any other social concern not explicitly endorsed by the Constitution, is when a majority of the people vote to do so—not when a few judges make the decision on their own.

Hyperion Knight
Forest Hills, NY

One can see why gay and lesbian advocates are quick to deny that gay marriage is the "slippery slope" that will lead inevitably to (gasp) polygamy and worse. It is an argument, as Cathy Young and others point out, that merits consideration. But I wonder: So what if it is a slippery slope? So what if gay marriage does lead to polygamy? Plural marriage has, so far as anyone can tell, existed as long as human civilization. It has fallen out of favor in the West in recent centuries (with the exception of the Mormons and a few other groups), but is it really such a terrible thing?

I suspect that most people's objections rest on images of female harems kept at knifepoint. But as long as the relationship is entered into voluntarily, I see little reason to deny men or women multiple wives or husbands. The objection that Young raises—that she suspects it would lead to "psychological abuse"—smells to me a great deal like the sort of feminism that has given to us absurdist laws and regulations governing sexual harassment in the workplace and on college campuses.

David C. Pearson
via e-mail

Confessions of a Welfare Queen

I was enjoying the article "Confessions of a Welfare Queen" until I stumbled on this bit of liberal-bashing, thrown in for no apparent reason except to break up the monotony of right-wing treachery: "'Every summer,' said Gore, who grew up in a fancy Washington hotel, 'we went back down to the farm. I was in the 4-H club.'"

I hope Stossel's fact-checkers are normally more alert. Google "Al Gore Hotel," sift through the other reporters who swallowed the same line, and you'll quickly find out the truth: When Gore was a kid, the Fairfax was not all that fancy. He lived in a hotel because his family was poor; a cousin owned the Fairfax and let them stay there for free. He did go back down to the farm, and Stossel's interjection of questionable facts to suggest he didn't is irresponsible.

If people believe otherwise, it's because of some excellent PR work by the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Jamie McCarthy
Kalamazoo, MI

Faith, Shame, and Insurgency

What message is to be taken from Steven Vincent's article "Faith, Shame, and Insurgency" (March) other than "the ends justify the means"?

There is no doubt that a vicious tyrant was deposed, or that Saddam Hussein deserves much worse than he has so far gotten. The underlying question, however, is not whether tyrants should be deposed, but how and by whom. Yes, Saddam deserved to be brought down. So do Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and Robert Mugabe. It takes a tyrant like Saddam Hussein to bring tragedy to his people; it takes a real communist like Kim Jong Il to make statistics of them. And it takes a state apologist to try to make the world better by military means.

Do the ends justify the means? I challenge Vincent to visit Iraq five years hence. In the meantime, he can learn some of the language and then go and visit someone other than the "opinion prostitutes" at the coffeeshops.

Randal A. Anderson III
Millville, MI

Coercion vs. Consent

In "Coercion vs. Consent" (March), Randy Barnett writes that "there are very few libertarians today for whom consequences are not ultimately the reason why they believe in liberty," while Richard Epstein cheerfully agrees that libertarians are "all consequentialists now." Fortunately, this is not true. I say "fortunately" because consequentialism is philosophically indefensible as a normative theory.

The basic problem with consequentialism is that it recognizes no limit in principle on what can be done to people in order to promote good consequences. Now consequentialists insist that in the vast majority of cases, killing, torturing, or enslaving innocent people is not the best way to get good results. And of course they are right about that. But by the logic of their position the consistent consequentialist (happily a rara avis) must always be open to the possibility that killing, torturing, or enslaving the innocent might be called for under special circumstances, and this recognition necessarily taints the character of even one's ordinary relations to other people. As Immanuel Kant pointed out more than two centuries ago, to subordinate—or even to be prepared to subordinate—one's fellow human beings to some end they do not share is to treat them as slaves, thereby denying both their inherent dignity and one's own.

Many consequentialists will say that they too can accommodate ironclad prohibitions on certain actions, on the grounds that utility will be maximized in the long run if people internalize such prohibitions. This is true, but it misses the point. Once one has internalized an ironclad prohibition, one is by definition no longer a consequentialist. One cannot treat certain values as absolute in practice and still meaningfully deny their absoluteness in theory; a belief that is not allowed to influence one's actions is no real belief. Most consequentialists are morally superior to their theory and, thankfully, pay it only lip service.

David Friedman is quite right to point out, in the same issue, that "concepts such as rights, property, and coercion" are complicated and not always susceptible to clear and easy rules. But this is not an argument for making consequences the sole test of right action. What it does mean is that non-consequentialist moral considerations establish only certain broad parameters, leaving it to consequences, custom, and context to make them more specific.

The parameters are not infinitely broad, however, and I do not see how they could be broad enough to license one group of people, called the government, to reassign title to the fruits of another group's labor at the first group's sole discretion. Hence, even if taxation and eminent domain had good results—which in the long term they rarely do—they would stand condemned on non-consequentialist grounds as slavery and plunder.

Roderick T. Long
Department of Philosophy
Auburn University
Auburn, AL

In the roundtable discussion on the limits of liberty, James Pinkerton laments that libertarianism may be in danger of being regarded as a purely economic philosophy, while public attention shifts to other hot topics. I only wish that were true. Economics is what libertarianism explains best, and we should stick to pushing tax cuts, deregulation, the lowering of trade barriers, and the like.

Focus on the fiscal, my fellow libertarians. The core free-market arguments have never applied to topics like foreign policy, police and courtroom procedures, the definition of marriage, abortion, the cultural effects of immigration, or the nature of addiction as neatly as they do to the everyday buying and selling of widgets (and the everyday interference with widgets by big government). There's no shame in that.

Let the other political factions fight about Iraq, gays, and all those other things. If we don't weigh in loudly on more clear-cut (albeit sometimes boring) issues such as the need to simplify regulations, abolish the Commerce Department, privatize the Post Office, and take an immense axe to the budget, we can rest assured no one else will.

Todd Seavey
New York, NY