Bryan Caplan  

Gender Imbalances and Growth Reconsidered

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Most people oppose polygamy out of intolerance, but many social scientists offer a deeper objection: Polygamy simulates the allegedly awful social effects of high male/female ratios.  Arnold's particularly worried:
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.
I've never been convinced.  Yes, intense male competition could take ugly forms.  But it could just as easily stimulate industry and thrift, as men strive to out-compete each other economically.  Now it looks like this is more than a mere theoretical possibility.  Gender imbalance is plausibly a major cause of high Chinese savings rates - and therefore high Chinese growth!  From an interesting write-up of Columbia's Shang-Jin Wei:

Wei worked with Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., to see if his hypothesis held up, comparing savings data across regions and in households with sons versus those with daughters. "We find not only that households with sons save more than households with daughters in all regions," Wei says, "but that households with sons tend to raise their savings rate if they also happen to live in a region with a more skewed sex ratio."

The effect is significant. The household savings rate in China rose from about 16 percent of disposable income in 1990 to over 30 percent today, which is much higher than most countries. About half of the increase in the savings rate of the last 25 years can be attributed to the rise in the sex ratio imbalance. 

This doesn't mean that China's gender imbalance is a good thing.  But what's horrible about China's gender imbalance isn't the "broader social consequences."  What's horrible is how China's imbalance arose: Selective abortion and infanticide fueled by its monstrous one-child policy.  Isn't it shocking, then, that it's a lot more socially acceptable to defend coercive "family planning" in China than consensual polygamy in America?

HT: Tyler

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Snorri Godhi writes:

It remains to be seen whether the experience of China also applies to free countries. You know the Hayek-Friedman hypothesis, of course. Let me suggest a related hypothesis: you can't have political freedom AND a low level of violence without monogamy.

One advantage of violence over economic competition for single men is that the competition is permanently reduced.

Another thing to keep in mind: societies with a shortage of women tend to segregate women in subordinate roles. For instance: Spartan men died in battle in higher numbers than Athenian men. A naive economist would predict (I expect) that Athenian women were more free than Spartan women, due to their greater bargaining power; in fact, the reverse was the case: in Sparta, women had almost equal rights; in Athens, women were the property of men.

david writes:

Did nobody actually read the damn article? Why has everyone skipped merrily over the sentence "India, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore also have sex ratio imbalances that favor male children despite the absence of these stringent family planning policies"? A list which includes two countries which literally pay you to have more children?

Dan Weber writes:

How long has the sex imbalance been going on in China? I thought it only started within the past 30 years, meaning we have yet to see the results of many million men realizing just how dim their prospects are to have a wife.

(I'm not surprised that neighboring countries have imbalances, too: China can export a tiny fraction of its surplus males to swamp most of those countries.)

Loof writes:

Bryan asks: Isn't it shocking, then, that it's a lot more socially acceptable to defend coercive "family planning" in China than consensual polygamy in America?

Nope. Abortion and infanticide aside, both are shocking examples of patriarchism: explicit in societal legislation in China; implicit in some cultural customs in America.

Coercive “family planning” in China is shocking in comparison to educational family planning in Kerala (India) and Thailand, where in both cases it is non-coercise, non-intrusive, female centered – and not male dominated.

“Consensual” polygamy of submissive women to dominate men is shocking in the passive-aggressive relationship. It can be positively consensual with equal opportunity for both genders, as in Thailand (only monogramy is officially recognized but polygamy is informally accepted). A minority of men may have multiple “wives”; though rare, some women choose to have multiple “husbands”. In most cases they’ve separate households. Btw, when in Indonesia (where polygamy is legal for dominant males with means) Loof visited a moslem village with about a hundred households. There were three polygamous relationships.

shecky writes:

As icky as infanticide is, the practice in China predates the one child policy by a pretty long time. I believe it was officially discouraged by the government, though the cultural practice continued and enjoyed a bit of a surge when the one child policy was adopted.

Ha, I was just thinking last night about how if polygamy were legal I'd probably be a lot more ambitious about my career so I could support several wives.

Jeff H. writes:

While having many wives may not be legal, one man having many female sexual partners simultaneously or throughout adulthood is plenty common. Why then is there this assumption that allowing polygamy would cause such an increase in sexual competition?

It's not as if fidelity is a foregone conclusion in marriage anyway.

Robert Wiblin writes:

Although the competition might be productive the men who inevitably end up alone at the end might be miserable.

look_think_do writes:

I wonder if we're bringing about a feminized, wimpish society due to legally enforced monogamy. The trend in most of history has been of successful males having a large number of children, while losing men have none.

Assuming that success is at least partially genetic, this means that over time, genes encoding success become widespread; i.e. the population becomes fitter.

Now, with compulsory monogamy, this selection mechanism is undermined, meaning that a monogamous society may be overtaken by a polygamous one in which more of the people have "successful" genes.

I've recently started a blog exploring related issue; see

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