Bryan Caplan  

Are You Big Enough to Tolerate Polygamy?

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Boudreaux Class Autobio... Economic Dynamism...

I just saw the season finale of Big Love, HBO's path-breaking dramatic series about a family of polygamists. I can't remember the last time I saw such a fresh artistic depiction of capitalist acts between consenting adults. I won't give away the ending, but it was truly moving.

It's probably just a failure of my introspection, but I can't imagine that a person could watch Big Love and not conclude that polygamy ought to be legalized. Sure, it's weird. Sure it can be abused - 15-year-old Rhonda is engaged to 76-year-old Roman. But is it so awful that someone ought to go to jail when all the parties are of age? Come on. "But what about the children?" It's hardly clear that kids with more than two parents are worse off than kids with one, and no one's proposing to use the law to stamp out single parenthood.

How about social sanctions? After seeing the human face of polygamy - fictional though it be - I would go out of my way to put any polygamist I met at ease. The people who need to be stigmatized are those who won't mind their own business.


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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Alcibiades writes:

Do my dreams of pumping out 500 kids so as to make sure to have a few decent heirs fall into the strange "economics of relationships" category?
Division of labor (literally)!

Fazal Majid writes:

It's striking how polygamy is always understood to mean polygyny, never polyandry...

Robert Schwartz writes:

They have tried polygamy on a large scale in the Middle East and it has been a disaster. Pray that it is never accepted in the US.

Kieran writes:

The reason polygamy should not be legalized has nothing to do with how it "harms" women or children (Landesburg's account in The Armchair Economist argues the opposite case convincingly). But what polygamy will do is (dramatically?) increase the number of men without mates or any hope of having a mate. The "dating" market will become a sort of winner take all scenario and therein lies the danger. Single, young, angry men commit the most crime and sadly the most rapes. Polygamny = Many more single angry men. I can easily imagine the cost to society of polygamy outweighing the benefits to women & a few men.

Kieran writes:

Also the reason Polygamy is taken to mean Polygyny is that our evolved temperments don't lend themselves easily to a men sharing a partner. It rarely happens

Max writes:

Why do you think a man would have many wives and not a woman many men?

I think that it would make the partner market more competitve for BOTH genders, if polygamy would be accepted equally among both genders, which I think is bullshit (just because it works in fiction, doesn't mean it would work in real-life ;) ).
Also, the Middle East is a stupid example, because adult females have almost no rights to decide for themselves, so polygamy was mostly forced and if not it was for financial security.

On the other side, which men would want multiple wives who suck your hard earned money out of you and then "bit**" around the whole day ;)

Matt writes:

The constant requirement to supply orgasms would tire me out.

GMUSL 3L writes:

Matt, the obvious rejoinder to your objection is that the male physical limits encourage female bisexuality...

... and I fail to see how that could possibly be a bad thing!

superdestroyer writes:

If it is such a great thing economically, then why are so many of the polygamist families in Utah supporting themselves with welfare checks and tax fraud. The only way it works is with a total reworking of the welfare system, Social Security benefits, pension regulations, inheritence laws, property laws, tax laws, and divorce laws.

I think few Americans are willing to give up so much so that a few men can have a lot of wives.

PS. I would be nice if you could find a real world example where middle aged women willing enter into such relationships. It seems that from primitive cultures, to the middle east, to the weird Mormon sects that polygamy depends upon older men preying on girls and young women.

Josh writes:

Actually, if anything, Big Love is a pretty strong case against the legality of overwrought dramatic performances of more storylines than one can keep track of (see also: Six Feet Under).

It seems like HBO is continually trying to replicate Twin Peaks minus the parody.

econmom writes:

Well, I have watched the series Big Love too and I don't come away with a positive view of polygamy. In the series we see the father spending quality time only with his oldest son. He just doesn't have enough time to spend with all of his 8 children--they appear to get lost in the shuffle.

Al T writes:

"The people who need to be stigmatized are those who won't mind their own business."

Yeah, like those who butt in and tell others who to stigmatize.

