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Liberty, Equality, Polygamy

American liberalism is guided by two great overarching values: freedom and equality (in very rought cultural theory terms, it's an alliance between Individualism and Egalitarianism). In the realm of mainstream sexual politics, these two values generally point in the same direction. For example, abortion rights promote women's freedom to control their own bodies, and ensure their equality with men in terms of choosing when and how to become a parent. Same-sex marriage would grant homosexuals the freedom to choose the partner they want, and give them the equal right to have a spouse and family. (One wonders if these issues aren't salient precisely because they allow for this cooperation and synergy between the two dominant values.)

But move into some of the less high-profile issues, and the tension between freedom and equality becomes apparent. A good example can be found in this post by Amanda Marcotte fiercely denouncing polygamy. The fact that I found Marcotte's position surprising says something interesting about the way the discourse around sexual issues is set up.

Polygamy is typically raised in the context of same-sex marriage -- if we let two women marry, why not two women and one man? The link is typically drawn by relying on the value of freedom. Polygamy is framed as a matter of being free to choose the number of spouses you have. Opponents of same-sex marriage are particularly keen to point this out, since polygamy-as-freedom runs so counter to their primary (Hierarchist) value of obedience*.

So same-sex marriage supporters whose primary value is equality will often support polygamy in principle (though for strategic reasons they usually keep their views muted). Libertarians are a prime example here. However, raising the question of polygamy will also reveal who among the same-sex marriage supporters is more concerned with equality -- a camp which Marcotte and the majority of her commenters fall into.

There are at least two models for why polygamy is in conflict with equality -- the rational choice and the radical. The rational choice model states that some individuals are on the whole more desirable than others. These individuals will be able to monopolize more of the spouses. This would be unequal enough were it just a situation of inequality between the celebrities with their harems and the rejects settling for monogamy with each other. But add in the evolutionary psychology view that men are far more disposed to want multiple partners, and you end up with a large population of unpartnered men hanging around making trouble. In a sense, banning polygamy is the sexual equivalent of welfare and progressive taxation, a mechanism to prevent one person from accumulating too much of a scarce good.

The radical model (to which most of the people at Pandagon subscribe) doesn't necessarily object to polygamy in principle, but it is very opposed to it in our current sexist society. It's based on the observation that polygamy has long been used as a tool for the dominance of a small male elite. The ostensibly gender-neutral polygamy law would be easily exploited by men to acquire and control women. While monogamy may not be egalitarian in practice, it provides a much stronger institutional basis for women to defend their equal power.

My own personal inclination on sexual issues -- at least when talking about the law, rather than cultural change -- is to tend to favor freedom when it conflicts with equality. But the dilemma is not such a huge dilemma for me. My main image of polygamy is not the Mormon patriarch with a teenage harem that springs to Marcotte's mind, but rather a number of liberal polyamorous friends (who would be in polyandrous marriages if they were to formalize things). So it's hard to feel my value of equality threatened by polygamy.

*This is not to say that polygamy-as-obedience is impossible -- indeed, it has been the most common form of polygamy. But establishing polygamy-as-obedience would require a shift in the "implementation rules" (e.g. what are we to be obedient to?), and such change is destabilizing to the whole project of obedience, which requires its rules to seem self-evident and eternal.


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