On his blog, De Boer responds to concerns about gender imbalance in the marriage market. My responses follow:
1. We already have lots of sad horny angry dudes.
That is not an argument recommending a policy that might create orders of magnitude more.
2. Government has no business trying to regulate the sexual or romantic “marketplace” so that men feel like they have an adequate number of partners to choose from. Society has no legitimate interest in ensuring that you feel like you have a good chance of getting laid.
Getting laid, which does not require marriage, is beside the point. And the point isn’t to ensure that men “feel like” they have an adequate number of partners to choose from––it is to ensure that both genders do have at least some realistic opportunity to participate in the institution of marriage, the same cause that drove so many impassioned proponents of gay marriage to broaden the institution. I’d further argue that the government does have an interest in regulating the sexual marketplace in this sense: Nature has given humanity a world with roughly equal numbers of men and women, a highly beneficial reality, and if that parity were threatened by large numbers of parents choosing the gender of their children, the government would, I think, have an interest in outlawing that practice to avoid the terrible consequences that could result from a significant imbalance.
3. Traditional marriage has traditionally invested men with superior power, too.
In practice, the power imbalance in polygamous unions has arguably been both greater and more resistant to egalitarian trends. And in any marriage that grows beyond two people, a new problem presents itself: the possibility of a majority ganging up on a minority.
4. That polygamy often functions to have one man who dominates the household and lots of subservient wives is a function of patriarchy. It’s our duty to destroy patriarchy. If we undertake that effort, the benefits will accrue to traditional marriage, to polygamous marriage, and to the unmarried.
By this logic, why not destroy patriarchy and then, only once you’ve succeeded, recognize group marriage?
5. That the idea of one wife with many husbands is just assumed away is itself reflective of ingrained sexism.
Ingrained sexism exists and will shape how polygamy plays out if it spreads! And even apart from ingrained sexism, men may turn out to be more averse to sharing a wife with other men than women are to sharing a husband with other women.
6. The notion that polygamy will necessarily and perpetually default to one husband, many wives because of inequality in social and economic capital between men and women seems to me to be a matter of declaring defeat in the battle against sexism.
Even if longstanding patterns reversed and women began to take multiple men as spouses in much higher numbers than the reverse, there would still be a category of losers––low status women, in this case––who would be denied the opportunity to marry by the inegalitarian structure of polygamous society.
7. While a huge amount of work remains to be done, we’ve seen remarkable progress in closing the gap in social and economic capital between men and women in recent decades. There are a lot of relationships out there, right now, where the woman is the partner with more social capital, more education, a better income, and better prospects. It’s one of the most obvious changes in educated, elite society. Under those conditions, I can easily imagine one wife taking multiple husbands. And while we should never presume progress, I think we have a clear duty to spread that changing condition in the relative social and economic value of men and women throughout society. If we do, you’ll find this problem goes away.
Among highly educated, high-income Americans in polyamorous relationships––not marriages, just relationships––a woman taking on multiple boyfriends is still, as best I can tell, the least common arrangement. There is every reason to think that the pattern would hold if polygamous marriages became common in secular society.
* * *
Apart from any of these other objections, polygamist unions seem likely to prove less stable than two-person unions, which aren’t particularly stable themselves these days. If each individual in a polygamous union is no more or less likely to seek a divorce than a person in a monogamous union, the failure rate would still be at least a third higher, assuming a three-person grouping, and higher still for larger plural marriages. That isn’t sufficient reason to punish people for attempting polyamorous unions, but seems like a good reason to avoid encouraging them.