I'm sure you've seen the human face of those who don't mind their own business, would you go out of your way to put them at ease?

Yeongsuk Kim writes:

I have no problem with people entering into polygamy, so long as it is not coercive in nature. In terms of externalities in the dating market, it would actually improve things for me. Women who self-select into polygamy would not be in the set of women that I would want to marry - so it would reduce search costs for me.

It is a little known fact that some of the wives of Mormon founder Joseph Smith were married to other men at the same time. What would be the legal relationship among the wives and husbands indirectly linked through this type of wedding contract?

Nathan Smith writes:

Monogamy is a remarkable institution. It drastically reduces the rewards to wealth. I mean, how much marginal utility does a man really get from buying more houses and gizmos and tourism? An African chief who lives on $500/yr. but has four wives is in a very real, tangible way wealthier than your average US billionaire CEO.

This has two implications. 1) Polygamy could accelerate wealth-creation, as men (I think biology ensures that polygyny rather than polyandry is the norm) would strive much harder to get rich if wives, rather than houses and gizmos, were the reward. But 2) monogamous societies will be more interested in houses and gizmos, since men, limited to one wife, have to divert their energies to other pursuits. I think effect (2) dominates effect (1), and makes monogamous societies much richer than polygamous ones.

Also, while wealth-creation is a fundamentally positive-sum game, sexual competition in a polygamous context is far more zero-sum. Positive-sum games are more likely to be characterized by deal-making; zero-sum games, by violence.

TGGP writes:

Polyandry has only been common in Tibet where two brothers share a wife. Basic sociobiology clues one in on why polygyny has been much more common.

Watch out Bryan. If fictional sob stories on T.V have this kind of effect on you, you might wind up a socialist.

Robert Speirs writes:

If you legalize both gay marriage and polygamy and still allow citizens to bring their spouses into the US and make them citizens, at some point one legal Mexican will be able to bring in the entire remaining population of Mexico to East L.A. with one signature.

CalgaryGuy76 writes:

Maybe I'm underestimating the true demand for polygamy, but is there really alot of people out there who would enter into this kind of relationship if it weren't illegal? I can't imagine that if polygamy were legal there would be a big rush for this kind of arrangement and alot of the "hell in a handbasket" arguments seem overblown.

Kieran: "But what polygamy will do is (dramatically?) increase the number of men without mates or any hope of having a mate. The "dating" market will become a sort of winner take all scenario and therein lies the danger. Single, young, angry men commit the most crime and sadly the most rapes. Polygamny = Many more single angry men. I can easily imagine the cost to society of polygamy outweighing the benefits to women & a few men."

-- Couldn't one also make a similar argument on these grounds for banning older men (45+) from dating younger women? Men are able to father children at any age, so the supply of fathers is tecnically all males whereas the supply of childbearing females is limited. Older men procreating with younger women reduces the number of childbearing women available to younger men.

Also, this argument sounds similar to examples people use for income redistribution/labour market intervention/most social programs. "Society has to provide money/jobs/education for poor people otherwise they'll commit crimes."

econmom: "In the series we see the father spending quality time only with his oldest son. He just doesn't have enough time to spend with all of his 8 children--they appear to get lost in the shuffle."

-- While I'm not going to disagree, how many children of single mothers don't even see their fathers period and/or receive absolutely no financial support. Is it better to have a father like the one in the series, or a father you never see at all? If that's a reason to keep polygamy illegal, isn't it also a reason to make raising a child in a single parent household illegal?

Nathan Smith: "sexual competition in a polygamous context is far more zero-sum"

-- Is sexual competition really that much of a zero-sum game? If those who possess traits that the opposite sex desires starting marrying multiple individuals, wouldn't competition force other individuals to improve in those areas. If "rich" guys start marrying more than one wife wouldn't we see "poorer" guys trying to improve their financial situation to compete (i.e., wealth creation)? Perhaps we'd also see overall physical fitness improve as well, which is also a positive sum game.

