Gay Marriage

The Case for Polygamy Begins; The Case for the Single Life Needed Too

It's past time the government stop treating the tax code as a tool for social engineering.



It's happening. Less than a week after the Supreme Court ruled that gays have the right to marry, the argument in favor of polygamy as the "next advance"(in the words of Fredrick DeBoer at Politico) in marriage equality is beginning to be deployed.

He writes:

Now that we've defined that love and devotion and family isn't driven by gender alone, why should it be limited to just two individuals? The most natural advance next for marriage lies in legalized polygamy—yet many of the same people who pressed for marriage equality for gay couples oppose it.

This is not an abstract issue. In Chief Justice John Roberts' dissenting opinion, he remarks, "It is striking how much of the majority's reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage." As is often the case with critics of polygamy, he neglects to mention why this is a fate to be feared. Polygamy today stands as a taboo just as strong as same-sex marriage was several decades ago—it's effectively only discussed as outdated jokes about Utah and Mormons, who banned the practice over 120 years ago.

Yet the moral reasoning behind society's rejection of polygamy remains just as uncomfortable and legally weak as same-sex marriage opposition was until recently.

As I wrote on Friday after the court's ruling, there may be more marriage equality today than there was yesterday, but there's still an untold number for whom marriage equality doesn't exist because of anti-polygamy laws on the books and because polygamists can't get marriage licenses.

DeBoer claims that because the moral reasoning against polygamy is close to the moral reasoning against gay marriage, which has been rejected, "progressives who reject the case for legal polygamy don't really appear to have their hearts in it." He writes:

They seem uncomfortable voicing their objections, clearly unused to being in the position of rejecting the appeals of those who would codify non-traditional relationships in law. They are, without exception, accepting of the right of consenting adults to engage in whatever sexual and romantic relationships they choose, but oppose the formal, legal recognition of those relationships. They're trapped, I suspect, in prior opposition that they voiced from a standpoint of political pragmatism in order to advance the cause of gay marriage.

That's a charitable interpretation. If supporters of 'marriage equality' didn't want to include polygamy because it wasn't popular, that pragmatism could just as easily be classified as cowardice. Or it could be a case of lack of empathy. After all, it's been some decades since homosexuals were widely forced to keep their lifestyles totally underground, while polygamists are still forced to do so. If you don't know any polygamists, it's easier to buy into the moral panic being pushed about them.

Certainly, the arguments against polygamy as a logical extension of gay marriage recognition I found deployed by liberals didn't seem to lack heart, especially when they were responses to conservatives bringing up the slippery slope concern. Roberts' dissent included the mention of a marriage of three lesbians reported in The New York Post in his argument about "how much of the majority's reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage." Mark Stern at Slate called that the 'weirdest citation in Supreme Court history,' as if there were something wrong about three women getting married or hypothetically wanting government recognition, concluding that "if that's his best argument, no wonder he lost."

Here's an article from by Shanzeh Khurram, a California feminist, blithely allowing an gay marriage opponent's equation of polygamy to pedophilia stand. In its response to Friday's court ruling, Rolling Stone lumped the argument about gay marriage leading to polygamy in with the dissenters' arguments about unelected judges and procreation being the center of marriage as among the 'nastiest lines' from them. There are numerous examples of liberal rejection of polygamy as a respectable policy goal.

Liberals may eventually warm to polygamy and acknowledge it as a worthy civil rights goal, but they're certainly not doing it now, even as the power of polygamy to prevent gay marriage recognition is gone. They appear more interested in pushing for an end to tax breaks for churches that don't recognize gay marriage, something liberal supporters of gay marriage also generally insisted wouldn't happen if gay marriage were recognized. Perhaps they didn't have their heart in it on that argument.

In the 70s, libertarians were supportive of gay rights when the establishment still treated homosexuality like a psychological disorder. If the U.S. eventually recognizes polygamy the way it recognizes gay marriage, I believe that, too, will be because of early pushes by libertarians. After all, gay marriage has been legal in other countries for some time, but none has moved to legalize polygamy—those countries aren't as radically oriented toward personal freedom as the U.S. theoretically is.

At The Federalist, Sara Burrows explains how Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign opened her up to the idea of polyamory (polygamy before marriage). She argues gay marriage actually 'deepens' romantic inequality:

Government incentives for marriage—gay or straight—discriminate against single and polyamorous individuals. Part of the reason gay people are so exuberant about the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage—aside from the symbolism of wider cultural acceptance—is the bribes government gives people for committing to a lifetime of coupled monogamy.

From income-tax breaks to estate planning benefits to Social Security and insurance benefits to the right to make medical decisions for one's spouse, there are all kinds of carrots dangled in front of Americans as rewards for getting hitched. Instead of putting unmarried individuals on equal footing with married people, the government has chosen to appease the masses by blessing another category of monogamous couples with the privileges of marriage—those of the same sex.

Some of these 'carrots,' like estate planning benefits, can only apply to partnerships of two or more people. Many of them arise from a convoluted tax system being used as a tool of social engineering by politicians, and can be solved by simplifying the tax code and limiting the government's power to meddle in people's personal and romantic lives. Rand Paul's response to the gay marriage ruling was to reiterate the stance that government should get out of gay marriage. As Scott Shackford noted, Paul's response ought to have included concrete steps to getting there—Paul's own flat tax proposal, for example, which Paul didn't mention, could be one of those concrete steps.

Conservatives have argued recognition of gay marriage would undermine 'traditional marriage.' In The New York Times, Ross Douthat that while the court's family-centric decision on gay marriage actually strengthened the institution of marriage, wider social trends have reinforced the idea of people being 'free from marriage.' Talking Points Memo interpreted the traditional marriage argument this way:

It was never just about man-woman marriages. The tradition that is disappearing is the belief that marriage is a duty, especially for women. As Douthat argues, Americans are rejecting 'the old rules, its own hopes of joy and happiness to chase.'

Douthat isn't wrong on the facts, even if he's wrong on his assessment of them. It's true that women in modern society no longer feel like they have to be married to be granted entrance into adult society. Single women living by and supporting themselves is no longer considered scandalous. Marriage is, bit by bit, becoming more about a partnership between equals who choose each other for the purpose of love and happiness. Which means it's becoming less about giving men control over women's lives.

And if marriage is becoming more and more about choosing partnerships 'for the purpose of love and happiness,' then there's even less reason to support special benefits for marriage.

Love and happiness must be more powerful incentives than anything the government can offer. The government's sticks are far more powerful than its carrots and, outside of polygamy (and sex work*), the government doesn't particularly wield its sticks on the consensual romantic lives of adults anymore.

It would be an even more free, progressive society if the government didn't wield its carrots in the consensual romantic lives of adults anymore either, and stopped withholding benefits like being able to leave your property to your loved ones without the government taking a cut or allowing hospitals to allow you to choose which loved ones they can share medical information with or can be permitted to visit. And single people shouldn't be excluded from the government carrots of less taxes simply because they are not living the kind of lifestyle Justice Kennedy wants to acknowledge as being able to express "the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family."

*which, as was kindly pointed out to me, I unfortunately neglected to include originally.