Bryan Caplan  

The Economics of Coming Out of the Closet

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Suppose you have a secret that the world will hold against you, but it's sure to leak out one day regardless of what you do. What's the best way to come out of the closet?

I started thinking about this question while watching Big Love, HBO's new show about a family of polygamists. The husband, Bill, runs a successful home improvement store, but the public doesn't realize he's a polygamist. He hides his alternative lifestyle because he thinks it will hurt business if his customers find out. Bill even sends his first wife over to the neighbors with a cover story.

My suspicion, though, is that this was a strategic error. Word of Bill's polygamy is going to leak out eventually. But if the first person to find out is a journalist or activist, the world will have a focal point to rally around: "Shocking news - Bill Henrickson's a polygamist!" In contrast, if word spreads very gradually - a few neighbors find out, and they slowly tell their friends, and so on until "everyone knows" - Bill might safely transition from covert polygamist to "that guy with three wives" without ever facing the media spotlight.

What do you think? What's the safest way for a polygamist to come out of the closet?

P.S. I've noticed that more people are offended by Big Love than the Sopranos. What gives?


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Bob writes:

Ergon,

I think you're on the wrong thread

Bryan,

So does this mean you have something to tell us?

[Note from the EconLog Editor: Ergon has moved his very clever comment to the intended thread. Thanks for noticing!]

Grzegorz writes:

"P.S. I've noticed that more people are offended by Big Love than the Sopranos. What gives?"

Hmm, what gives? Maybe the structure of the traditional American family and its values.

'Big Love' is insulting and degrading; tabloid television at its worst.

Uriah Heep writes:

"In contrast, if word spreads very gradually - a few neighbors find out, and they slowly tell their friends, and so on until "everyone knows... Bill could have..."

... As in "Bill" Clinton could have avoided Monicagate using this strategy..?

Patrick J writes:

"Hmm, what gives? Maybe the structure of the traditional American family and its values."

The traditional American family kills its enemies?

Uriah Heep writes:

Sorry, I should of known better than to have some fun with such an important economics post:) BTW, macroeconomics IS ALL politics.

Xmas writes:

Except that polygamy is a crime and it is bound to be big story if a reporter or journalists gets wind of the situation. Especially since Bill is likely to go to jail for his crimes.

Also, the uproar about Big Love is all about the Mormon. Followers of the Church of LDS are all prickly because the story takes place in Utah. They believe it is a direct jab at them and their history.

The main characters in the show are not followers of the LDS, they explicitly say so in the show. However, Bill's original church is most definitely based on those cult-like LDS spinoffs (David Koresh's group in Waco, as a more extreme example) that pepper the Southwestern US. So maybe the show hits a little to close to home for the LDS. Mormons aren't like the polygamists on the show, but more than a few ex-Mormons are like that.

Will Wilkinson writes:

The funny thing is, if you have three domestic partners, children with each, and live in three adjacent houses, it's not illegal anywhere as long as you're married to no more than one of them. How does that make sense?

And if it's illegal to marry more than one partner, what does that mean. If Bill has state-issued marriage certificates for each wife, then, what? The last two are actually void? In which case he's not actually legally married to those women. And so there is nothing illegal about his living arrangement. Or if his marriages are religious and not state-sponsored, then he's not really legally married to more than one person. In which case there is nothing illegal about his living arrangements. So is it possible that he's doing something illegal?

MikeG writes:

It must be possible that he is doing something illegal (but for the fact that we're discussing a fictional character). The Utah government has prosecuted men for bigamy: Utah man faces prosecution in rare polygamy case.

Brad Hutchings writes:

"What's the safest way for a polygamist to come out of the closet?"

Big problem. Maybe we could start with an easier one. What's the safest way for a libertarian to come out of the closet?

Timothy writes:

Big problem. Maybe we could start with an easier one. What's the safest way for a libertarian to come out of the closet?

Weilding a shotgun.

rakehell writes:

Koresh was a Seventh-Day Adventist schismatic, not LDS.

I'm failing to catch your drift here. There's really no safe way to "come out of the closet" if you are breaking a law, regardless as to whether or not it's a just law. You're going to be arrested either way.

Bryan Caplan writes:
I'm failing to catch your drift here. There's really no safe way to "come out of the closet" if you are breaking a law, regardless as to whether or not it's a just law. You're going to be arrested either way.

As far as I can tell, he's only legally married to the first wife. So he's not guilty of bigamy. Legally, he just has a wife and two girlfriends that he calls "wives."

Ben P writes:

I would be pretend it didn't exist and force other people bring it up to me directly, and then refuse to engage them. Just cut the conversation off without agreeing or disagreeing with them. I think focal points are important but just as likely to come some random event that I would have no control over. So I would be more concerned with minimizing the damage of flashpoint than with trying to prevent one.

Discussing things with the neighboors just makes them more credible when they are interviewed by the news. I would also prefer to bet on the short attention span of the public, and public sympathy. If something is widely known to the public I believe they would be more likely to be mentally prepared to do something about it if a flash point did occur.

There are some benefits to coming out, but I don't think coming out is the optimal way to get away with something that your concerned about getting away with socially.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Most states have a provision for "common-law marriage" based on a long period of cohabitation.

If a man lived exclusively with one woman, but had children with other women that he did not cohabitate with, it is legal.

If a man lived one night at a time with each woman, the multiple cohabitation would open up the question of bigamy under common law marriage.

I'll leave it for the viewer to decide which arrangement is in the best interest of society.