Kieran writes:

CalgaryGuy76 --" Couldn't one also make a similar argument on these grounds for banning older men (45+) from dating younger women? Men are able to father children at any age, so the supply of fathers is tecnically all males whereas the supply of childbearing females is limited. Older men procreating with younger women reduces the number of childbearing women available to younger men.

Also, this argument sounds similar to examples people use for income redistribution/labour market intervention/most social programs. "Society has to provide money/jobs/education for poor people otherwise they'll commit crimes"."

No it could not. The gender ratio is roughly equal and thus when you take one man and one women out of it the ratio remains unchanged. Age doesn't come into it. When you take one man and several women out, and then do this many many times all of a sudden you have an imbalance where quite a few males have no prospect of getting a women at all.

The fact that women have limited reproductive capacity and men have unlimited is the reason that polygyny tends to be the norm.

Horatio writes:

Legalize it. I doubt we'd find many more polygamists in our society than there already are. I prefer the old Southern European way of spreading your genes. Take care of you wife and children, and let someone else take of your mistress and other children.

Boonton writes:
If it is such a great thing economically, then why are so many of the polygamist families in Utah supporting themselves with welfare checks and tax fraud. The only way it works is with a total reworking of the welfare system, Social Security benefits, pension regulations, inheritence laws, property laws, tax laws, and divorce laws.

I think Kling is talking about the fact that it is illegal, not that the state does not provide for it. The family on Big Love could technically be indicted and sent to jail even though they are not cheating anyone nor committing any type of fraud and are entirely self supporting. I agree with him. If three people want to try this out and they are overage and not being coerced then the law should not bother them.

I agree that polygamy is not suitable for society at large for a host of reasons. One of them is that while they add more resources to a relationship arithmatically (three people is one more set of hands to help out with than two people) they increase the complexity of relationships geometrically. Big Love would be a very dull show if it was about his marriage to any one of the women on it but the interaction of Bill and his wives plus the interaction of the wives between themselves make for an interesting story. But while drama on TV is fine drama in your own personal life is often not as enjoyable.

However I don't think it is necessary for gov't to force people to abide by what it says is 'human nature'. Since polygamy is not viable for most people, most people will not voluntarily do it. The analogy I like to use is between being a capitalist and a member of a communistic commune. In our society you are free to do either. As long as you don't force anyone or defraud anyone you are free to try to set up a communistic commune and see if you can make it work. Most people do not do that because such arrangements do not work well with human nature (although maybe there is a minority of people with the selflessness and self-discipline to make it work).

Well, I have watched the series Big Love too and I don't come away with a positive view of polygamy. In the series we see the father spending quality time only with his oldest son. He just doesn't have enough time to spend with all of his 8 children--they appear to get lost in the shuffle.

True but this is a factor in any large family and it is a factor when one person acts as the main breadwinner. He will spend a lot of time away from his kids. On the flip side the 8 children have 3 mothers and quite often we see them helping out by caring for the children of their 'sister-wives'.

Maybe I'm underestimating the true demand for polygamy, but is there really alot of people out there who would enter into this kind of relationship if it weren't illegal? I can't imagine that if polygamy were legal there would be a big rush for this kind of arrangement and alot of the "hell in a handbasket" arguments seem overblown.

I have a Muslim friend who tells me that even though it is legal in many Islamic countries it is almost unheard of in many...some notable exceptions are the sultans of Saudi Arabia. In Bangladash, at least, he told me no one takes more than one wife and if anyone did he would be a laughing stock... So it may be technically legal but it often is not opted for.

I think the bulk of those who would enter such a relationship would do so for religious reasons. Fundamentalist Mormons who believe God established it. Some Muslims as well would utilize it. That's just about it, there will probably be a few eccentrics who will try it for other reasons but it will never take off big time.

Also, this argument sounds similar to examples people use for income redistribution/labour market intervention/most social programs. "Society has to provide money/jobs/education for poor people otherwise they'll commit crimes."

I agree, the 'surplus male' problem that is created by polygamy is real but it doesn't follow that the gov't has to solve it. The 'surplus male' problem is actually a case of disequilibrium and normal economics, if allowed to work, will keep things in balance.

