The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Looks Like a Nail

[Reposted from Chequer-Board; dated 8 May 2008.]

Will Wilkinson, while criticizing "unreflective anti-gubmint reactions of libertarians to the FLDS imbroglio", still prefers to limit his justification to the specific evils of the FLDS, and to maintain a defense of polygamy in the abstract:
The libertarian point is that the illegality and attendant marginalization of polygamy pushes it into isolated, authoritarian, quasi-state cult compounds where these kinds of crimes are most likely to take place.
But this is one case where the libertarian point is simply wrong. Tyler Cowen hints at the reasons:
Maybe the goals of the perpetrators are rape, abuse, and power-mad intimidation, rather than polygamy per se ("polygamy: merely a means to an end.") In that case polygamy legalization won't limit their ability to set up isolated, authoritarian, quasi-state cult compounds for their nefarious purposes.
Consider the demand pattern resulting from polygamy (i.e., from polygyny). The potential demand for women immediately and irreversibly exceeds any potential supply; thus there is steady pressure to expand the supply by including marginal cases. For example, 15-year-olds.
The definition of "marginal" is not fixed by Mr. Wilkinson's norms, of course. It changes; in fact, fairly rapidly. Megan McArdle has a long discussion of this, with some striking examples.
C'mon said the activists. That's just silly. I just can't imagine anyone deciding to get pregnant out of wedlock simply because there are welfare benefits available.
Of course, change didn't happen overnight. But the marginal cases did have children out of wedlock, which made it more acceptable for the next marginal case to do so.

Once the 15-year olds are no longer "marginal", demand is focused downward, and downward again.
Meanwhile this intrinsically unfair system of living can only be sustained if the exit is blocked. Thus the other symptoms observed in the FLDS case -- the brainwashing, abuse and too-ready excommunication -- are not pathologies at all: they are the natural and inevitable ramification of a system in which polygamy is permitted.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail -- but some things really are nails, and polygamy really is an intrinsically abusive institution which merits destruction by Leviathan. If society has any uses at all, this is one of them.

[I was taken to task by a commenter who had better thought through the legal issues:
OK, so polygamy is inherently abusive and society should crack down on it. So kindly explain the difference between the FLDS system of polygamy, and the modern practice of couples moving in and out with each other and siring children out of wedlock. Does the former require Leviathan's intervention, but not the latter? If so, why; and if not, why not? Do both require it?
See, here's the problem. The FLDS girls were never legally married to the older men, so the men can't be prosecuted for bigamy unless you define "marriage" to include people who live together as husband and wife. But by shooting with that blunderbuss you also consider all kinds of umarried couples as being common-law married. Now this approach to polygamy has been tried; Utah had "unlawful cohabitation" statutes for a long time. You can see how well it worked. "Unlawful cohabitation" as previously defined is at an all-time high in our country; and any attempt to crack down on it might run smack into Lawrence, if it doesn't first induce mass protests. Our society is currently in favor of cohabitation, for better or for worse, as witnessed by the development in many locales of domestic partnership registries (including, recently, Salt Lake City).
Personally, I think the best approach has been Utah AG Shurtleff's approach: live and let live, but prosecute the underage stuff and the welfare fraud.

I replied:
All these are good points. However:
Doesn't the existence of cohabitation registries provide a check which can be used against polygamy? The state should keep the total of marriage partners plus cohabiting partners to a maximum of one.
My post was largely in response to those who would use the FLDS situation as an argument in favor of explicitly legalizing polygamy; your arguments, on the difficulty of prosecution without diminishing other freedoms, are valid but do not extend so far as to require such legalization.
Thus I prefer that the crime of polygamy should remain in Mr. Shurtleff's arsenal.

This may be my least-libertarian post.]