I'd like to see a "Big Love - Saudi Arabia" version...

George writes:
Most states have a provision for "common-law marriage" based on a long period of cohabitation.

Actually, most states abolished "common-law marriage" years ago. Of the states that still recognize them, which includes Utah BTW, the participants must actively jump through legal hoops to get the state to recognize them as legal marriages.

So, AFAIK there is nothing illegle going on in "Big Love."

John Thacker writes:

I've noticed that more people are offended by Big Love than the Sopranos. What gives?

Are you seriously asking the question? I'd imagine that it's because The Sopranos in the end makes being in the Mafia seem negative, rather than not taking a stand on it.

People really don't mind so much the "29 minutes of debauchery with 1 minute of repentance." They like watching people be nasty or do things that they disagree with so long as just desserts are given eventually. Dallas and Desperate Housewives certainly both work this way.

The point of Big Love is hardly to make polgamists get "what they deserve" and get in trouble for being polygamists, so people who dislike polygamy are going to be more upset than in the case of something which shows crime, but where "crime doesn't pay."

Abishek writes:

Hi Bryan,
I think that though gradual spread of information is good it has a major flaw ie the interpretations and prejudices that most people have towards that way of life would come into picture. People with no opinions would also be forced to take the the interpretations of the information bearers. Not that this isnt caused by a person in the press but it would be a single opinion. The extent of damage is lesser. However the only way out is to get it out with it earlier, than later as the extent of damage would be more. The later it comes out the feeling of betrayal from the customers is higher.

Zac writes:

The common law marriage thing is an interesting point I hadn't thought of.

Usually, at least my impression, prosecutions for bigamy usually involved there being multiple marriage certificates. Of course this causes weird problems not only from a social acceptability perspective but from a legal one about property rights.

LDS has really tried to fight the polygamist image for, what, a century now? They've been pretty unsuccessful. So when a show comes around in Utah involving a polygamist, you would expect them to be up in arms. If you depicted an altar-boy molesting priest, do you think Catholics would be happy if you said, "Oh, but he's Lutheran?" Another sensitive group like this is the West Virginians, who have tried to fight the hillbilly image. If you had a show about hillbilly's that actually took place in southeastern Ohio, they'd still be mad.

I'm not excusing all this ruckus, just trying to show you that saying "they aren't LDS, the writers say so!" isn't very useful. Whether they're LDS or not technically, doesn't really matter to anyone (people watching will know what's implied and the LDS people know what's implied)

Xmas writes:

Rakehell,

You're right. For some reason, I thought that Branch Davidians were a Mormon splinter group.

Though, if you look, you can easily find info on polygamist Mormon splinter groups, such as the "Fundamentalist Church of Later-Day Saints".

FXKLM writes:

In Utah, it is a crime to live with a woman as husband and wife while you're married to another woman if you're only claiming a legal marriage with one woman.

"I've noticed that more people are offended by Big Love than the Sopranos. What gives?"

From what I've read it's that it gives a false impression of polygamy in the US today. One critic said that "real polygamist wives are more likely to be shuffling through their food stamps inside a trailer" rather than worrying about maxing out their credit cards. In Hollywood (or in a libertarian paradise), perhaps polygamy can be nice. In the real world, it's usually exploitative and abusive, and as such the show may do real harm in romanticising it.

As to why people aren't offended by the Sopranos: beats me. I saw only one episode and thought it was stupid and offensive for similar reasons. The one I saw featured random rape in a parking lot and unbelivably quacky freudian dream analysis involving dogs and soda machines. Since women should worry more about their boyfriends, spouses and ex-es than random strangers, and since freudianism is discredited and worse than useless, "The Sopranos" has many of the same problems, yes.

Tracy W writes:

And if it's illegal to marry more than one partner, what does that mean. If Bill has state-issued marriage certificates for each wife, then, what? The last two are actually void? In which case he's not actually legally married to those women. And so there is nothing illegal about his living arrangement.

He's commiting a crime, something like fraud, in being married to two people.

Clearly when person A and person B are married, and then person B marries person C without A's knowledge, person A has a reasonable claim that B is being fraudulent. And if C doesn't know about the pre-existing marriage then C has a reasonable claim for fraud too.

I do not know about the USA, but in NZ to get a marriage license you have to swear that you are not already married, so any bigamist is lying to the government too. Rightly or wrongly, all governments I know about alter their treatment for married people, and consequently anyone who claims to be married to two people when that is not permitted is therefore commiting a fraud of some sort. Which brings us into bigamy being defined as a crime even if A and C are aware and consent to the double-marriage.

Incidentally, attempted murder is still a crime even though the victim is alive, and even if the victim is completely unharmed by the attempt and thus strictly speaking no harm has been done. Most people agree with this. Consequently there is a precedence for intent to commit a crime being a crime in itself.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Caplan asks:

I've noticed that more people are offended by Big Love than the Sopranos. What gives?

In both cases the main characters are doing something most/many people think is wrong, but in the Sopranos the main characters cannot reasonably be construed as good guys.

In The Laramie Project there is an actor who thinks he's found a logical flaw in the objections of his family to his playing a gay role. He points out that they didn't object to him playing Macbeth, the point being that Macbeth clearly did things far worse than the gay character he was now playing.

The explanation for that is that Macbeth isn't a protaganist.

The behavior of Tony Soprano, like Macbeth, is not not being offered as a potentially acceptable way of life. The behavior of the polygamists in Big Love is. That's why it will stir many people up more.

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