The Decriminalization of Polygamy

Utah’s anti-polygamy laws came under fire on December 2013, by US Federal Judge Clark Waddoups. He ruled in Brown v. Buhman that this state’s ban on polygamy was unconstitutional.

This year, Utah state Senator Deirdre Henderson sponsored a measure that would decriminalize this practice but not legalize it. The Utah state Senate approved this bill unanimously. If signed into law, plural marriage would be punished with fines of up to $750 and community service, but would no longer warrant a jail sentence of up to five years as a third degree felony.

Let us react to this initiative under six headings: 1. religion, 2. sociology, 3. libertarianism, 4. aesthetics, 5.feminism and 6. practicality.


1- Religion. From a religious point of view, this new policy, if signed into law is to be welcomed. The Church of Latter Day Saints has traditionally favored this marital practice. According to some Mormon interpretations, polygamists will enjoy glorification in heaven. The Utah territory was settled in 1847 and this practice was then common. It was only ended in 1890 as a precondition for statehood, which would quell continued persecution. Still today numerous followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints engage in this relationship. If we take freedom of religion seriously, we must support this bill becoming law. No one under it is forced to engage in polygamy. It would only provide that those who do so will not be imprisoned; they should not be fined either, but that is a fight for another day. If polygamy between consenting adults is not a victimless crime, then what is? Critics charge it will harm the children resulting from such unions, but they offer no evidence for this contention.


2- Sociology. What will be its social effects if this bill becomes law? Boys and girls are born in roughly equal numbers, but do not survive to adulthood in like manner. Males succumb more heavily to suicide, imprisonment, murder, occupational and other accidents, military deaths, etc. Thus, there are more women than men of marriageable age. (In China matters are reversed, with their one child policy, but Utah is not located in that country). Polygamy could even up these odds. No longer would there be numerous women unsuccessfully seeking a marriage partner. But would this not be unfair to males? Not really, given the greater statistical precariousness of male lives.


3- Libertarianism. From a libertarian point of view, the basic principle is to legalize anything between consenting adults. There is perhaps no more important arena of life in which this applies. Polygamy is a paradigm case. We already have serial plural marriage. There are those who have had many more than a single spouse over the years. But cross-sectional marriage, as well as time series, are equally voluntary.


4- Aesthetics. But is not this practice unseemly, disgusting, perverse, from an aesthetic point of view? De gustibus non disputandum. In tastes there is no disputing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Yes, for most people, polygamy does not pass the “smell” test. But most people do not have to participate in this type of arrangement. No one does. The proposed law only legalizes this type of marriage. No one is compelled to embrace it.

5- Feminism. How can we look at this institution from a feminist perspective? Polygamy is all well and good, but we want equality. Polyandry (one wife, several husbands) should be treated in exactly the same manner. What is good for the goose should be good for the gander, too. The “libertarian” does not agree with the “feminist” on many issues, but on this one, an exception, we can all agree. Yes, polygamy should be legalized, and polyandry too. Polyandry, moreover, might make sense in a nation such as China, where the eligible men outnumber their female counterparts.


6- Practicality. Under legalization, polygamists can more easily avail themselves of services that are available to all others. For example, if they are abused, they can access the police. Yes, of course, some young girls have in the past been forced to take older men as husbands, and this is a clear and present rights violation, but monogamous marriages are not perfect either. Such rights violations should be attended in either case.


Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.