Bryan Caplan  

Posner Contra Polygamy

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Like the creators of Big Love, I've long seen strong parallels between gay marriage and polygamy.  After last weeks' decision, some prominent pundits said the same.  But legendary Law and Economics scholar Richard Posner rejects the analogy:
[L]ater in his opinion the chief justice remembers polygamy and suggests that if gay marriage is allowed, so must be polygamy. He ignores the fact that polygamy imposes real costs, by reducing the number of marriageable women. Suppose a society contains 100 men and 100 women, but the five wealthiest men have a total of 50 wives. That leaves 95 men to compete for only 50 marriageable women.
Do you know what else has exactly the same effect?  Female gay marriage!  If half of women lost interest in men, this would have the same "real costs" that Posner attributes to polygamy.  Indeed, the same goes for straight women who don't date - or straight women with high standards.  Posner's argument proves too much - especially considering the fact that female gay marriages outnumber male gay marriages. 

More critically, though, Posner's argument ignores the fundamental economic distinction between transfers and deadweight costs.  Anything that raises the male/female ratio in the dating pool imposes costs on men.  Anything that lowers the male/female ratio imposes costs on women.  This is no different from shifts in supply or demand in any other market: While change implies both winners and losers, total social surplus is greatest at the intersection of supply and demand.

If Posner really wanted to economically critique polygamy, he would have focused not on distribution, but externalities.  In his earlier work, he did so - but he was still off his game. 
My view is that polygamy would impose substantial social costs in a modern Western-type society that probably would not be offset by the benefits to the parties to polygamous marriages. (For elaboration, see my book Sex and Reason (1992), particularly Chapter 9.) Especially given the large disparities in wealth in the United States, legalizing polygamy would enable wealthy men to have multiple wives, even harems, which would reduce the supply of women to men of lower incomes and thus aggravate inequality.
Yes, but this extra inequality could have great incentive effects on male production.  Maybe more inequality - or a different kind of inequality - would be socially beneficial.  Posner continues:
The resulting shortage of women would lead to queuing, and thus to a high age of marriage for men, which in turn would increase the demand for prostitution.
So?  The standard evils of prostitution stem from prohibition, not prostitution itself.
Moreover, intense competition for women would lower the age of marriage for women, which would be likely to result in less investment by them in education (because household production is a substitute for market production) and therefore reduce women's market output.
Even if you don't think signaling is a big deal, the obvious response is again, "So what?"  Allowing women to inherit wealth also makes a life of uneducated leisure more attractive, but I doubt Posner wants to do anything about it.  And if intense competition discourages female education, wouldn't it also encourage male education?

The only negative externality that Posner clearly identifies is political, but even he doesn't take it seriously.
In societies in which polygamy is permitted without any limitation on the number of wives, wealthy households become clans, since all the children of a polygamous household are related through having the same father, no matter how many different mothers they have. These clans can become so powerful as to threaten the state's monopoly of political power; this is one of the historical reasons for the abolition of polygamy, though it would be unlikely to pose a serious danger to the stability of American government.
An unlikely danger indeed.  Imagine a polygamist reading Posner's broad-brush history:
There is of course a long history of persecution of gay people, a history punctuated by such names as Oscar Wilde, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Alan Turing. Until quite recently, many American gays and lesbians took great pains to conceal their homosexuality in order to avoid discrimination. They value marriage just as straight people do. They want their adopted children to have the psychological and financial advantages of legitimacy. They are hurt by the discrimination that the dissenting justices condone. Prohibiting gay marriage is discrimination.
Change the labels and names, and the parallel between government persecution of gays and polygamists is nearly perfect.  Let the slippery slope of marriage equality proceed at maximum speed.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (48 to date)
Ryan Murphy writes:

I thought the externality argument in its best form was that the extreme status game would lead to more crime, more self-destructive behavior, and more stress. Maybe Posner doesn't emphasize it, but it appears elsewhere.

