Bryan Caplan  

Polygamy: Economics vs. History

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Economic theory says that allowing polygamy makes life better for women. As Tim Harford explains:

A lot of the knee-jerk reactions against polygyny are from people who can't add up. In a society with equal numbers of men and women, each man with four wives gives women the additional pick of three men—the poor saps whose potential wives decided they'd prefer one-quarter of a billionaire instead. In the Sahel region of Africa, half of all women live in polygynous households. The other half have a good choice of men and a lot more bargaining power.

Hmm, but doesn't history say that women in polygamous societies get a raw deal? Has there ever been a polygamous society where men treated women like equals? Jane Galt opines that "polygamy is only a stable social institution as long as one gender is pretty radically oppressed," and I don't have any good counter-examples.

So is the economic argument wrong? I doubt it, and there is a simple way to resolve the paradox. Consider this:

1. Widespread automobile ownership drives up the price of gas.

2. Automobile ownership is most widespread in places with cheap gas.

It's not much of a paradox. Yes, automobile ownership makes gas more expensive than it would otherwise be - it shifts demand up. But automobile ownership rises when gas is cheaper - when supply is high.

The same goes for polygamy. All else equal, polygamy raises the demand for women. But you're most likely to see polygamy arise in places where the supply of women is high relative to demand. To take an extreme example, if half the male population dies in a war, the price of women is going to be low. This encourages polygamy, which partially mitigates the damage for women.

The upshot, of course, is that legalizing polygamy in modern Western societies would probably have very little effect, because women here are too expensive to make it affordable.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Matt writes:

Well, well.
You know Freud. He would say that the young men without women rebel and socialism is born.

Ben P writes:

Isn't the argument that polygomy helps *unmarried women* at the expense of married women or at least not women in general? I don't see any benefit to the first wife in allowing a second, and I don't see any non-coercive deal the husband can cut with the first wife that is better than the first wife tolerating a mistress or getting a divorce.

And not to bring up immigration, but if western women are too expensive, can’t we bring in some cheap immigrant labor to do a job American women won’t do?

Robert Schwartz writes:

It has worked such wonders for women in the Muslim world. I don't see how any western woman could resist.

Back to the drawing board Bryan.

J Klein writes:

Yes, polygyny is in fact an economic question - of price of a woman. Where women are unexpensive to obtain and to maintain, many men are able to marry more than one and they do. Where women are expensive, many men are unable even to marry. In our society, women priced themselves out of the market and they have serious difficulties in getting married and having families. Who can afford more than one of those self-called "high maintainance" girlfriends or wives?

J Klein writes:

PS: I am old enough to have lived in a traditional, third world society, and a modern, rich, Western contemporary society and I can compare and comment. In a Third World country, middle class men like me (government employees, small tradesmen) had many affairs and maintained garconieres and had maintained girlfriends. Having double lives was standard and expected. Men had children within the marriage and also of other relations. Children of these relations were maintained and educated. Life was good and unexpensive.

In a Western society few have the time or the resources for carrying on a second relationship. The logistics of a hidden affair are too complicated. The opportunities for short relations are thousand, but they are rather unsatisfactory. Men, instead of hunters, become hunted. Having a love child is prohibitive, a lifelong indenture, a crushing debt which unpaid will surely land one in jail.

surdheer writes:

yes polygamy is good as for as women is comserned
since it makes women free

Why don't you look at this from a dependency side? Men need women, and women need men, but once you have "bought" a partner, that dependency may increase. Both your "prices" change. Especially if you are a woman in a poor country, dependent on your man to support you and your children, and devalued into the "used goods" market should you ever get a divorce.

In a harmonious relationship, interdependence is even, and strong. The man needs the woman as much as the other way around. The sum of dependencies - emotional, social, purely economical - is even. When a man gets another wife or a mistress, he reduces his dependence on his wife, and upsets this balance, making ill-treatment more feasible.

I'm confused by your argument. Is it obvious that polygamy increases the demand for women? Women can have more than one man, too, although my intuition is that those who do are less happy than men in a comparative situation - very few prostitutes enjoy their job.

Bill Woolsey writes:

You have a typo. "yes, automobile ownership makes gas _cheaper_ than it otherwise be - it shifts demand up."

Should be "more expensive."

Also, I would describe this using "demand" vs. "quantity demanded," rather than describing the shift in supply that would cause the change in quantity demanded. Of course, maybe that is why my students have such trouble with the distinction!

Bob Knaus writes:

I think there is a fundamental difference between the sexes in how they use their bargaining power for marriage when there are not equal numbers of men and women.

If there is a shortage of men, the result is sometimes (but certainly not always) polygamy. Paraguay's disastrous War of the Triple Alliance is the example most often cited; see a more recent proposal for legal polygamy in Chechnya.

