Suddenly, polygamy is in the air. Sure, there's the continual drumbeat from Stanley Kurtz and his ilk that gay marriage is a short slide down the slippery slope to polygamy, but the new HBO series "Big Love" has really stirred the pot, and Charles Krauthammer's essay on the subject has got my most respected bloggers worked up. The good thing is that it has brought forth a plethora of intelligent responses to the traditionally unexamined slippery-slope trope. Andrew Sullivan observes that being gay is an essential part of one's identity in a way that being a polygamist is not. Jason Kuznicki notes that making marriage gender-neutral has no effect on existing marriages, while making marriage no longer limited to two people is a substantial change of rules affecting all existing marriages. Kip Esquire points to the thorny legal issues that nobody has any answers for. Jonathan Rauch argues that polygamy is a destabilizing social force, while gay marriage is a stabilizing one. And in an essay last year, I observed that same-sex marriage is consonant with gender equality, while polygamy is consonant with more traditional unequal gender "roles". (It seems there was a polygamy buzz last year around this same time. A peculiar form of "March madness"?)
These are each great arguments, and the one thing I would add is to build on Kip's legal and conceptual issues. I think it's important to start with the conceptual, because I don't think there's a clear concept of polygamy being consistently argued. (Part of the problem, of course, is that practically all of the polygamy arguments are straw men. Is anybody sincerely arguing for it?) A basic question that needs to be asked is whether we're talking about a concept of multiple pairwise marriages that are allowed to occur simultaneously (call this the "traditional polygamy"), or a concept of a single marriage that includes more than two people (the "new polygamy", a sort of intimate commune). Advocates of either concept have some serious explaining to do as to how this is supposed to operate in practice. Say Bob is married to Carol, and Ted is married to Alice, but then Bob and Alice decide they also want to be married. Does that mean we have three concurrent marriages (B-C, T-A, and B-A) or do the four of them have to agree to a new communal marriage? Suppose Bob, Carol, and Alice all want to be married, but Ted doesn't want to expand his marriage to more than Alice? Must Alice divorce Ted first, or can she maintain a pairwise marriage with Ted while forming a polyamorous commune with Bob and Carol? What is the relationship between Alice and Carol? Or Bob and Ted? What relationship remains between Alice and Carol when Bob dies? If Carol runs up outrageous credit card bills, can the creditors go after Alice? Can they go after Ted? Who makes medical decisions for Alice when she is temporarily incapacitated? Where and how do children fit into all of this?
It should be clear by now that same-sex marriage is perfectly simple, and that polygamy seriously messes up our current practice of marriage in a way that same-sex marriage does not. With due respect to Krauthammer, he may have been thinking about polygamy for 10 years, but he hasn't been thinking about it very deeply.