AMW writes:

You and Posner seem to be ignoring a simple solution to most of the ills he proposes: polyandry. If one rich man can afford multiple wives, why couldn't one rich woman afford multiple husbands? Or, perhaps more likely, one very desirable woman could attract many mates who would pay to support her. Modern polygamy would be a two-way street.

Michael B. writes:

Or nebulous marriages. One man has multiple wives, each wife has multiple husbands, etc.

Andrew_FL writes:

Not that I'm not very amused by this in general, but female gay marriage doesn't take additional women off the market for men. If they're lesbians, they weren't generally marriageable for men in the first place.

Other than that, you're basically totally on point.

But Posner and most other enthusiastic supporters of gay marriage will never admit they destroyed any coherent, consistent argument against polygamy. The idea that polygamy must be allowed by their own arguments is an embarrassment to them.

I breathe a sigh of odd relief, in a way, that at least some people are willing to be consistent about this. Logic need not necessarily be collateral damage in the marriage war after all.

Andrew_FL writes:

Another thought, as long as we're going to play the "polygamy isn't fair, isn't egalitarian" game, why not go full socialist about it? Some men have more wives than others now! It's clearly pretty unfair that some men get to be married, and some of us may end up being bachelors for who knows how long-maybe the rest of our lives!

Down with wife inequality! Spread the women around!

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Do economic arguments actually work in the man-woman relations?
Consider that the scarcity of women in certain countries (China, India etc) has not resulted in elevating woman's status vis-a-vis man's.

Indeed, it was the low status of the woman that resulted in the scarcity of woman. And the way the societies have adapted to the scarcity is not via elevating women's status but by further degrading it- purchase of women or increase in gang rapes etc.

Tom Davies writes:

There were plenty of cohabiting same sex relationships before same sex marriages were recognised by the government. Do we expect even more now?

I don't think there are many polygamous or polyandrous relationships now. Would we expect more if these relationships were legally recognised?

shecky writes:

I seem to recall that Posner's concern might be supported, at least within the shadowy world of illegal polygamous communities that already exist. Surplus young men are more marginalized and effectively exiled as a result.

However, I think this exists within communities that are pretty marginal themselves, even if one disregards their affinity for illegal marriage arrangements. Women within these social structures face restrictions that most never have to deal with, or never to such an extent. At this point, I have a hard time believing polygamy would be such a threat to society overall, as the vast majority of modern thinking people reject such inequalities outright. Similar to the absurd notion that gay marriage will somehow affect straight marriages, I doubt polygamous marriage will have any effect on monogamous marriages.

austrartsua writes:

I am in 100% agreement with Bryan on all of this except the last paragraph. I am not convinced that state nonrecognition of gay marriage is really persecution. Persecution could probably be stated most simply as the violation of a person's fundamental rights. But do you have a right to have your marriage recognized by the state? Marriage is a contract between two people. Do all contracts between people have to be recognized by the state? Do some of them? If so, which? By all means it is true that some contracts should be recognized by the state and be legally binding through the usual procedures. But to call the nonrecognition of a particular private contract persecution is surely hyperbole in the extreme.

Persecuted minorities of the past would be horrified by the blind, self-obsessed sensitivity of some modern day pro gay marriage campaigners. To use the word persecuted in this context is to belittle their struggles. Gay people do not need 9 old white-haired lawyers to tell them that their love is legitimate. Nor do any of us. This issue is truly bonkers.

But in so far as contracts between a man and women should be legally extended to contracts between several men and several women, sure go ahead.

ivvenalis writes:

"The idea that polygamy must be allowed by their own arguments is an embarrassment to them."

Only to the suckers/useful idiots, who don't think about higher-order effects anyway, so not really.

@shecky: So, existing polygamous communities tend to lead to bad outcomes, but that won't happen in the future because in the future, "modern thinking people", who through pure coincidence are the product of a society that has been monogamous for all of recorded history, will be now be polygamists instead of monogamists.

@Tom Davies: I don't think it would be that common. If polygamy were discreetly legalized tonight I don't think it would affect that much. If there were a concerted media campaign about how all cool people are polygamous and/or concrete government incentives it would probably become much more popular.

