January 23, 2005

Polygamy Debates in Canada

Evan Kirchhoff notes that the polygamist chickens are coming home to roost in Canada. That's all well and good and something that I've long predicted here as well. Aside from Kirchhoff's glee at the recognition of polygamy (for which I think he's a fool, but a well meaning one), he makes two fundamental mistakes regarding marriage.

It's not because I have a reaction along the lines of "I told you gay marriage would lead to ruin!" Same-gender and many-partner marriages should, of course, both be permitted, and legalizing one hasn't "led to" the other except in the sense that they share a common cause -- an intuitive rejection of state management of people's personal arrangements. Historically, marriage is a Christian sacrament converted into an intrusive social program; the former is no longer seen as a legitimate government feature, and the latter shouldn't be either.

Happily, marriage has acquired a third role -- the public and legal affirmation of human pair-bonding -- that has largely trumped the other two. That's the revolution (or, if you prefer, the downfall), and the "gay" aspect simply makes it impossible to ignore. Having gone that far, the lateral move of attaching surplus wives to a standard heterosexual marriage is practically conservative. Gay marriage hasn't put us on a slipperly slope to polygamy; it merely flags a previously-existing leap well down the slope beyond polygamy. (Which, I repeat, is a good thing, because people own themselves and stuff.)

The problem is first of all, one of transition. I can see making the argument for eliminating marriage as a state institution because the state has no business involving itself in such things. That's fine and good. The problem is that the state has made hundreds of arrangements and assumptions based upon marriage existing as a state institution. Some of these are small matters. Others are huge and we have no business being continually surprised as bit after bit of our presumed solid governmental arrangements fall to pieces because they were underpinned by the old definition of marriage and collapsed as it came undone. Kirchhoff is exhibiting a brutal disregard for the fallout and that just offends me as a great many of the victims of rejiggering marriage without sufficient planning will be children.

The other problem lies in Kirchhoff's third justification for marriage. What business does the government have in "the public and legal affirmation of human pair-bonding"? Why should the spousal privilege regarding testifying, for example, hold in a gang that's entirely made up of people married to each other? If intrusive social programs are no longer to be legitimate, how can you justify legal affirmation of an entirely personal relationship?

"What is marriage, and why should we have it" is still a question that must be resolved. Reform, of just about any stripe, should await a renewed consensus on the question.

Posted by TMLutas at January 23, 2005 03:58 PM