The Case Against Encouraging Polygamy

Why civil marriage should not encompass group unions

Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, writer Freddie de Boer wants its proponents to adopt a new focus. Where does the next advance come?” he asks in an essay at Politico. “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.”

The time is ripe, he argues, in part because there’s no longer a strategic reason to hold off. “To advocate for polygamy during the marriage equality fight may have seemed to confirm the socially conservative narrative, that gay marriage augured a wholesale collapse in traditional values,” he observes. “But times have changed; while work remains to be done, the immediate danger to marriage equality has passed.”

He proceeds to argue that “the case against polygamy is incredibly flimsy, almost entirely lacking in rational basis and animated by purely irrational fears and prejudice.” And he goes further, insisting that even if there are pragmatic reasons to deny state-sanction to polygamous marriage, we must extend it anyway because it is a human right. “We must insist that rights cannot be dismissed out of short-term interests of logistics and political pragmatism,” he says in the essay, adding in a followup blog post that “logistics are never sufficient reason to deny human rights.”

All three of those arguments strike me as wrongheaded.

I suspect that there are still strategic reasons for gay-marriage advocates to refrain from pushing for plural marriage; there are numerous rational arguments against state endorsement of group marriages; and having a polygamous marriage recognized and incentivized by the state is not a human right.

The law should, I think, allow groups of people to sleep in the same house, engage in group sex, and enter into contracts or religious arrangements of their liking. If a polyamorous family lived next door to me, I’d welcome them to the neighborhood and champion treating them with love and respect. But I think it would be imprudent to include their arrangement in civil marriage, with its incentivizing benefits, because if group marriage were to become normalized and spread beyond a tiny fringe the consequences for society could be significant and negative.

The Politics of Gay Marriage

​Gay marriage remains illegal in Australia, most of Asia, Africa, and Oceania, and parts of Europe and Mexico; the most liberal of those countries strike me as the most natural places for “the next advance” of marriage. I’d urge my fellow gay-marriage proponents to focus their efforts there––and legalizing group marriage in America right now would strengthen the hands of gay-marriage opponents abroad, confirming slippery-slope arguments that were raised and rejected here. If it ever made sense to avoid this fight as a matter of political strategy, it still does; if gay marriage was ever a more important priority​ than plural marriage, it remains so.

The Utilitarian Case Against Group Marriage

The strongest argument against state-sanctioned group marriage is how poorly it has worked out for women and low-status men in most times and places it has been tried.

Jonathan Rauch puts it succinctly:

There's an extensive literature on polygamy.

Here’s a 2012 study, for example, that discovered “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures.” According to the research, “monogamy's main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems.”

...monogamous marriage “results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict.” And: “by shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment.”

De Boer responds that “basic social science tells us that the very illegality and taboo that I’m trying to get rid of distorts the empirical picture. When a practice is illegal and taboo, that practice will necessarily be undertaken by people who tend towards extremist or outsider lifestyles. The fact that in America we associate polygamy with radical religious types is a function of that illegality and that taboo.”

But plural marriage is associated with those negative outcomes even in cultures where it is or was neither taboo nor illegal. Says De Boer, “The truth is that we don’t know what a wealthy Western society like America would look like with polygamous marriage because conservatism has prevented that society from existing.” He is right that we cannot be sure what the United States would look like if polygamy were legalized tomorrow, and perhaps America would be exceptional. It is also possible that the vast majority of plural marriages would occur within fundamentalist religious groups, as happened in the past; and that those plural marriages would be as coercive and destabilizing as has typically been true.

Either way, it is incomplete at best to assert that it is impossible to know what a polygamous society would look like “because conservatism has prevented that society from existing.” There are strong conservative arguments for risk-aversion and against experimenting with legalized group marriage, but there are equally strong technocratic, feminist, and progressive arguments against incentivizing polygamous marriage. If plural marriage is recognized by the state and practiced mostly in Berkeley and Williamsburg, those left-leaning arguments may well go unarticulated. I expect that they’ll be made forcefully, though, if the result of normalized plural marriage is, for example, a spike in the number of middle-aged religious conservatives who coerce their first wives into letting them marry teenagers summoned from fundamentalist Mormon sects or polygamous tribal societies abroad.

Numbers are the next-strongest argument against plural marriage. Here’s Rauch again:

...when a high-status man takes two wives (and one man taking many wives, or polygyny, is almost invariably the real-world pattern), a lower-status man gets no wife. If the high-status man takes three wives, two lower-status men get no wives... This competitive, zero-sum dynamic sets off a competition among high-status men to hoard marriage opportunities, which leaves lower-status men out in the cold. Those men, denied access to life's most stabilizing and civilizing institution, are unfairly disadvantaged and often turn to behaviors like crime and violence.