Polygamy isn't all that common in modern Muslim countries where it is legal, but it is still a lot more common than gay marriage where that's legal. But polygamy can still have significant marginal effects even if it never becomes common, for instance making it easier to run immigration scams or qualify for certain government programs.


"These clans can become so powerful as to threaten the state's monopoly of political power; this is one of the historical reasons for the abolition of polygamy, though it would be unlikely to pose a serious danger to the stability of American government [until after I'm dead, so who cares, right?]"

He didn't even try to refute this, just asserted that it wouldn't be a problem because [American exceptionalism?]. I'd also point out that prohibitions on inbreeding, which are also rendered nonsensical by gay marriage, have similar effects on preventing clan formation.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Same-sex marriage changes the conditions of no existing marriage.

Polygamy changes the conditions of every existing marriage by suddenly allowing extra members. One suspects that makes a difference.

ThomasH writes:

I agree that there is no reason in principle not to recognize a polygamous or polyandrous unit as "married," but the contractual duties and rights under that arrangement is not as straightforward as with same-sex marriage. Would all wives/husbands be equal? In actual polygamous unions there is defined status ordering with the "senior" wife having some authority over the "junior" wives. Default laws of inheritance, "next of kin" etc. would need to be worked out. While none of these problems is insolvable, it's not clear that there would be enough demand for this kind of contract to make it worthwhile to create.

Anon writes:


Your lack of understanding of evolutionary biology is a bit troubling.


What your post ignores is that a surplus of men results in a multitude of extensive negative externalities. Violence, crime, murders, etc. would all increase precipitously given the increase in competition over women. The modern concept of "monogamy" (realistically, serial monogamy - high status men, those who would have multiple wives in times past, often instead remarry)is one of the largest contributors (I would argue *THE* largest) to modern social order.

I agree that male economic production would most likely increase, but again, the negative externalities would, I think, easily overwhelm any benefits. (I guess I now know how Pikkety-ites feel)

Anyway, there's been a host of literature published on the topic and the result has always been the same: Benefits of monogamy on social order far outweigh any costs.

"In cultures that permit men to take multiple wives, the intra-sexual competition that occurs causes greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality than in societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage."

Imagine a society where all men have the risk taking propensity of men in their early 20's.. yikes.

Thomas B writes:


One of the problems with marriage as it is currently defined is that it rarely embodies the expectations any particular couple actually has about specific rights and duties. The result is often nasty surprises when one or the other seeks enforcement (i.e., divorce) and learns that their contributions to the marriage may now be used against them in unexpected and often perverse ways, while expectations they had of the other person's contributions will not be enforced.

Another is that when you cross state lines, or whenever the regulators feel like it, the rights-and-duties rules change.

If same-sex and, eventually, plural marriage highlight those problems, we may get to a time when government backs away and allows the creation of a range of contractual arrangements, entered by the couple's choice of rules and not generally altered by geography or legislative fiat.

Well, one can dream!

John Thacker writes:

Hmm, Posner must be strongly against allowing sex-selective abortion, then, since it also adjusts the sex ratio.

miguelmadeira writes:

"You and Posner seem to be ignoring a simple solution to most of the ills he proposes: polyandry."

In almost all human societies and in almost all animal species, poligyny is much more common than polyandry; probably a society where both poligynic and poliandric marriages are recognized by law will have much more polyginy than polyandry.

Sol writes:

It seems odd to me that so many people are arguing against polygamy based on very old notions of what it is like. I mean, if you were introducing Old Testament heterosexual two-person marriage today, everyone would reject it as obviously undesirable and unworkable in the modern world.

I don't have the links now, but I've seen a couple of recentish stories about real, live trios. They weren't pairs of overlapping couples -- each member was attracted to both of the others. All worked outside the home. It seemed like a very equitable situation with many obvious advantages over a couple. Maybe it wouldn't work out in the long run, but that's already true of 50% of marriages. I've never heard any sensible argument against that sort of arrangement other than "we'd have to redefine laws if N>2", which surely cannot be a valid reason to trample such people's civil rights.

