Bryan Caplan  

Polygamy: Facts Not Fear

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Arnold writes:

I suspect that a major factor driving envy of the rich is a deep-seated male fear of losing the mating game. My hypothesis is that the irrational resentment that many men feel over the high pay of CEO's and others can be traced to a deep-seated fear that some other man will wind up with more than his share of mates, and the rest of us will be left with none.

Then why are men's attitudes markedly less egalitarian than women's? This readily pops out of the General Social Survey, and has been explored at length in the literature on Social Dominance Orientation.

In any case, the idea that polygamy would destroy social peace is pure paranoia. If polygamy were common, there might be a marginal increase in crime, but it's hardly clear. Men might just work harder to attract a wife.

But more to the point, polygamy isn't going to become common even if you legalize it, because very few modern women would put up with it. In practice, polygamy would probably be about as prevalent as gay marriage. So why can't we just show some tolerance instead of predicting the sky will fall?


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Seth writes:
But more to the point, polygamy isn't going to become common even if you legalize it, because very few modern women would put up with it. In practice, polygamy would probably be about as prevalent as gay marriage.

I think Bryan's probably correct here, but there's one big part of the discussion that seems to be missing.

Why are women passive in most of this discussion? Men compete for women, women are competed for.

But women also compete for men. So how does this affect the mate pool? What if a rich, powerful woman had multiple husbands? Does this reduce competition among men? Do women with multiple husbands and men with multiple wives bring equilibrium?

T.G.G.P writes:

Seth, nobody is talking about polyandry because polygyny is the norm. The former only happens in screwed up places like Tibet between brothers. Even in American society we've got people (of strange religious sects for the most part) in court for polygyny. When the same happens for polyandry, we'll start discussing that.

Tracy W writes:

What happens to the rights and duties of marriage if polygamy is available?

What happens to the right to not be compelled to testify against your spouse the first time it's found a gang has all "married" each other in order to gain this right?

What happens to the right to join your spouse in their native country if that could mean an unlimited number of people coming in?

Polygamy in the sense of people making marriages purely for the legal benefits may become extremely common.

Or the legal benefits of marriage may be drastically reduced. Perhaps they should be - perhaps immigration should be entirely free, regardless of whether you are married to a citizen of the country, perhaps confidentiality between spouses should be completely abolished. But these are benefits of marriage right now, and it strikes me that polygamy would change those benefits, and therefore polygamy can be rationally opposed on the basis it would affect normal marriages as well.

Matt C writes:

While I agree that polygamy should be legalized for reasons of tolerance, I might feel differently if there was much chance of it becoming a widespread practice.

Has there ever been a substantially polygamous society that was civilized and reasonably liberal (old meaning)? Serious question: maybe there has, I'd like to know.

This discussion makes me think of free speech and free assembly for Nazis and commies. Not a problem as long as they're a fringe minority. A little more worrisome if the ideas start taking off.

jaim klein writes:

This discussion strikes me as pornography for aging economy professors. They imagine themselves as a Turkish pasha, a Saudi Prince or the Amir of Buchara, with dozens of nubile beauties vying for their favors, watching from the balcony the naked wifes bathing in the pool and dropping the handkerchief near the one chosen for the night. The sad truth is that in our societies women hold the power in everything related to sex and family. Try to fondle the toosickof a juicy secretary and you end in jail, try to take a lover and your wife will take vengeance on you till the end of your miserable life. Women would have to be beaten back to their historic powerlessness, lack of legal rights to appear in court and own property, in order to start putting up with a mild kind of poligamy. As things are now, men live in terror and fear to open their mouths (see what happened to the last President of Harvard). Not one of us has a chance of polygamy in our time. Except when exercising our imagination, which we would never aknowledge as pornography, would we?

ptm writes:

"the idea that polygamy would destroy social peace is pure paranoia."

Not really. The polygamist tribes in Utah have all sorts of crazy stuff going on. As with the Drug War much of it is related to the illegality, and much of the craziness is religous, but just how much isn't clear.

The Salt Lake papers have done a decent amount of reporting on the Colorado City-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS); here's an article about the current head of the community and the young men he's exiled.

jaim klein writes:

Bryan is asking why society does not tolerate polygamy. I think society is tolerant, no, indifferent regarding the practice, since the police is not knocking at doors at midnight checking family setup. Society takes a more active attitude only when more important issues are involved, such as child maintenance, alimony, division of property, etc.

Hal Varian writes:

According to the Census Bureau, "43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years." One interpretation of this statistic: we live in a society that practices "serial polygamy": only one spouse at a time.

Tracy W writes:

According to the Census Bureau, "43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years." One interpretation of this statistic: we live in a society that practices "serial polygamy": only one spouse at a time.

Well this may be right, but serial polygamy does not strike me as likely to impose the costs of consequent polygamy on the rights of marriage. If you divorce your first spouse, the spouse can then be required to testify against you.

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