2017-08-01 16:52:57 UTC
The Boston Globe
Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby
Monday, July 31, 2017
Is legal polygamy on the way?
Polygamy is now regarded as “morally acceptable” by 17% of Americans,
according to Gallup’s 2017 Values and Beliefs poll. That’s up from 14% in
2016, and the highest level of acceptance measured by Gallup since it began
asking about the subject in 2003. Over the past decade, the share of
Americans with no moral objection to a married person having more than one
spouse at a time has more than tripled — from one in 20 (5% in 2006) to just
under one in five (17% in 2017).
To be sure, 17% is a small share of the American public. Polygamy remains
illegal in all 50 states, and there is no public clamor to change that
status. But when nearly one-fifth of Americans see nothing wrong with plural
marriages, only the willfully blind can imagine that the clamor isn’t
The taboo against bigamy and polygamy, once rock-solid, has been getting
chipped away at for years.
In 2008, NPR reported that an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 American Muslims
were living in polygamous families. Though the Mormon Church renounced
polygamy generations ago, so-called “fundamentalist” Mormons continue to
engage in the practice — some 40,000 in Utah alone, according to a 2014
report. Since the early 1990s, it has been the policy of the American Civil
Liberties Union that laws against polygamy are unconstitutional. Several
lawsuits making that claim have been filed in federal court ; in 2013, US
District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that while Utah did not have to allow
polygamy “in the literal sense” of issuing two or more valid marriage
licenses, it could not penalize polygamous relationships.
And then there is popular culture, more influential and corrosive than any
abstruse legal theories or fringe religious practices.
HBO’s fictional “Big Love,” which starred Bill Paxton as the Viagra-popping
fundamentalist Mormon husband of three wives, ran for five seasons and
collected a slew of industry awards along the way. “Sister Wives,” launched
on the TLC network in 2010, isn’t fiction, but fact: For seven seasons, the
reality-TV show has documented the life of Kody Brown, his four wives, and
their 18 children. When millions of TV viewers are encouraged to regard
polygamy as just another lifestyle choice, it’s hardly surprising that more
and more of them do so.
“Polygamy is bobbing forward in social liberalism’s wake,” Ross Douthat
wrote in 2015. Two years later, that’s even truer. Republicans may have
spent the last eight years winning hundreds of local and state elections ,
but on virtually every issue except (perhaps) abortion, it is social
conservatives who have been losing ground. The new Gallup poll documents not
only that the social and moral stigma against polygamy is crumbling, but
also the stigmas against pornography (which 36% say is morally acceptable),
doctor-assisted suicide (57%), and out-of-wedlock birth (62%). Were Gallup
to measure public attitudes toward other behaviors once considered taboo or
inappropriate, such as foul language in public or immodest dress, the trend
would unquestionably be the same. In some cases, such as gay and lesbian
relationships, what is now increasingly considered morally unacceptable —
and even punished by law or social backlash — is adherence to the
Ideas have consequences, especially ideas that take root in the culture and
are nurtured by the courts. Just last month, Brandeis University Press
published Legalizing Plural Marriage: The Next Frontier in Family Law . Its
author is Mark Goldfeder, a senior lecturer at Emory University’s law
school., Here is how it begins:
“This is the first book that explains not only why the legalization of
plural marriage may be on the horizon in America but also why the idea is
not really as radical as you might at first glance think; why the legal
arguments against it are surprisingly weak; and how . . . it would not
actually be that difficult to accommodate.”
In a foreword to the book, US Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, one of
the country’s most distinguished jurists, writes that “polygamy is more
accessible than it may seem.” He salutes Goldfeder for showing “that
polygamy is neither far-fetched nor far off” and is “in keeping with
American legislative values and freedom. . . . Put simply, the book asks
whether we could make a valid legal case for polygamy, and the answer it
demonstratively and quite convincingly comes to is yes.”
These are not views from the crackpot fringe, but from well within the
mainstream of scholarship and law. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
underscored the point during oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, one
of two same-sex marriage cases the high court decided in 2013. “If you say
that marriage is a fundamental right,” Sotomayor asked, “what state
restrictions could ever exist?” How can the Constitution allow “state
restrictions with respect to the number of people . . . that could get
There may not yet be much grassroots support for actually legalizing
polygamy. It will come. For years, Americans have been instructed that the
government must not interfere with the intimate union of consenting adults.
