I oppose the legalization of polygamy in the United States.
I don’t think polygamy is irrational or barbarous. I don’t think we should coercively stamp it out in other countries and other cultures. But I do think that polygamy is deeply unsuited to American culture, and that it produces more social problems than it is worth.
Polygamy is already practiced in this country without legal sanction (in both senses), especially among renegade Mormons in Utah and surrounding states. Some of the problems found in those communities are:
Welfare Fraud: In their own eyes, the patriarch of a polygamous community has married his many wives and is the legitimate father of their children. This does not stop many such families, though, from telling the state that each mom-and-kids trailer represents a different single-mom family which gets no support from the non-resident father. The communities on the Utah-Arizona border known to have several polygamous compounds also have the highest welfare use rates in the West.
Incest: Polygamous communities quickly become inter-related to a much greater degree than other small communities are. A pattern that has been shown in court more than once is for polygamous brothers to give their daughters (their brother’s nieces) to one another as wives.
Coercion: In many polygamous societies, not just in the American subcultures, the first wife will be the same age as the husband, but the younger wives get progressively younger. Tapestry Against Polygamy, an anti-polygamy organization led by former, often escaped, plural wives, documents a number of cases of girls as young as 12 and 13 being pressured, restrained, or just given into plural marriages, usually as a later wife.
Cults: Cults tend to be run by charismatic men who draw their followers from socially subordinated people, predominantly women, who become their devoted servants. The cult leaders frequently have sex, and children, with many of their women followers. This also describes how many underground polygamous families work.
Even in societies in which polygamy is more normal, and not restricted to an underground fringe, there are bad social consequences, or social corollaries that make it unsuitable for America.
Wrong economy: Polygamy is most often found in societies in which women do much of the primary economic production in or around their homes. The compound would typically have the patriarch, often in his own hut, surrounded by his wives and their children, each in separate huts, surrounded by each wife’s garden or other source of home-production resources. In the rare polyandrous societies, the one wife stays in one place with the children, while the brothers, who are also co-husbands, travel with the family flock. Neither of these models fits well with the American economy – which is one of the reasons that the wives and children are often on welfare.
Sexism: In principle, there could be polygamy based on equality of men and women. Most polygamous societies, though, are based on a strongly patriarchal theory. The management of a complex polygamous household pushes polygamists toward patriarchy even when they are not already ideologically inclined that way.
Unattached men: Polygamy means that rich and high-status men get many wives, and poor, low-status, young men don’t get any. Poor, low-status, young men, especially if they hang out together and have few prospects of finding wives, are about the most dangerous group in any society. Some have argued that such groups have been rich sources for terrorists to find suicide bombers in – especially if the terrorist mentors promise multiple, virginal wives in the afterlife.
High-achieving women left high and dry: Patriarchal polygamists are unlikely to marry educated, independent, high achieving women. In societies where polygamists are not marginal and underground, but actually rule, women’s education, independence, and achievement tends to be highly restricted.
As I said at the outset, I oppose the legalization of polygamy in the United States. This is not a very controversial position now.
But, as I will argue tomorrow, I think it soon will be.