Examples of national shortages of women are harder to come by. Shortages do exist within cultural and regional subsets however. Based on my own experience, I can cite two:

In Alaska, the saying is that "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." As a woman, if you don't mind hairy flannel-shirted guys who stomp around in insulated Carharts, you can have your pick of eligible bachelors.

In the live-aboard boating community here in the Bahamas there are plenty of single-handed sailors, and almost all of them are men. As a woman, if you don't mind hairy sunburnt rum-drinking guys who stumble around with hardly anything on... you get the picture.

In both instances, the men tend to be above average in income and intelligence. Yet the result is never polyandry, and the gender imbalance persists.

I see two possible explanations:

1) The negative personality characteristics and and harsh living conditions of these men outweigh their attractions -- they are not much of a bargain after all.

2) Given a surplus, women will choose the "best" man rather than the "most" men -- they use their bargaining power for quality rather than quantity.

Can anyone come up with counter-examples?

spencer writes:

What the anqalysis of the Sahel region lacks is any discussion of income inequality. Historically, most societies with polygamy have had extremely unequal income distribution.

So in the example given if the income distribution is extremely skewed the women who have one quarter of the billionaire income may still enjoy a much higher income then the remaining women who get 100% of one of the remaining mans income.

Without detailed information on income distribution it is impossible to determine the answer to his argument.

Karl writes:

Spencer beat me to the punch. It is not the total quantity of men that is the issue, but the quantity of men who can support a family. Hence, polygamy being much more common in stratified societies.

Obviously, Western societies have culturally shied away from polygamy, but plenty of our wealthiest men have children by multiple women. Perhaps Bryan should have addressed the issue of why polygamy is illegal in his book. It would certainly be cheaper for many wealthy men if they could have enforceable marriage contracts with multiple women as oppose to having to divorce each wife everytime one wants to enjoy the pleasures of another woman. I suspect that polygamy is illegal because the voters wanted to ensure a supply of women for the less well off, yet another entitlement for the middle class.

We should all recognize our sexism here. In modern America there are a number of women who might want to have multiple husbands and could afford it too. Anyone for being a kept man?

Bryan Caplan writes:

Bill Woolsey wrote:

You have a typo. "yes, automobile ownership makes gas _cheaper_ than it otherwise be - it shifts demand up."

Should be "more expensive."

You're absolutely right, thanks for pointing it out.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

A key question is whether the economic benefits to the family through division of labor in two-partner marriages continue and expand into multiple-partner marriages.

Moreover, while polygamy may be illegal, there are plenty of men in the U.S. who maintain parallel conjugal relations with multiple women. As to whether the distributed children would be better off in a legally-defined consolidated household or not remains to be determined.

JM writes:

A marriage is an institution where the wife gives the man her assurance that the children she produces are his, and in return the man assures the wife that he will supply resources to help raise the children. Polyandry will not work as a stable institution because the woman can't assure each man in a polyandrous marriage that the child is his.

David Friedman writes:

Your discussion ignores a crucial issue--whom women belong to. Polygyny tends to increase the market value of a woman, for the obvious economic reason. In a society like ours, where a woman belongs to herself, that benefits women--they can get better terms in relationships, including better implicit terms in marriage.

But, as I pointed out in the discussion of the economics of polygamy in my Price Theory, in a society where unmarried women belong to their fathers or brothers the gain from polygyny no longer goes to the woman. Indeed, if we are willing to assume that a woman prefers, ceteris paribus, not to share a husband, polygyny makes it possible for the man who decides whom she marries to extract more value from her, in the form of a larger bride price, making him better off and her worse off, than would monogamy.

J Klein writes:

Friedman says that women belong to themselves and are better off for it.
I am not sure.
The women market is extremely atomized, each one negotiates for herself. On the other side, men tend to gang together and negotiate as a syndicate. Of course collective bargaining benefits men and weakens women´s position.
Women´s worth in this market collapses precipituously after age 30 and after 35, it is almost valueless. Individual women are very bad negotiators and their timing is terrible.
In fact, women would get a better deal if they take an agent to negotiate their contrcts for them, as artists know they have to do. In the past, fathers and uncles negotiated for them, or in the case of our ancestors in Eastern Europe, the "shadchen" (the marriage broker) carried out this specialized delicate social role. The "shadchen" searched for potential buyers, talked up the value of her merchandise, and got the best possible match. It was a very crude and offensive method, if a congenitally mad uncle in family was equivalent of say, to a business failure or disagreeable voice, but it was honest and it fulfil its goals. In the "Shtetl" everybody found his or her match and got married.

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