The Case for Polygamy

Posted on October 14, 2011


In a recent republican debate, Ron Paul was asked his feelings on gay marriage and then whether polygamy would be okay too. He responded: “It’s sort of like asking the question if the states wanted to legalize slavery or something like that, that is so past reality that no state is going to do that.” I greatly respect Ron Paul, but disagree that it is unlikely. The following is an economic argument for polygamy. Given this argument, perhaps we should, as a society, give polygamy a chance.

Elizabeth Warren and her daughter wrote a book called the Two Income Trap. I haven’t read it yet (not available at my local library!), but I did watch her fascinating talk on the Coming Collapse of the Middle Class. She argues that many middle class American families require the paychecks of both parents to be able to make ends meet. This is a perilous situation for families because if one parent loses their job or is unable to work (and they don’t have AFLAC), there is no additional wage earner that can step in to fill the gap. But think about a polygamous family. Warren always uses the prototype of a mom, a dad, and two kids. So let us use a prototypical polygamous family: a mom, a dad, a dad, and two kids. By adding one additional male, you can have two wage earners along with a Director of Household Affairs (my new favorite term). This is a very stable economic situation as you save on child care and have that additional adult who can enter the workforce if needed.

You may have noticed something unexpected in my “typical” polygamous family and that is that there are two males and one female. I postulate that this is a more ideal situation, as the arrangement could quickly become less economically stable if there are many children involved. For example, the families presented in Big Love and Sister Wives are very large. These families are one man and multiple women, a type of polygamy called polygyny. But think about the inverse situation, one woman and multiple men, called polyandry. In this situation, the birthrate of the family is limited by female constraints (the Duggars not withstanding). A natural polyandrous family planning decision would be for the three adults to produce two children, perhaps one from each male to maintain their family buy-in. To really go nuts (haha!), the family could add an additional man and all that wage earning potential and only add one extra child.

I find this one woman and multiple men arrangement appealing for American society given the perilous economic situation families face, but also for the societies that lack females. I am thinking especially of China where young men face fierce competition for the relatively few females. The societal acceptance of polyandrous family situations could greatly improve their lots.

I do think polyandry has a shot at widestream societal acceptance (even though presidential candidates snort at the improbability of legalized polygamy). The main reason is that polyandry is not polygamy as we may envision. A woman with multiple husbands does not bring to mind creepy cults in the Texas desert or any other Lifetime Movie plotline. This is mostly because there are hardly any polyandrous societies we can hang our disapproving hats on. If we consciously chose polyandrous living situations, it would be clear that it is not based on some misogynous male fantasy or on some evolutionary biological throwback. Instead, the desire to live in such a family would be more like the desire to go to college — it would be the normative path to a happy (read: economically stable) life.