Once that principle is established, how can it be relevant whether the
consenting adults in question are two gay men — or a "fundamentalist" Mormon
and his four wives? If Gallup is right, plural marriage is still a bridge
too far for most Americans. But the history of same-sex marriage shows how
quickly attitudes can change under the pressure of popular entertainment,
legal activism, and shifting moral judgments.
You’re not ready for polygamy today? Perhaps not, but tomorrow will be here
sooner than you think.
We don’t need no stinkin’ First Amendment
Speaking of disturbing polls, here’s another one. The latest
Economist/YouGov opinion survey illustrates how easily Americans are willing
to jettison basic constitutional norms if they think it’s in their party’s
interest to do so.
Respondents were asked if they “favor or oppose permitting the courts to
shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are
biased or inaccurate.” There could hardly be a more flagrant violation of
the First Amendment right to freedom of the press — and yet a shocking 45%
of Republicans said they would support silencing media voices for such a
reason. Among Democrats, 18% were in favor; among independents, 25%.
The results were even worse when respondents were asked whether judges
should fine (as opposed to close) media outlets on the grounds of bias or
inaccuracy. A solid majority of Republicans — 55% — said yes; so did 30% of
independents and 23% of Democrats. In answer to another question, only 33%
of Republicans and independents thought that fining a media outlet for being
biased would “violate the Constitution.” The share of Democrats who thought
so was higher, but less than a majority: 45%.
As Erick Erickson points out, abandonment of basic First Amendment
principles is not limited to either party. In a YouGov poll two years ago,
respondents were asked whether it should be a crime to “make public comments
intended to stir up hatred against a group.” Making public comments is a
core freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, yet only 26% of Democrats
(and 47% of Republicans) said they would oppose such criminalizing of free
“Party loyalty trumps the rule of law,” Erickson writes in dismay.
Democrats were far more willing to curtail the First Amendment when their
party controlled the White House, while the Republicans were, naturally,
more opposed. Now that party control is reversed, so too are the parties’
opinions of the First Amendment. Respecting the constitution based on
whether your party controls the White House is a dangerous thing.
It is occasionally said if the Bill of Rights were presented to voters as a
ballot initiative, they would vote it down. I used to think that was because
of widespread civic ignorance. Increasingly, though, I worry that political
tribalism, not lack of knowledge, is the more serious threat to civil
liberties and constitutional rights.
Chiseled in granite at the entrance to the National Archives in Washington
are the words "Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty." Eternal vigilance
against — what? Foreign enemies? Corrupt politicians? Violent mobs?
Perhaps. But more insidious than any of those is the temptation to side with
those who agree with us, and use the power of law to cripple those who don’t.
Of all possible threats to freedom, it is that one more than any other that
needs to be resisted with “eternal” vigilance.
Down under, a Muslim Miss
The newly crowned Miss World Australia is Esma Voloder, who brought not only
the expected beauty and brains to the competition, but a particularly
stirring life story: She was born 25 years ago in a refugee camp to Bosnian
parents fleeing war in the Balkans. Like most Bosnians, Voloder and her
family are Muslim — and her victory in the pageant put a lot of bigots’
noses out of joint.
Miss World Australia organizers were reportedly deluged with calls from
people demanding to know how a Muslim could have been permitted to win.
Voloder’s response has been elegant and gentle: “I forgive them,” she told
the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph. “Life is too short for
negativity.” the 25-year-old added.
We live in an age of bloody terror perpetrated by radical Islamists.
Concerns about Islam’s role in any society are understandable. But if any
kind of Muslim should be welcomed and celebrated in Western nations like
Australia, surely it’s the kind like Voloder, an immigrant who publicly
expresses gratitude to her adopted country for offering her opportunities
her parents never had, and who openly embraces Western norms and values.
That is definitely the view of my favorite Australian blogger, Arthur
Chrenkoff. Though a stalwart foe of radical Islam, Chrenkoff writes “In
praise of a Muslim Miss,” celebrating his nation’s newest cultural
ambassador, and expressing scorn, in red-blooded Australian style, for the
“bigots and naysayers” who resent her.