_NL writes:

Most of the arguments against polygamy are actually arguments against some real or imagined customary practice of polygyny (not polyandry or polyamory). Which means most of the arguments assume that women will want to share a husband but men will not want to share a wife. So necessarily these arguments tend toward two assertions that must remain implicit:

1. Women will allegedly tend to make choices that are good for them but bad for others, meaning that women want to share a husband but this is bad for society and/or bad for single men.

2. Women should supposedly subvert their own choices to the needs of men or the needs of society.

In other words, most Western arguments against polygyny assume that women's choices must be discouraged and deprived of legal protections for the sake of men. There are plenty of feminist arguments to prohibit polygyny, but they all assume that women are coerced by parents or lack of options. Those are not really relevant in the US, where women are free to live in unmarried polygynous households, yet it appears that very few choose to do so outside of a few communities (suggesting that the underlying quasi-coercive dynamics are not present in this country).

Since it cannot be reasonably argued that educated adult women will be roped into unwilling or unwanted multiple marriages (at least, no more than they are roped into two-person marriages with men), the only real arguments left are that it's bad for society.

So women are expected, if polygamy is legalized, to voluntarily make choices that make life worse for some men, and the solution to polygamy is supposedly to force women into suboptimal lives in order to improve the lives of marginally marriageable men. That's no less misogynistic than the notion that women must serve and obey their husbands as they would their fathers.

Notice that all these arguments against polygamy apply equally well to women who choose never to get married or to never remarry after a divorce. I'd imagine that few opponents of polygamy want to push women away from remaining single for their lives, yet somehow to them it seems fine to prohibit recognition of polygamy for the purpose of forcing women to remain available for men.

August Hurtel writes:

Ah, but you are ignoring the cost/benefits to the lawyers, who also happen to be our judges, and our politicians.

Government defined marriage exists to expand the divorce industry's franchise. With two parties, the lawyers and courts can rather straightforwardly fleece the richer one at the behest of the poorer one.
With more parties, there will be multiple claimants, thus less money available for the divorce industry to extract overall, and a strong probability that a narrative different from the standard one that they use will emerge. Those that are cast as 'poor victims' may not look as victimized, if every other party can attest that he or she is not.
I think you'll be able to marry a goat before polygamy would ever be legal, because a legal monogamous relationship with a goat will provide the lawyers far more opportunity than polygamy. We are, after all, following after Rome.

Philo writes:

@ Lorenzo from Oz:

The authorities could stipulate that already existing marriages, contracted before polygamy was legalized, would be treated as contracts with an implicit exclusivity rider, preventing either party from adding a spouse without the consent of the existing spouse (or without first getting divorced from the existing spouse). And presumably couples marrying after the legalization of polygamy could, if they wished, explicitly include exclusivity in their contracts, though they need not do so.

Andy writes:

How about the fact that polygamy requires a lot of women who are willing to enter plural marriages? I don't know many American women like that, do you?

"Societies where polygamy is permitted" doesn't really capture it. Very few of those women in darkest Africa or Islamic Republics actually have any choice in the matter. They were "given" in marriage, or coerced.

Anon writes:

Again, people here are displaying a severe lack of understanding with regards to evolutionary biology.

Human societies virtually always trend to polygyny. Having numerous long-term mates provides little, if any, reproductive fitness advantages for females (men that are not sure of their paternity will not provide resources to raise a child at the same rate compared to those that are certain, negating the positive effects of having more than one provider of resources). On the other hand, having numerous long-term mates provides significant reproductive fitness advantages for males.

A male with numerous mates will be able to have far more children (thereby propagating the genes that select for the ability and desire to attract numerous mates)than an average male.

A female with numerous mates will NOT be able to have significantly more children than an average female. Thus there is no selective pressure here. (Again, increased resources from multiple mates may increase likelihood of the child to survive to child-bearing age, BUT paternal uncertainty means that the males won't devote maximal resources)

This is basic evolutionary biology. It worries me a bit that this isn't as well understood by commenters here who are normally well-informed on other matters.