Tracy W writes:

I think Kling is talking about the fact that it is illegal, not that the state does not provide for it. The family on Big Love could technically be indicted and sent to jail even though they are not cheating anyone nor committing any type of fraud and are entirely self supporting.

In NZ to get married you need a marriage license. To get a marriage license you are required to state that you have never been married before or that you are divorced or widowed. I do not know about the USA's requirements, but if a similiar statement is required then whatshisname has been committing fraud.

Furthermore, I do not know of any law stopping people from having children with multiple partners, or sharing their house and bed with people they are not legally married to. But in getting married, you are hooking into a whole legal system, such as your spouse becoming your next of kin, immigration rights, differing tax treatment (not necessarily to the benefit of the happy couple, eg IRD regards some transactions between family members with dark suspicision, when the same transaction between strangers is not), cannot be obliged to testify against each other in court, cannot sue each other, etc. The question of whether these rights should be continually expandable is a public policy question.

Roger Scruton jr. writes:

The free market is a necessary part of any stable community, and the arguments for maintaining it as the core of economic life were unanswerably set out by Ludwig von Mises. Hayek developed the arguments further, in order to offer a general defence of ‘spontaneous order’, as the means to produce and maintain socially necessary knowledge. As Hayek points out, there are many varieties of spontaneous order that exemplify the epistemic virtues that he values: the common law is one of them, so too is ordinary morality.

The free-market ideologuesl, of which you are one, is they take one instance of spontaneous order, and erect it into a prescription for all the others. They ask us to believe that the free exchange of commodities is the model for all social interaction.

Jason writes:

I disagree with polygamy and think it is a bad idea to adopt such things, but in terms of the legality of it, it seems strange to think that anybody could be prosecuted. After all, as long as they have only legally married the first wife, I fail to see how the other "wives" are anything different to having a mistress or number of mistresses. Ok they all know about each other, but in legal terms i'm not sure how this is different to garden variety adultery.

Even in the "fraud" cases, I suspect fraud is not actually being commited because technically the women are not married in a way the state recognises. Although perhaps there is fraud to do with lack of child support payments and the like. (I don't know enough to comment).

Anyway, just my 2c.

Jon writes:

Polygamy is alive and well in the US. A man can choose to live with and procreate with as many women as he wants, he just cannot represent all of them as "wives".
The only thing illegal is making the additional marriages official or getting legal recognition of the additional spouses as such.

Boonton writes:

In NZ to get married you need a marriage license. To get a marriage license you are required to state that you have never been married before or that you are divorced or widowed. I do not know about the USA's requirements, but if a similiar statement is required then whatshisname has been committing fraud.

In the series they are only legally married to one person. There is a position called 'first wife' which is the women the man is legally married too. Naturally this is a coveted position in the polygamist families because the women that holds it has the legal rights should the husband die or become very sick.

I've read another technique used by polygamists is to marry and then divorce one wife and then marry another and so on. Each women, therefore, can call herself 'Mrs. John Smith' while the family sticks to the letter of the law regarding only one legal marriage at a time. Utah, I believe, actually does have a law prohibiting people from 'practising polygamy'.

Boonton writes:

Here's an article that explores how Utah's law works:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/columnist/2004-10-03-turley_x.htm

This is what happened in the case of Green, who was sentenced to five years to life in prison. In his case, the state first used the common law to classify Green and four women as constructively married — even though they never sought a license. Green was then convicted of polygamy.

Common law marriage basically means you can marry someone by just living with them 'as if' you were married. No need to get a license. Sounds like the way it works in Utah at least is that by living with multiple people as if they were married to them a polygamist automatically commits a crime as if he used fraud to get a state marriage licence whether he actually wants anything from the state.

The problem is that common law should always be trumped by real law. For example, if Tony Soprano is legally married to his wife but they have a fight and he moves out, into the apartment of a mistress, they are still legally married until they get a divorce. If he happens to have a heart attack before they get a divorce Carmila is entitled to inherit his estate and she doesn't have to share it with the mistress because by living with her he 'constructively married' her. If some guy is 'common law married' to one women he cannot 'common law marry' others until they divorce.