Putin’s spiteful math
On Sunday, Vladimir Putin responded to the new congressional sanctions
against Russia by ordering that US diplomatic staff at the embassy in Moscow
and consulates in three other cities be reduced by 755 people. But the US
diplomatic missions in Russia don’t employ 755 American citizens — or
anywhere close to that number. According to a personnel report compiled by
the federal government in 2013, only 333 State Department employees at the
diplomatic missions in Russia were Americans. More than 2½ as many were
foreign nationals, mostly local Russia support staff. The numbers may be
slightly different today, but the bottom line is clear: Even if Washington
were to recall every single US citizen employed on its foreign-service staff
in Russia — which won’t happen — the great majority of those who lose their
jobs will nevertheless be Russians: drivers, guards, electricians,
Putin, of course, is perfectly capable of throwing hundreds of Russians out
of work in a fit of spite. But it’s hard to see how taking jobs away from
Russians will teach Washington a lesson.
Why not kill babies?
More evidence that you can be a highly educated intellectual and a moral
Freedom’s joyful apostle
Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman, arguably the
most influential champion of free-market economics since Adam Smith. He was
a recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics for his scholarly work on
monetary theory and history. But he was also the author of best-selling
books and hundreds of essays for the general public, the creator of the
splendid 1980 television series “Free to Choose,” and the most gifted
exponent of economic liberty in modern times. The internet is replete with
videos of Friedman lecturing, being interviewed on TV, and fielding
questions from college students and senior citizens. Some of these videos
are more than 40 years old; all of them are a treat to watch.
Friedman had an amazing talent for articulating controversial ideas with
clarity, humor, and passion. In a column 20 years ago, I described my first
encounter with Milton Friedman’s ideas:
For sheer intellectual excitement, I have never known another moment quite
I was a freshman at George Washington University, just beginning my first
semester on a college campus. The course was "Politics and Values," and the
assigned reading was heavy on political economy. There were books by John
Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, Louis Kelso, two or three other
economists. We were reading them at the rate of about one a week; whatever
impressions these books made on me at the time faded from memory long ago.
But one book was different. Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom
electrified me. I was riveted by it. Like fireworks lighting up the July 4th
sky, Friedman's themes dazzled me — the genius of markets, the power of
prices, the link between prosperity and liberty, the miracles made possible
when individuals can choose freely. The sensation was almost physically
thrilling. I can still see myself sitting at a study carrel in the GW
library, devouring the book's chapters, intoxicated by its ideas, awash with
the pleasure of learning. I was experiencing something new — the elation of
intellectual discovery. Capitalism and Freedom changed the world as I knew
If you’ve never read or viewed any of Friedman’s work, his 105th birthday is
a great time to start. Lucky you; you’re in for a treat.
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My Sunday column defended the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., which
has been sharply critized for its decision to auction off 40 works of art in
order to raise enough money to establish an endowment, stabilize its shaky
finances, and renovate its building. I contrasted the Berkshire's
willingness to bite the bullet with the spinelessness of Congress and the
White House, which every year spends hundreds of billions of dollars more
than the Treasury takes in, driving the American public ever-deeper into
In my column on Wednesday, I described a forthcoming study into whether
moderate drinking confers health benefits. The study, to be conducted on
four continents, will be run by the National Institutes of Health,
considered the gold standard for research integrity. At the same time, most
of the tab for the expensive study — more than $100 million — will be
underwritten by five large alcoholic-beverage corporations. When industry
picks up the tab, does that mean the research is tainted?
Wild Wild Web
5 million miles, 44 states, 644 Cracker Barrel restaurants visited. And
Philosophy jokes, unnecessarily explained.
His snoring was keeping her up. She turned it into this.
An inquisitive puffin makes friends with a tourist.
Michael Jackson didn’t invent the moonwalk.
Anyone who takes piano lessons learns to play Mozart’s Rondo “Alla Turca.”
But only Yuja Wang can play it like this.
The last line
“We close this book full of optimism for the future, in the belief that
those ideas will prevail and that our children and grandchildren will live
in a country that continues to advance rapidly in material and biological
well-being, giving its citizens ever-wider freedom to follow their own
values and tastes so long as they do not interfere with the ability of
others to do the same.” — Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People:
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