Jeff writes:
Yes, but this extra inequality could have great incentive effects on male production. Maybe more inequality - or a different kind of inequality - would be socially beneficial.

Eh, I think that's pretty sketchy. Traditionally, I think the way polygamous societies dealt with a shortage of marriageable women was through war, conquest, kidnapping, or just outright murder. And why not? Eliminating the competition takes seconds. Getting an engineering degree takes years and is simply beyond the capacity of many men, anyway.

Richard writes:


Yes, I know a lot of women who accept their man sleeping with others because he's an unusually desirable partner. If society actually sanctioned polygamy, even more women would accept such an arrangement.

Gay marriage and polyandry are fighting against the grain of human nature. People have a natural desire to enter into relationships where they can produce children and be certain about who the parents of their offspring are. Monogamy and polygamy are the only kinds of arrangements that qualify, and that's what society has usually supported.

Anon writes:


Exactly: the easiest way for low-status men to increase their status is through violence, crime and a general upheaval of social order

If you create a society wherein a large group of men are forced to find a way to increase their social status in order to find mates, you can surely guess what will happen

The comparison to gay marriage (and the general appeal to nature arguments) is irrelevant

RPLong writes:

I have no beef with polyamory, but realisticaly, the only way to make this work is to end legal recognition of any kind of marriage.

While there are already perverse incentives to enter into a marriage today, they multiply greatly if we allow people to marry many people at the same time.

Think of situations in which people might marry each other to protect financial assets, for example. What if a large group of minority shareholders chose to enter into a marriage as a form of corporate takeover? Should the law recognize this sort of thing? Can two or more corporations get married? Can I agree to marry dozens of men and women in order to share or sublet my insurance policy benefits with them?

To be clear, I'm not making a "slippery slope" argument, I'm saying that allowing plural marriage will create a long list of perverse incentives among people who would otherwise have no interest in plural marriage. That will create legal trouble beyond just the "rights" issue, and I think the only way to avoid that trouble is for the state to recognize no marriage at all.

Duncan Frissell writes:

France had to deal with some social problems of polygamy. Men from Africa would migrate to France with a wife and go on the dole. Then they would buy a wife for $50 and fly her to France. This would increase family size directly and indirectly (children) and "buy" larger public accommodation and more cash support. Rinse and repeat. They had to restrict the dole but it was a problem because the wives and children were physically in France and couldn't be allowed to die.

Hazel Meade writes:

The objections to polygamy seem to rest on the assumption that polygamy would primarily take the form of men with multiple wives rather than women with multiple husbands.

That might make the most sense in a male-dominated society where having lots of children is a priority. I don't think it would necessarily hold in a modern society in which most people don't want more than 2-3 children, and in which women are often the breadwinners.

Richard writes:

@Hazel Meade

Your argument only makes sense if you believe that men and women are interchangeable, which they are not. Economic reasoning is not enough to explain the world, it needs to be combined with an understanding of evolutionary psychology to understand the species we are interested in.

Hazel Meade writes:


The main way in which men and women aren't interchangable is that women can have babies and men can't. One man can impregnant multiple wives, but one woman can only have one baby at a time. Thus the historical preference for polygynous polygamy.

But if (as I said) you aren't interested in having lots of babies, then that doesn't matter. All of the other differences are trivial in comparison. In a marriage of DINKs it is virtually irrelevant whether the next partner is a wife or a husband.

Bart Torvik writes:

It's an excellent point that Posner's argument proves too much in that it could be used equally well against same-sex marriage, particularly because it seems that lesbians outnumber gay men -- especially among younger ("marriageable") people. According to my math (work shown here) under Posner's reasoning same-sex marriage could leave about 2 million American men between 20-39 without a "marriageable" spouse.

Richard writes:

@Hazel Meade

Even people who are not interested in having a lot of children still have brains that were shaped by Darwinian evolution. That's why men who discover that their wives are cheating on them don't go "oh well, we weren't planning on having a baby anyway."

