A step in the wrong direction

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Article Highlights

  • The success of liberalism depends in part on thriving two-parent families.

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  • Polygyny is associated with higher rates of domestic violence, psychological distress, and greater control of women.

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  • Children from polygynous families are less likely to get such investments from their fathers.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate in response to the question: Should courts recognize a right to plural marriage among consenting adults? ,/p>

In their embrace of a laissez faire approach to family life, some liberals and libertarians seem blind to a basic truth: namely, the success of liberalism depends in part on thriving two-parent families. Not so for William Galston, who recognized in his book "Liberal Purposes" that American liberalism depends upon virtues most likely to be cultivated in a particular family type. He wrote: "From the standpoint of economic well-being and sound psychological development, the evidence indicates that the intact, two-parent family is generally preferable to the available alternatives."

The problem, then, with recent calls for the public acceptance of polygamy is that they do not adequately appreciate the ways in which the spread of relationships involving three or more adults would likely harm women, children and the spirit of American liberalism.

The first is the status of women. Polygyny is associated with higher rates of domestic violence, psychological distress, co-wife conflict, and greater control of women, according to research by the Brown University political scientist Rose McDermott. Not exactly the direction the United States wishes to head for women, right?

Second is child well-being. Children are more likely to flourish, and to become good citizens and workers, if they get high levels of attention, affection and financial support from their fathers in a stable, two-parent family. Children from polygynous families are less likely to get such investments from their fathers, which may be why research suggests that children in polygynous families do worse educationally and psychologically than their peers in monogamous families.

The third harm is to liberal families. The psychologist Joseph Henrich has pointed out that the two-parent family "best ensures that men and women are treated with equal dignity and respect" and is most likely to engender a spirit of mutuality in the family; polygynous families, by contrast, tilt in a heavily patriarchal direction less conducive to liberal virtues like equality and independence.

So, advocates of the laissez faire model of family life need to face this basic truth: their support for polygamous families - should such families gain a major foothold, as they have in some European countries - may ultimately clash with their commitments to women's rights, child well-being and an egalitarian family ethos.

 

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About the Author

 

W. Bradford
Wilcox
  • Bradford (Brad) Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he directs The Home Economics Project. Inaugurated in fall of 2013, the research project explores the links between family structure and economic growth in 20 countries around the world — more specifically, how marriage and a strong family life foster free enterprise.

    Wilcox is also an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Virginia, where he directs the National Marriage Project. He is a fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and has been a research fellow at Yale University, a research associate at Princeton University, and a Civitas Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is additionally the author of “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” and the coauthor, with Kathleen Kovner Kline, of “Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives.”

    Wilcox has a master’s degree and a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University. His bachelor’s degree in government is from the University of Virginia.

  • Email: wbw7q@virginia.edu
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