In defense of polygamy

I’m not convinced by Tyler’s arguments against polygamy.  Let’s clear away some misconceptions.

First, it’s important to note that polygamy (specifically polygny) not monogamy is the norm in human society – some 75% of the known human societies have approved of polygny. 

Second, we sometimes look around the world, note that polygny is approved of in societies such as Saudi Arabia that are not exactly women-friendly and conclude that polygny must be against the interests of women.  The problem with this argument is that most societies with monogamous marriage have also not been women-friendly.  Women can’t drive in polygnous Saudi Arabia but they couldn’t vote in monogamous United States until circa 1920, nor could they easily get a credit card in their own names or easily go to law school as late as the 1960s.

The basic economic argument that polygny increases the demand for women  – under polygny Bill Gates can have two wives which by demonstrated preferences makes at least the second wife better off – suggests, but does not prove, that polygny can favor women.  (Consider polyandry – would men complain if Angelina Jolie could have two husbands?)   

Third, let’s consider Tyler’s argument that polgyny reduces investment in children.  It is true that to the extent that polygny increases the number of any particular man’s children that his attention will be divided.  But there are two counter effects.  First, there is a selection effect.  The men with more children will be the wealthier and healthier men – the better providers.  If polygny increases the number of children that Bill Gates (oh what the hell my wife doesn’t always read the blog, or me!) has then average child quality over society as a whole will increase. 

Moreover, if child quantity is the problem then that problem ought to be addressed directly.  Does Tyler support a tax on children ala China?

Also, Tyler puts too much attention on the man.  Polygny probably increases the fertility of the polygnous man but it also decreases the fertility of the polygnous woman (not by as much as it increases the fertility of the man because women are already much closer to the physical limit on children than are men but by an appreciable amount), thus the attention of mothers will increase.

Aside: Tertilt argues that polgyny decreases investment but on the basis of a model which combines polygny with many other factors such as brideprice being paid to the bride’s male relatives – this would not apply in the contemporary United States.  (It also appears to me on a quick reading that the Tertilt argument may commit the Junker fallacy.)

Polygny could be very well suited to a modern society in which women work.  Working women already contract out child care services – a second, stay at home wife, is not that different.

Polygny will be bad for poor men who lose out in the competition for
first wives to rich men who are on their second.  This already happens,
by the way, because of serial polygamy – older men divorce their older
wives and marry younger ones leaving older women unmarried and some
younger men without young wives.  Bad for the young men but not
necessarily bad for the young wives.  For this reason it’s probably
true that polygny cannot be countenanced in a democracy.  At least not
until the supply of young men is reduced enough so that every many can
have at least one wife even if some can have two.

On the whole, therefore, I see no strong arguments that banning polygamy (either polygny or polyandry) is socially optimal but due to the power of the patriarchy I don’t expect polygny to be approved of in the United States any time soon.

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