Men will never accept the sharing of a wife, but women may accept the sharing of a husband, depending on cultural conditions and other circumstances.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Richard, there may be some slight biological inclination to be more likely to share a husband amoung women, but the main driver of polygamy/polygyny throughout human history has been to maximize the number of babies.

Absent the desire or need to have lots of babies, which has been removed by modern industrial society, and given that western legal structure prevent women from being forced into marriages, it is doubtful that polygynous marriages would become the norm.

And, just for the record, I actually know a woman who is involved in an informal polyandrous marriage to two men. The three of them own a house together and share a bed and they've been together for >5 years so it seems to be a fairly stable arrangement.

IVV writes:



"Men will never accept the sharing of a wife, but women may accept the sharing of a husband, depending on cultural conditions and other circumstances."

Sorry, but that's patently laughable. Have you heard of an open marriage?

I mean, heck, I've had married women show interest in me, and their husbands wouldn't mind at all, as long as they aren't expected to contribute to the raising of any child produced. But my wife vehemently rejects the idea that I might have other partners, despite the fact she might never have a child, herself.

Your narrative has so many exceptions.

Anon writes:

Reading Hazel's comments it's very clear that we need to rethink how we teach evolutionary biology in schools. The misunderstanding shown here is fascinating.

"There may be some slight biological inclination to be more likely to share a husband amoung women, but the main driver of polygamy/polygyny throughout human history has been to maximize the number of babies."

The main driver of all human behavior is to maximize genetic fitness (not necessarily, one's own *children*, but one's *genes*). But we don't see this DIRECTLY, it comes indirectly through making pleasurable behaviors that maximize genetic fitness (and vice versa). Even those who consciously do not want to ever have children are (obviously) shaped by millions of years of evolution. For your theory to be correct, individuals who never want to have children would be completely abstinent. This is obviously not true. Sex is pleasurable because our ancestors for which sex was not pleasurable did not pass on their genes to subsequent generations. Sex isn't pleasurable because individuals are thinking "this act may result in a child".

One can see the evidence that humans are naturally polygynous, and not polyamorous, in many ways. For example, ecological studies of sexually transmitted diseases show that males show *far* greater variability in number of historical sexual partners than females. This is also the case in studies of college aged populations. Number of sexual partners for men is right skewed whereas for women it is centered around the mean. Additionally, number of sexual partners for men is very strongly correlated with positive attributes, such as physical attractiveness and social status, whereas for women no such correlations exist.

Thomas B writes:


Second the "that's laughable". I know of counterexamples, men who are just not that jealous; and women who are extremely so. I once read an article by an anthropologist who claimed that you tend to find minority groups of non-jealous people, and that it can be adaptive. For example, men can cuckold husbands only if they are not jealous that their lover (the wife) is with someone else (her husband). Even without cuckolding anyone, if a man wants to have a number of lovers, he is going to realize that at least some of them will have other men. A woman may be able to get partial support from a number of men (even without family law), while diversifying her own genetic bet, if she has several lovers, each of whom has to consider the possibility that some of her children are his - she may garner less support than she would from a single husband, but she gains genetic diversity. Again, this won't work if either she, or her lovers, are particularly jealous.

On gay marriage/lesbians, in my own life I have twice been propositioned by a lesbian couple. So the gay marriage equivalency being advanced in the comments does have to be modified for that kind of thing, too.

Anon writes:

@Bart, that is not a very good point at all. A woman who enters into a lesbian marriage would not consider a heterosexual marriage as a substitute if the former was illegal. Whereas a monogamous heterosexual marriage is definitely a substitute for a polygynous marriage. The woman is simply settling for a less than ideal mate. But that is what we all do. I would wager a hefty sum that no male here would be with their current significant other if they were significantly more wealthy/had higher social status and no female here would be with their current spouse if they were significantly more attractive. The beauty of biology/hormones means it doesn't matter though. Numerous studies have found that arranged marriages are no less successful (some studies have indeed found them *more* successful) than traditional marriages. Evolution has built in numerous mechanisms to grow affection to those who we mate with (allowing us to focus labor and resources to raise our children to child-rearing age).

