Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Polygamy and Liberty

John Kienker at the Remedy, points to a significant blunder in Dinesh D’Souza’s recent efforts at defending his book The Enemy at Home. The third part of a four part effort at National Review Online, includes a section where Dinesh questions whether the practice of polygamy gives testimony to the fact that certain elements of traditional Islam are not compatible with the principles of a free society. Not seeing the contradiction, he says: "I agree that polygamy runs entirely counter to the Western tradition, but since in its Islamic form it involves consenting adults, I’m not sure why it’s inherently illiberal."

Huh?! Consenting adults . . . certainly nothing that happens between consenting adults runs contrary to the principles of liberty! (Let me be clear: heavy sarcasm is intended here!) But isn’t that idea the same idea Dinesh argued made the Islamists mad at us in the first place? Here’s an different idea, why not point out how much these Islamists have in common with the radical American left instead of with American conservatives?

Discussions - 8 Comments

Great point, one that I alluded to in my review. This book was definitely a target rich environment for a reviewer. But to go even further with your argument-- Just how much "consenting" is there for the women in these polygamous arrangments, or in ANY marriage in "traditional" Muslum societies?

John’s point at the Remedy makes a blunder in historical interpretation. He writes:

“Polygamy is a rank offense against the equality principle, which is why the Republican Party in their 1856 platform denounced it along with slavery as the one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” [emphasis mine.]

The facts suggest otherwise. Equality was not why the Republican Party included an anti-polygamy statement it in their platform in 1856; they included it because it was a way to attack Brigham Young and the Mormons, who they were afraid would attempt to succeed and/or form a separate country and align with Mexico.

Women couldn’t vote in the US in 1856, and the Republican platform doesn’t say peep about it.

Later opponents of Mormon polygamy made an attempt to free the oppressed women in polygamous marriages in Utah by pushing to give Utah women the vote, which they could then use to emancipate themselves at the ballot box. Brigham Young and the territory legislature called the bluff and granted Utah Territory women the right to vote in 1860 - a full 60 years before the United States nationally gave women the vote.

Then, ironically, it was the federal government itself that took away the vote from Utah women in 1887 as part of the continuing anti-polygamy fight with the Mormons.

Mormons in that day found it (again) ironic that they were being legislated against by representatives and senators, some of whom openly had mistresses in Washington DC, but would rise to urge and vote to preserve and defend the sanctity of womanhood in Utah, where, at the very least, the men married the women they slept with.

Hobbes say in ch 21 of the LEVIATHAN that polygamy or not is one of those things that depends on circumstances and is up to the sovereign.

And that would one reason, among many, that the American understanding of liberty is not Hobbesian. It is interesting, however, that Mormon friends of mine (who were just lay people and not in any positions of authority) when discussing why their church no longer endorses polygamy have repeated that argument--though without citation.

I’m not actually pro-choice on polygamy, although no one has explained to me why same-sex marriage and not polygamy. And I might add that the only leading Republican candidate who’s had only one wife is the Mormon.

Peter: I agree with you all around. I’m not pro-choice about polygamy; same-sex marriage is on the same moral trajectory as polygamy; and Romney has the most admirable marital history among all the leading GOP candidates. Serial polygamy (as in marriage after divorce), while not at all to be lauded, is not quite the same thing as the regular version of polygamy and, I think, must be (at least in the political realm) tolerated. But it is certainly fair game to note it and consider it when sizing up a person’s character.

My quibble with you or, rather, my question to you was about your reference to Hobbes. But by saying you’re not pro-choice about polygamy I suppose you are saying that you don’t endorse Hobbes. But are you also saying that the foundations of American liberty are not Hobbesian? You comment seemed to imply to me that you thought there was a good deal of Hobbes in us.

My only point in citing my Mormon friends (who, I stressed, were not official spokesmen of any sort) was that your reference to Hobbes sounded just like their argument to me about why polygamy had to end in their church. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t even have mentioned it because it was apropos nothing. It was just so striking to me that I typed before I thought. Romney actually had nothing to do with my mentioning it. Indeed, I grow more impressed with the guy the more I learn about him. I have no issue at all with Romney’s Mormonism--I only wonder about his charisma and his ability to win. If I ever can become convinced about those two things, I’m very likely to support him.

Here is why we shouldn’t allow either gay marriage or polygamy. And there are many social reasons that justify disallowing polygamy in particular. The foremost is that it leads to mismatches in the marriage market (some men will have to go without spouses). Also, an age mismatch (older men will garner a disproportionate number of brides, and so young men will have to wait until much later in life to marry. Finally, there is no way this can be good for women -- just from a standpoint of economic wellbeing, inheritance becomes problematic (a primary function of marriage). Polygamy is a non-starter for modern societies, and any rational polity will disallow it forthwith.

I agree with dain on polygamy, although all those considerations would be irrelevant if it is (with same-sex marriage) declared a fundamental right and laws against it required to survive "strict scrutiny." I also agree that Romney still needs to prove himself, but deserves the opportunity to do so. His Mormon thing deserves to be a non-issue, or even a minor advantage. There is a lot of Hobbes in us, and I’m not sure Locke w disagree w him on polygamy. Locke would not have been so impolitic as to make such an obvious pro-choice remark on on a view so obviously un-Christian, but he also very carefully detaches marriage and the family from its Christian foundation and certainly opens the door in principle to consensual polygamy.
The REYNOLDS opinion that told Utah to de-polygamize as a condition of becoming a state is certainly more explicitly Christian than one that would have been writing by, say, the Marshall court. But the founding view on marriage is that it was left to the states, and the assumption was that it would not be wholly Lockeanized. In our time the Lockean/individualistic spirit of aggressive "liberty"-based judicial review (LAWRENCE v. TEXAS) opens us to the possibility of polygamy as a const. right. Of course, that view would be more extremely libertarian than either Hobbes or Locke, who surely would have regarded some kind of natural right to polygamy or same-sex marriage enforceable by courts as nuts.

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