Arnold Kling  

Polygamy, Jealousy, and Social Peace

Becker on Polygamy... Social Security Crisis Worldwi...

Bryan discusses a blog post by Gary Becker on polygamy. Randall Parker sent an email pointing to a response by Steve Sailer (I cannot figure out a permalink, you may have to search for it).

Monogamy is a cartel formed by males to reduce male vs. male competition for wives to more of a matter of quality than of quantity. The ability of a culture's males to cooperate with each other is correlated with the overall quality of life in that culture. But Becker doesn't seem familiar with that common argument.

The anti-polygamy argument to which Sailer refers is that social peace depends on monogamy. If it were not for monogamy, the competition among males for females would be so intense that there would be no social institutions. Men could not work with one another in corporations, associations, or any other joint ventures. Civil society would not exist.

This is a valid concern. 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.

The last thing we need is to turn that unconscious fear into something that is consciously justifiable.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (4 to date)

Men and women differ in this way: Women enjoy a much higher degree of certainty about the identity of their biological children. Women know who their children are. Men can not be so sure, and can only increase their confidence by establishing mating territories which suggest monogamy.

Rearing offspring involves much more than just the act of sex, in advanced human societies. Rearing offspring entails 20 years or more of feeding and nurturing. If you are going to invest 20 years of support, probably you want to know that it is your child and not some other man's. This, I propose, is why men are more inclined than women to discuss and establish the law, the rules of domains (mating territories).

I have developed this idea and others in two papers, where you may find references.

Men and Women Differ in Political Values: Theory and Implications

Unregulated Families: A Mixture of Old and New Forms

Patri Friedman writes:

But monogamy clearly makes women worse off. I forget where I read this, but the argument is simple: the option to share part of a great guy instead of having all of a terrible guy is adding a choice that will only be taken if it is a win. So under polygamy, women have more options, so they get more out of their relationships.

Given that women already get the short end of the stick in society, wouldn't it be fairer to reduce the screwage some?

Pierpaolo Sommacal writes:

This argument about social peace fails to convince me. Let me try to
argue back.

As best as I understand it, your argument isn't that some men would
remain mateless. If that were the case, I would expect that an
unhampered mating market would adapt. For instance, if polygyny isn't
compensated by polyandry, probably because of innate differences in
sexual jealousy between men and women, then in this age of
biotechnology the sex ratio would shift in favor of women in a few

Instead, you seem to be arguing that the very fact of intrasexual
competition, not its results, would produce a perennial strife that
would smash society. But the set of social rules in such a situation
would surely change. Indeed, monogamy is itself a social rule that,
on your own account, avoids most of the problems. Your argument
depends, thus, on the assumption that it's unique - that there is no
other set of social rules that would be stable and keep the competition
compatible with cooperation.

This may be true, but I don't see how it could be obvious. In such a
society, for instance, violent competition between males may be
discouraged, for example by a strict morality of self-defense. (Kill
them all, God will sort them out.) Cooperation may be fostered by
women themselves: a man who isn't able to keep an ally, after all, is
probably not a very good mate. This alliances may work, cynically,
through partial polyandry - the less attractive females only are
shared; or with some nobler means.

Arguably this society would be little inclined to be democratic, but I
see no reason why it should be more inclined to socialism, which I
think is what you were implicitly claiming. Indeed, it may be more
stable and less socialist than our own. The strict self-defense
morality would somehow dissuade troublemakers from complaining too
loudly and convincingly.

Tracy W writes:

I think there is another reason to fear for social peace due to polygamy.

I keep saying when polygamy comes up, what happens to the current existing benefits of marriage? Eg, what happens when it turns out the members of a gang have all "married" each other so they won't have to testify against each other?

No supporter of polygamy to my knowledge has come up with an argument as to why that wouldn't happen. So I think a likely case is that if polygamy was legalised that would lead to the removal of spousal privilege.

What happens to social peace when you have to be careful about what you talk about to your spouse, in case it may be brought into legal review? (Let us imagine you are wrongly accused of a murder - and we all know how discussions out of context can be warped into bad meanings). Do we really want to live in a world where we might need a lawyer before sharing all our thoughts with our spouse?

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