Anon writes:


You say:

"Absent the desire or need to have lots of babies, which has been removed by modern industrial society, and given that western legal structure prevent women from being forced into marriages, it is doubtful that polygynous marriages would become the norm."

The ironic thing is that in modern western society polygynous marriage *is* indeed the norm in the form of "serial monogamy".

Men are significantly more likely to remarry than women:

Men who remarry do so with women who are, on average, much younger than those marrying for the first time:

Wealthy men who remarry are much more likely to remarry younger women:

All of this squares perfectly with the evolutionary argument that Richard posited above (and which is fairly common knowledge within scholars of evolutionary biology).

The idea that a few hundred years of industrialization is enough to counteract the effects of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary selection is ludicrous.

Bart Torvik writes:

@Anon: You say "A woman who enters into a lesbian marriage would not consider a heterosexual marriage as a substitute if the former was illegal."

Many gay people used to get married to opposite sex partners, particularly when homosexuality itself was more highly stigmatized and even illegal. But you're right that this is an argument not just against gay marriage, but against recognition of gay rights in general.

Massimo writes:

In the US underclass, it's fairly common for men to form multiple families with multiple women. It's also common for women to bear children for many men without every marrying.

It makes it hard to criticize or be upset with legal polygamy when this "ghetto polygamy" seems so much worse and already prevalent with out formal legal approval.

It's kind of outrageous to watch grown adults quite deliberately and knowingly sire large numbers of children, not seriously parent them, and have them all raised on government assistance. I know it's out of fashion to criticize underclass abuse of charity. Caplan says charity is more about the old than the poor.

Brian writes:

"The ironic thing is that in modern western society polygynous marriage *is* indeed the norm in the form of "serial monogamy"."


And yet you don't recognize that, by your definition, serial monogamy is also an example of polyandry? Or that under serial monogamy it's mathematically impossible for one to be more common than another except to the extent that there are more women than men?

If you look at the stats in the article you linked, you will note that men and women remarry at identical rates up to age 60 or so. The huge difference that develops after that age is likely due to women living longer than men, leading to a surplus of women. I am only speculating, but the legalization of polygamy might lead to an explosion of polyandry for senior citizens, especially since companionship might be a larger motivator than sex.

Hazel Meade writes:

Even those who consciously do not want to ever have children are (obviously) shaped by millions of years of evolution. For your theory to be correct, individuals who never want to have children would be completely abstinent.

For your theory to be correct, people would never consider using birth control. Men would never have vasectomies or wear condoms. That fact that people commonly now DO deliberately prevent unwanted pregnancies shows not only that something has changed from pre-historic times, but also that our brains are capable of adapting to these new circumstances. Not everything in them is biologically determined.

Daublin writes:

@Andrew, that's a very inaccurate view of real-world lesbians. Lots of gay people, male and female both, are in heterosexual marriages. For that matter, lots of straight people are also in marriages where there's negligible sex within the marriage.

Part of my unease with the gay marriage movement is that it has publicly promoted an inaccurate caricature of human sexuality. Worse, it has turned marriage into something that is supposed to be driven by sex, when most real-world successful marriages are only sex-fests in the initial stages.

There are lots of ways this caricature just doesn't match real-world human sexuality.

One difference is that real-world gay people often explicitly reject being part of the "scene". They recognize that the word "gay" is tied up in a certain set of social customs, and they just don't want to get into that. They instead choose a traditional heterosexual marriage, and even have biological children within it. For reasons it would take volumes to discuss, the traditional marriage is often a pillar of people's lives.

Another difference is that these preferences change dramatically over the course of peoples lives. Men and women both become more open-minded as they grow older. As well, men and women both are far more likely to be "scene" people at an earlier age. I know of just two male-male couples that have survived for more than a decade. I know of no female-female couples that have done so. The multiple female-female couples I am familiar with have universally drifted toward heterosexual marriage as they get into their late 30s and early 40s.

