A long time ago, I agreed with conservative critics of gay marriage, in their claim that if we legalize gay marriage, we’d have to legalize polygamy too. But I saw no problem with that: if consenting adults choose plural marriage, it neither picks my pocket, or breaks my leg, and thus is none of the state’s business.
Jonathan Rowe, however, who believes homosexuals should be legally permitted to marry, argues that
the grounds for prohibiting polygamy seem entirely different than the ones for prohibiting same-sex marriage. But the two are related in this sense: We outlaw polygamy for precisely the same policy reason why we would demand the recognition of gay marriage: the meaningful chance for any individual to marry a person they love. The gay man, like the single-unlucky male in a polygamous society cannot marry any person he loves.
This does not make sense to me. The right to marry is a right based on contract—which means, based on the right of more than one person to exercise and trade their liberty as they see fit. The reason for recognition of gay marriage is that if two men wish to be married, that violates nobody else’s rights, and therefore I don’t have the right to stop them. (Well, that’s the rough version.) If that theory is correct, then the exact same thing goes for consensual adult polygamy: a person certainly should be free to marry any person he loves, who is also a willing participant.
Note that the only argument that Rowe (or Jason Kuznicki) seems to be able to come up with against polygamy is to say that it isn’t really consensual. Well, that might be true, but that begs the question. The relevant proposition is: consenting adults should be free to arrange their marriages as they see fit, so long as it violates nobody else’s rights. Pointing to child exploitation in no way contradicts that proposition—indeed, it is perfectly consistent with it. Now, if in practice it turns out that there is no such thing as consensual polygamy, then polygamy would be banned, no problem. But if there is consensual polygamy, the state should not interfere with it.
Update: Jason Kuznicki responds to my post about polygamy here with some interesting thoughts.
KipEsquire’s post, on the other hand, is just childish. First, he says I don’t understand marriage—an entirely uncalled-for insult. But Kip likes to make himself feel big by sticking his thumbs in other folks’ eyes. Then he says that just because I think a thing ought to be legal, that I must think it’s “neat-o.” This, of course, is to confuse defending the legality, and the desirability, of a thing—an error one would not expect from a libertarian. Then he makes a long argument that because he has difficulty imaging contractual solutions to the complexities of plural marriage, that therefore such solutions must not exist, and therefore marriage must be restricted to two people: “The legal implications of the [modern] status of marriage require, metaphysically, that it be between two and only two people”—a statement that makes about as much sense as saying that the legal implications of banking requires, metaphysically, that finance contracts must be between two and only two people. Contract finds a way.
And of course, Kip then turns around in a sentence and admits this and utterly destroys his own argument when he says:
If consensual polygamists want to try to build a bird’s nest from the individual twigs and strings of contractual arrangements, then by all means they have a right to do so (assuming no externalities, especially to the children of such arrangements).
Well, if people can build that nest from individual twigs, then they have the right to find a more efficient way of arranging those twigs. After all, you could say that a husband and wife should have to arrange the individual strings of contractual arrangements about children, estates, tax benefits and whatnot. But instead we just call that group of arrangements “marriage.” Why? Because “marriage, qua legal status, is extremely efficient economically. It saves time. It saves resources (e.g., lawyers drafting documents). It saves money.” Exactly. And if “consensual polygamists” wish to build their bird’s nest in the same “extremely efficient” way, then, assuming no externalities, they “by all means…have a right to do so”—which is exactly what I was saying all along.