Sunday, October 22, 2006

Polygamy is WHAT???

Today's bad reasoning/bad stats example comes from (ironically enough) Reason Online. It has to do with polygamy.

I have very mixed feelings about Reason. Occasionally, they hit the nail right on the head and are a true pleasure to read. Even less occasionally, they provide a perspective that I hadn't considered, or fill in the blanks for a libertarian argument in favor of a position that I had previously been arguing with inadequate information. But many times, unfortunately, they lean toward the left-libertarian. They're classic examples of the annoying subculture of libertarians who feel the need to assure the public that we don't really believe in our principles. Now, I'm all for being persuasive, and indeed I have said before that unwillingness to be convincing is the major problem facing the Libertarian Party - the biggest obstacle standing between it and modest success. Libertarians should approach public debate as pragmatic partners - willing to go over the facts of an issue and actually address them without quickly retreating behind ivory principles. But saying that we should use statistical arguments to persuade people that the policies our principles lead us to is in their best interests is not the same thing as saying that we should abandon principle and go whereever the numbers lead. All too often, however, Reason is willing to do just that.

The article linked above is a case in point. It purports to show that the ban on polygamy is a social good, that removing it would be a demographic catastrope. In fact, it shows nothing of the sort - many of the key steps in the reasoning being either missing or ignored. But more to the point, it flatly refuses to address the issues of individual right and choice involved, assuming that its empirical "arguments" will be sufficient justification for policy.

The argument goes something like this: marriage is a zero-sum game. For every woman on the "market," there are a number of "buyers" looking to convince her to marry. If we allow polygamy (which is likely to overwhelmingly take the form of polygyny, given human historical experience), then some of these buyers will sweep up a lot of the product, leaving others with nowhere to go. These disaffected men will become a social problem, forming gangs, increasing the crime rate, etc.

This argument is not very convincing, for several reasons.

Men tend to marry older. The period in their lives when men are most likely to be violent (16 to 29, as I understand it) is also the period in their lives when men are unlikely to be married anyway. Men go adventuring during this period. Just out of college, it is unusual for a man to be able to provide for a family. Of course, it happens, but more often than not he needs a couple of years to shop for a job he can live with, get promoted in that job to the point where he can afford children, etc. Men are also less likely than women to want children immediately. They like the process of making children, but wanting to take care of them is something they need to grow into. What I'm getting at is that men from ages 16-29 are not likely to abandon lifelong hope of marriage just because it sometimes happens that some men take more than one wife! They are accustomed to competing with each other at these ages anyway. It's hard to see how legal polygamy would change that.

Gangs are not known for equal sharing of women. One of the silliest arguments proposed in the article is the idea that unmarried men are likely to form gangs in frustration.

In particular communities — inner cities, for example — polygamy could take a toll much more quickly. Even a handful of "Solomons" (high-status men taking multiple wives) could create brigades of new recruits for street gangs and drug lords, the last thing those communities need. is this different from inner cities today? As far as I know, women are available in areas with high gang violence, and this hasn't stopped anyone from joining. And since when do people join gangs to get married anyway? The way I understand it, gangs tend to have a top dog who gets first stab at all the women (who tend to be outright enslaved or somehow otherwise bonded to the group at second-class status). The others get scraps - and usually just sex, not really any kind of stable relationship. Men who join gangs can't possibly be escaping from polygamist society, in other words. Gangs are, in some sense, the closest thing to a polygamist subculture within our own fiercely monogamous society (second to certain religious groups, I mean).

Caring for children is never a motivation for crime?. Related to the previous point, it's worth bearing in mind that caring for children can also be a motive for crime. People among the "have-nots" who have trouble making ends meet will often resort to robbery and so on to make up the shortfall. Obviously, the cost of raising a household is greater than that of simply providing for oneself, so without numbers (which the article does not, in fact provide), there's no real way to settle the question of which groups are more likely to be criminal. It is plausible that the strain of having to provide for a family drives some men to criminality who would otherwise have stayed in line.

Women have no say?. I think the main point the article is missing has to do with the behavior of women. The article seems to assume that people in affluent societies behave the same way as people in poorer societies, but that is unlikely to be the case. Polygamy makes a kind of economic sense in poor societies. When resources for raising children are scarce, those who command the most resources are also saddled with the most children. People who have no resources find themselves cut off from caring for children (though they may father them). In affluent societies, however, where it is easier to obtain the material goods one needs to care for children, there is less reason for women to flock to the few who have the most money. Women will be less likely to enter into polygynous relationships where they have to share their husbands with other women, possibly accepting second-class status among the wives. Passages like this one are especially misleading:

Hudson and den Boer suggest that societies become inherently unstable when sex ratios reach something like 120 males to 100 females: in other words, when one-sixth of men are surplus goods on the marriage market. The United States as a whole would reach that ratio if, for example, 5 percent of men took two wives, 3 percent took three wives, and 2 percent took four wives — numbers that are quite imaginable, if polygamy were legal for a while.

Actually, I find those numbers very difficult to swallow in modern America. Even the way they are presented here, they seem implausible. One in ten households polygamist? Really? But the trick being played is that they are only presented from a male point of view. With an unlimited number of women, it might indeed be plausible that one in ten men would take more than one wife. The authors are forgetting to mention how many women this involves, though. In terms of percentages, the numbers above mean that roughly 27% of all marriagible females would be involved in polygynist relationships. Is it honestly even remotedly plausible to assume that roughly one-third of the female population would agree to such an arrangement? I should think not - especially not in this day and age of female empowerment. Women agree to such arrangements when they neither are capable of taking care of themselves nor can count on society to be able to take care of them. But in modern America, women are fully capable of taking care of themselves and do not need to rely on men to carry their burdens. Consequently, they need not accept polygynist arrangements and will not, I believe, choose to do so.