A final difference is that, if you ask married people on anonymous internet forums, you can often ellict at least some form of interest in same-sex sex. This makes me strongly question the notion of being "gay" or "straight" at all. People seem to just like sex. They enjoy all forms and variations of it if they try it with the right partner who can show them how to make it good.

Brian writes:

Oops, when I said "an explosion of polyandry" in my post above, I meant to say "an explosion of apparent polygamy." With a surplus of older women, this would be dominated by apparent polygyny, of course, not polyandry.

Brian writes:

Oddly enough, what no one here seems to recognize is that in modern society, legally recognized marriage of any kind is a fundamentally intrusive act by government into a private arrangement and, in fact, is unconstitutional.

Given the universal status of marriage as a religious institution, any state definition of marriage will either limit the free exercise of religion or violate the establishment clause. Legalized marriage (defined as a sexual union) would also appear to run afoul of the right to privacy, which the Supreme Court has said extends to sexual matters.

The only way around the constitutional quagmire is to create a legalized domestic association, say a domestic partnership law, that is independent of sexual relationships. Marriage would then exist purely as a private act, as it should be. Domestic associations would involve any number of consenting adults who lived together in the same household but would carry no expectation of sexual relations and could be formed and broken at will. Most of the problems mentioned by RPLong would be avoided by the domestic requirement. Such a legal innovation would extend the benefits of legality to a vast number of people, far larger than the number of people impacted by gay marriage.

Will this happen? I don't know, but it will if logic ever has anything to say about the matter.

I would like to see Bryan discuss polygamy more through the lens of how it has been practiced in the United States in reality, and less at how it is practiced in theory. In reality, polygamy is nowhere near as workable as gay marriage.

Here is just a brief and incomplete explanation as to why that is the case: the older men in polygamous communities (which are indeed communities, not scattered individuals as in Big Love) have had a powerful incentive to compete viciously for the dwindling supply of women, specifically by casting the younger men, including their own sons, out of the community entirely. Those boys, who were raised with a religious worldview in which polygamy, community, religion, and family are their only ticket to heaven, the alternative to which is "outer darkness," indeed those are all nearly the same thing, become total outcasts. They become alone. They fear for their souls. They are and remain poor. They turn completely over to the opposite side and become drug addicts. They have no family. Their youths are, basically, extremely traumatic, for no other reason than that they are strong competition for young women. This is reality. Their mothers and sisters are traumatized as well. And that's to say nothing of the "brides," who for reasons you might easily understand tend to be selected for marriage, and taught the same religious doctrine as their brothers are, from an extremely young age. Et cetera.

Some of that does not follow, strictly speaking, directly from polygamy per se, but much of it does, given the particular theology and political economy of polygamy as it has actually been practiced in the United States, both after and before it was banned... Posner barely touched on the political economy piece, and not at all on the theology. Bryan's rebuttal, just as weak, is nothing more than the irrelevant fact that a few survey respondents once suggested to Pew that more lesbians than gay men would get married if they could. Bryan, that's not even close to a good analogy.

Granted, I agree with that the slippery slope of marriage should continue to slide -- the problems of polygamy are made even worse by the isolation that comes with illegality -- but polygamy and gay marriage are, in the real world, totally different things with totally different externalities than what both Posner and Bryan have considered. He should address those differences more directly. I think if he looked into it more deeply, read a few books or studies about it, he would conclude that polygamy in the United States is vastly more morally problematic than gay marriage, that polygamy should nonetheless be legal, and that private individuals should disapprove of (most) polygamy, but only insofar as that does not drive polygamous families out of wider society.

Mark writes:

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lemmy caution writes:

Jacob Aaron Geller is right. Actual existing polygamous societies are bad news.

Pretty sure that polygamy as practiced relies heavily on restricting the choice and freedom of women:

from FDLS wikipedia page

The church currently practices placement marriage, whereby a young woman of marriageable age is assigned a husband by revelation from God to the leader of the church, who is regarded as a prophet. The prophet elects to take and give wives to and from men according to their worthiness. This is also called the law of placing.

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