The situation is not good for women, either, because it places them in competition with other wives and can reduce them all to satellites of the man.

Where plural marriage exists in America, this is already happening. As The New York Times reported in 2007, “Over the last six years, hundreds of teenage boys have been expelled or felt compelled to leave the polygamous settlement that straddles Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. Disobedience is usually the reason given for expulsion, but former sect members and state legal officials say the exodus of males—the expulsion of girls is rarer—also remedies a huge imbalance in the marriage market. Members of the sect believe that to reach eternal salvation, men are supposed to have at least three wives.”

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.

The option of plural marriage might also destabilize some two-person unions, with one spouse regarding the existing arrangement as “till death do us part,” only to be confronted with a spouse who, while averse to divorce, is pushing for a new member of the marriage. “Either she joins us,” a husband might say, “or I’m out.” It’s hard to say if changing norms would make that scenario more likely than it is now.

Then there are the logistical problems that plural marriage presents, which would seem to require altering core features and benefits that presently make up civil marriage. Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has pointed out that the legal institution is largely concerned with the "designation, without elaborate contracting, of a single other person third parties can look to in a variety of legal contexts.” Three-, four-, or five-person unions would require abandoning that aspect of marriage.

Americans can presently marry a foreign citizen and bring them here, after jumping through bureaucratic hoops, eventually sponsoring them for U.S. citizenship. Would the advent of plural marriage require that this practice be ended? Or would group marriages include the right to confer unlimited citizenships?

When I got married I was eligible to add my wife to my employer-sponsored health insurance. In a world of plural marriage, would this benefit of the institution end, or could I add as many people as I liked to my employer’s insurance plan?

If the parties to a plural marriage disagree about a medical decision that needs to be made on behalf of an unconscious spouse, who would get to decide the matter? Who would receive the Social Security survivor benefits if the patient died? These logistical matters add real costs to recognizing plural marriages––and they lessen the simplifying benefits that marriage confers on society. They also suggest that expanding the definition of civil marriage to encompass more than two parties is a far more radical, fundamental change than was recognizing unions of same-sex couples.

Plural Marriage Is Not a Human Right

Is the state denying a human right when it declines to recognize polygamous marriages? De Boer answers affirmatively, but does not explain what makes something a human right that must be recognized irrespective of its consequences. I could surmise a rationale if someone put life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness––or food, shelter, and medicine––into a category called human rights.

I cannot surmise the rationale for putting “equal treatment for polygamous unions” in that category. If De Boer objected, as many libertarians do, to the state putting a thumb on the scale and incentivizing marriage with benefits that are denied to the unmarried, to business partners, to spouses, and to non-romantic friends, I’d grant the coherence of his complaint; but as best I can tell, he’s fine with unequal treatment for the married and unmarried so long as the married include polygamists.

The closest he comes to a rationale is arguing that “consenting adults who all knowingly and willfully decide to enter into a joint marriage contract, free of coercion, should be permitted to do so, according to basic principles of personal liberty,” adding “the preeminence of the principle of consent is a just and pragmatic way to approach adult relationships in a world of multivariate and complex human desires.”

I agree that consenting adults who decide to enter contracts while free of coercion should be permitted to do so, but I disagree that the state is obligated to call these contracts “marriages,” to extend to the parties all benefits of civil marriage, and to rewrite those attributes of civil marriage that are inseparable from two-person unions. In declining to do so, the state does not deny anyone equal protection under the law.


There could be benefits to recognizing polygamous relationships. Casey E. Faucon, a fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School, asserts that there are 150,000 polygamists now living in the U.S., and that many second and third polygamous wives “are left without any legal recognition or protection,” a situation that might be remedied were they brought into some sort of regulatory framework. She claims to have a set of regulatory rules that “ensure consent, prevent unequal bargaining power between the parties, and protect individual rights, all while addressing and respecting the religious beliefs that lead polygamists into these otherwise taboo marital arrangements.” Perhaps some formal recognition short of marriage would be salutary.

But the assertion that “the case against polygamy is incredibly flimsy, almost entirely lacking in rational basis and animated by purely irrational fears and prejudice” could not be more wrong. Adherents of that position are blind to the many rational, good-faith concerns about the normalization of polygamous unions, and deaf to the conservative logic behind special benefits for unions between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. There are empirical, cultural, and pragmatic reasons to incentivize civil marriages of that sort.

And if civil marriage’s benefits are extended to a practice as historically and potentially destabilizing as polygamous marriage, it will undermine the conservative case for conserving civil marriage and strengthen the libertarian case that the state should get out of the business of incentivizing any particular relationship structure.