Divorce doesn't happen?. Another important difference that the authors are glossing over between polygamist societies and modern America (related to the previous point) is the high divorce rate in modern America. People who are not satisfied with their relationships are free to split off and form new ones to a degree unprecedented in human history. I think it's reasonable to assume that polygyny will not fare as well in modern America as it has in the past because men will be under more pressure to actually please their four wives. In societies that have traditionally practiced polygyny, it is far from clear that there was much (or any) such pressure. Men simply bought women using their connections and status, and the women were expected to bear them children. Needless to say, our concept of marriage has changed a bit since then. Divorce has the effect of putting old players back on the market. So even if rates of polygyny increased with leaglization (and I suspect they would - especially among the wealthiest men), there is no reason to assume that women would stay married to these men. To use the author's crude (if only implied) formulation, many women would be back on the market soon enough.

All of the objections above have merely been hinting at what I think the real problem with this article is, and that's that we have yet another mass-media example of the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: correlation does not imply causation.

No doubt it's true that polygamist societies suffer from all the problems outlined in the book the article takes as its inspiration. What's not clear is that polygamy actually causes these problems. More likely than not, what causes the problems is just the general lack of material wealth and lack of transparent justice systems that tend to be associated with polygamist societies. Polygamy is simply co-existant with these problems. Poor societies need a way to keep up the birthrate, and they also need a lot of surplus men to fight their wars and provide the cheap labor necessary to getting capital expansion off the ground. It is plausible to assume that polygamy thrived in the past because it helped accomodate these goals. It was neither directly caused by nor the cause of the general poverty, it just happened to thrive as a social institution in that environment.

Whatever polygamy would exist in modern America would hardly be the same polygamy that existed in the past. Indeed, modern monogamous marriage is hardly the same monogamous marriage that existed in the past. There is a much greater emphasis on romantic love in modern marriage than there likely has been at any time in history - and for no other reason than that this is a luxury people can now afford. Such polygamy as exists in modern America is unlikely to be motivated by the same factors or give rise to the same problems that it did in the socieites being used as comparisons.

I understand that popular sentiment is against polygamy. Given its history, it is seen as being bad for women (most polygamy is polygyny). What I don't understand is why a libertarian magazine is pandering to this prejudice. Surely the last thing that any "libertarian" publication should find itself advocating is the legislation of public morality in the name of social engineering? I would expect to find the kind of reasoning here in Socialist or Conservative publications; it has no place among Libertarians. If there is one thing I would have hoped defined the Libertarian movement, it is a lack of faith in social planning. People should be left free to make their own decisions, for better or worse.

If Libertarianism ever seriously hopes to become a political philosophy the public takes seriously, there are twin rhetorical evils it should avoid. The first of these is characterized by writing that I see on the Mises Blog - and that's a reliance on purely ideological arguments that seem almost flippant for lack of concern with data. Of course, we should preach our ideals. The goal, after all, is to convince others to share those ideals and principles. But principles alone are usually only persuasive to people who already share them. If you want to convince people outside the choir, you have to also illustrate that your principles lead to desireable results, and this involves providing your audience with data and realworld examples. The second of these is characterized by writing (such as this article) in Reason. Reason seems to be overly concerned about Libertarians' image as ideologues - so much so that they constantly want to show everyone that we're really not that different from the general population. "See?," they say, "we're not crazy! I mean, gay marriage, is that so much to ask? It's not like we want to legalize polygamy or anything!" And no doubt this is indeed soothing to the general public. But it is also ultimately unpersuasive. The fact of the matter is that Libertarians ARE different. We ARE radicals. We DON'T like society the way it is - that is the whole bleeing point. You cannot convince people to give up political norms that, to them, appear to be working in favor of something radically different by assuring them that you're really not going to push things that far! People will either (a) mistrust you (and rightly so) or (b) not see the reason in adopting your program when the Republicans will do just as nicely and actually stand a chance of winning! No new product enters the market by advertising that it is "roughly the same as our competitors, and harder to find in stores!"

If Libertarians want to win, we need to show the public that its assumptions are wrong - that business as usual isn't working. We need to do this in a way that is serious and convincing, to be sure. We should not shrug away their concerns (many of which are quite legitimate) with the kind of hand-waving arguments one finds on the Mises Blog. But even hand-waving, purely philosophical arguments are preferable to the product that Reason peddles, which more often than not, as in the case of the present example, isn't even Libertarian in any meaningful sense of the word.

If Libertarianism means anything, it means putting faith in individuals to make their own choices. The key word in that sentence was indeed faith. We KNOW that people will not always make the right choices, but we believe that those choices are nevertheless their choices to make, and we believe that, from a global perspective, allowing freedom of choice does indeed work out better for everyone in real matieral terms in the end. We believe this because no one has more invested in an individual's success than that individual himself. Top-down micromanaging of individual lives is as immoral as it is ineffective; Libertarians seek political power to abolish such power.

Articles like this one, that leave the rights of individuals to determine their own fates out of the discussion, are not Libertarian in any way I understand the word. They are the opposite of Libertarianism - the very thing that Libertarians should be fighting. Individuals have the right to determine for themselves with whom they will spend their lives and on what terms. That is the Libertarian position on marriage - and it includes (consenting) polygamists. If you are not comfortable with that, then I would love to try to change your mind, but I will not pretend that you are a Libertarian because you are not. This article belongs in National Review...or maybe the garbage can. It has no place in a publication that claims to advocate "free markets, free minds."

(I should add that there is one consistently good, and consistently Libertarian, writer at Reason, and that is Jacob Sullum. Perhaps not surprisingly, he also has sensible things to say about polygamy.)


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