Common law marriage was supposed to be something to make life easier for people. You don't have to trek down to the courthouse to get married if you don't want to for whatever reason, good, bad or silly. Here it seems like it is being used by the state to butt into other people's private business.

Robert Schwartz writes:

Polygamy Versus Democracy
You can't have both.
by Stanley Kurtz
06/05/2006, Volume 011, Issue 36

RTWT

Boonton writes:

Kurtz's piece is interesting, especially going thru the history of the early Mormon Church which didn't seem like the happy, friendly place it is nowadays. However where he seems to lack an economists insight. That insight is what Adam Smith said about the economy hundreds of years ago, you don't have to worry about it because it will take care of itself.

Kurtz describes a huge array of different arrangements such as a polyamous group of three 'primary partners' who live together and three to four secondary ones. It's all well and good to point out that such arrangements are unstable and unstable arrangements are bad to bring kids up in. It is also well and good to point out how many polygamist cults centered less around free will and more around the cult of an authority figure (such as the 'Prophet' in Big Love who can 'reassign' wives away from husbands who get in his way politically).

What Kurtz fails to appreciate is that there is a market for relationship styles just as there is a market for the production of goods and services. Communist communes do not have to be outlawed in order to protect capitalism. They usually fail because they are simply unsuited to compete in a free society where everyone is free to transact as they please. Likewise such oddball arrangements are unlikely to become influential in a free society because while individuals may freely experiment with them from time to time for most people, most of the time, such arrangements will not meet their emotional needs.

Looking at Big Love the first thing one is struck by is how much work Bill puts on himself being a polygamist. He has to take viagra to work overtime to satisfy all his wives, he makes enough money to live like a rich man but he must live as a middle-class person because he must juggle 3 houses, 3 wives who need cars, 3 groups of kids from each wife and so on. In fact only a tiny portion of Bills problems come from the fact that polygamy is illegal.

How many would seriously be willing to endure this for a lifetime? No doubt a few overachievers might but the reality is most will not no matter what its legal status. (Kurtz's piece has some interesting observations about a tv series about a polygamist family on Egyptian tv...it's interesting that even with the support of society, law and fundamentalist Muslims even there only 3% of men bother to even try polygamy).


What Kurtz seems to suffer from is a lack of faith in the institution he credits with so much good. Monogamous straight marriage is not the norm because it was forced by law. It is the norm because it meets the needs of most people most of the time. Even if gay marriage AND polygamy were legal it would continue to be a tiny minority that would utilize them.

Even though capitalism works there still are a few communist style communes around where people work collectively and such. What conservatives often miss is that a dynamic society is as essential as one that respects tradition. Dynamic means that people must be free to even make mistakes, whether that be trying novel arrangements that have only a long shot of working or starting a business that ends up going bankrupt.

Matt writes:

I keep trying to come to a conclusion on this topic, and the best I can finally say is why would anyone want more than one? The costs of having the second and third go way up over the benefits.

Is this really about charity? Are the homeless women wandering the streets looking for a man to take care of them?

CalgaryGuy76 writes:

I could've said it better myself Boonton. Many of the negatives mentioned in Kurtz' editorial depict "problems" of polygamy that we likely wouldn't see in a free society in which people are free to enter into any type of relationship they choose. Spiritual leaders that dictate who can marry who and other arranged marriages aren't free choice. Older men marrying girls barely in their teens isn't free choice. Have there been problems in the past or in other countries with polygamy, no doubt, but are those problems inherent with being married to more than one person or are they other issues that can be addressed.

I think too many people feel that because they personally disagree with something it should be illegal. While I'd never personally be involved in that kind of relationship, if the family in Big Love were to move next door to me I wouldn't in any way feel they were harming me or society and that's what real freedom is, allowing people to live thier lives as they choose and not necessarily the same way I choose to live my life.

alcibiades writes:

On your recommendation, I flipped this puppy in the DVD player yesterday. That is some show. Highly entertaining. Characters/motivations very believable. Thanks for the rec, Bryan!

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