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Becker on Polygamy

My Take of Milton Friedman... Polygamy, Jealousy, and Social...

I lectured on polygamy this morning; then, by pure coincidence, I came across Gary Becker's latest word on the subject. Highlight:

Some oppose polygyny because they believe too many women would be "swept off their feet" by smooth-talking actual or potential polygamists. If that were a great concern, women could be required to be older before they could legally marry into polygamist households, or a "cooling off" period could be mandated before they could do that. Yet isn't it offensively patronizing to women to believe they cannot make their own decisions about whether to enter into marriages that contain other wives? We do not offer men any special protections against the "wiles" of women, so why do women need such protection? Indeed, I believe that in marital decisions women are more thoughtful and far-sighted than men, partly because marriage has meant much more to women than to men.

Becker closes with two pointed questions:

I conclude with two questions. Why the strong opposition to polygyny if it would be so rare? If modern women are at least as capable as men in deciding whom to marry, why does polygyny continue to be dubbed a "barbarous" practice?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
RWP writes:

Well, that doesn't seem to be very economist like. Wouldn't it make more sense to find out why almost all cultures adopt monogamy? If you are going to disregard simple cultural objections why not look a little deeper and find the true cause.

Phil writes:

I think that the laws against polygamy are not to protect women from being exploited but to protect the average man from having high status males accumulate lots of wives with the result that many men wouldn't be able to marry. It's a way to insure social peace by making sure that each man gets the chance to have his own wife.

Bill writes:

I don't think there is anyone who opposes it because they are worried women will be swept off their feet. I think that it was practiced, and continues to be practised in a way that exploits women primarily. The assertion that this is sexist is all well and good, but why then do you always see the existing plural spouses who are exploited be women? The fact that most women would not be exploited does not mean that some wouldn't.

A Similar argument can be made with prostitution, I suppose. Yes, if that were legal one might argue less underage males and females would be exploited. I am not confident that this would be the case, as I think that number might stay laregly the same or increase because additional patrons of prostituion might appear.

Anyway, people are free to live with as many partners as they want, but the society does not have to recognize it. I know most people reading this will say then why does the government have any involvement in marriage at all? A good question, but largely irrelevant. The vast majority of voters want men and women to be able to marry. A smaller but considerably large and growing segment of the population want same sex unions, which I hope are legal soon.

But why pass a form of marriage that almost nobody wants, that some people wouldn't mind, and whose only ardent supporters are a few moonbats? I don't think there is an egual protection argument if marriage is limited to being between two people by the legislature.

In a sense it would be like the Terry Schiavo case, spending resources to affect very few people, to the great irritance of the vast majority of the country, to validate a lifestyle that hasn't been practiced for a long time in this country's culture. You could next repeal the ordinances that food preparation employees must wash hands, so that it now reads you don't have to wash the hand you used to wipe if you promise not to use it to make food. I mean, why not, most people will wash their hands anyway, and steps can be taken to ensure those who don't are monitored to prevent abuse. Why would anyone object? (the argument that there should not be that ordinance in the first place does not mean changing it to be even wackier is desireable.)

If health insurance is not a right, then neither is plural marriage as recognized by the state. The argument that only a few people would do it or support it, in my mind, is an agrument showing that there is no need to enact it.

Adam writes:

RWP: In fact a majority of cultures throughout history have allowed polygyny. It's becoming rarer now because of the dominance of Western European Christianity, but that's a recent development.

Steve Sailer writes:

Monogamy is a cartel men impose upon each other to limit competition for wives more to quality rather than to quantity. In monogamous societies, male-male cooperation tends to be higher, with good effects throughout society and the economy.

Bill Conerly writes:

There's a very good discussion of polygamy in The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, which is an excellent book about genetic basis for morality. It emphasizes competition in a discussion of Darwin, victorian morals, and modern attitudes toward morality.

He says, imagine ranking all males and all females by a composite measure of desirability. The top male can have any female, and the top female can have any male. So number 1 male mates with number 1 female. Then number 2 male mates with number 2 female, etc.

Now imagine you are a below-median female, and your choices are a) mate with a below-median male, or b) be the second wife of the number 1 male. Option b may look pretty good, especially if there is a wide spread of ability to support kids between the top of the distribution and the bottom of the distribution.

Social problem: polygamy leaves young dumb men without mates. This is the demographic most associated with crime and social disruption. So a ban on polygamy may be enacted in order to maintain social order (a public good) by getting the young dumb men married up.

The book also has a good explanation of why men prefer younger women.

Loki on the run writes:

The Taiping rebellion in China is very arguably the result of polygamy.

Approximately 20 million dead is, in my view, a very good reason to place restrictions on men's desire to engage in polygamy.

Men are far better at violence than women are and the consequences are more severe.

CDarklock writes:

> Social problem: polygamy leaves young
> dumb men without mates.

I suggest that this is as much because young, dumb men are UNDESIRABLE as it is because older, smarter (and by implication richer) men are desirable.

Why? Because you don't have to get married. Prohibiting polygamy doesn't prevent adultery.

Yet the market fixes this all by itself. Donald Trump doesn't bone the cashier at Safeway, not because he can't, but because he has better options. The cashier at Safeway then needs to look elsewhere for a mate.

John Thacker writes:

Prohibiting polygamy doesn't prevent adultery.

It does, however, make it very expensive.

There are actual polygamist communities in North America (such as Bountiful, BC) where abuse of child brides is constantly alleged and constantly denied. The warnings are in a way more than just theoretical. (Though at the same time the authorities rarely try to do too much to stop them.)

jaim klein writes:

From a practical point of view, I am for polygamy, but my wife would kill me. You underestimate the power of women in a family.

Tracy writes:

There are various legal and tax privileges attached to marriage. Perhaps there shouldn't be, but there are.

What happens to these when you remove the requirement of exclusivity from marriage? What happens to the right not to be forced to testify against your spouse if a criminal gang can all "marry" each other?

What happens to the right to be able to immigrate to your spouse's country if an unlimited number of people are included in that category?

Perhaps we should not have those rights even with one spouse. But I have not heard of a knock-down argument as to why marriage should not include those rights (by which I mean an argument with which I could not find a rational way to disagree with). So I think people have reason to be concerned that legalising polygamy would have a far greater impact on existing marriages and their rights than legalising same-sex marriage.

None of the arguments I have seen for polygamy address this.

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