Results for “polygamy”
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New arguments against polygamy

Prof. Grossbard said there are fewer women available to men in societies that permit polygamy – even for monogamous men, because they are drawing from the same pool of women.

Since that scarcity could increase what she describes as the women’s “bargaining power,” men in such societies have an incentive to ensure they retain control over who the women marry.

To that end, Prof. Grossbard said, polygamy is associated with teenage brides, arranged and forced marriages, payments to brides’ fathers, little emphasis on “romantic” love and poor access to education or the work force – all designed to restrict the ability of women to choose who they marry.

There is further discussion here.  I am not a fan of polygamy, but I find this argument strange (though not strictly impossible; men can behave preemptively and incur a large fixed cost to prevent a subsequent erosion of their control).  Surely Grossbard would not argue that all institutions which improve the bargaining power of women lead to…less bargaining power for women.  So why is polygamy so special in this regard?

For the pointer I thank John Chilton.  On polygamy, I once wrote:

Polygamy ends when children cease to be a net economic asset.  As society progresses and urbanizes, there are cheaper ways of having sex with multiple women, if that is one's goal. 

Here are previous MR posts on polygamy.

The economics of polygamy, continued

(Some) economists, every now and then, look for reasons why polygamy cannot be efficient.  How about this?:

Over the last six years, hundreds of teenage boys have been expelled
or felt compelled to leave the polygamous settlement that straddles
Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

Disobedience is
usually the reason given for expulsion, but former sect members and
state legal officials say the exodus of males – the expulsion of girls
is rarer – also remedies a huge imbalance in the marriage market.
Members of the sect believe that to reach eternal salvation, men are
supposed to have at least three wives.

Here is the longer article, which has several interesting parts.

The economics of polygamy, continued

Perhaps this topic needs a little public choice analysis:

Many Sub-Saharan African countries are extremely poor. It has been argued that the marriage system (in particular polygyny) is one contributing factor to the lack of development in this region. Polygyny leads to low incentives to save, depressing the capital stock and output. Enforcing monogamy might seem like an obvious solution. However, such a law will have winners and losers. In this paper, we investigate the transition from a polygynous to a monogamous steady state.  We find that the initial old men will be big losers. The reason is that they had married many wives in anticipation of the brideprice that future daughters will fetch. However, due to the marriage reform, the value of daughters depreciates rapidly, as the brideprice changes from positive to negative. This increases savings and thereby the aggregate capital stock. The interest rate falls and the initial young suffer a loss in capital income. Thus, all men alive during the reform period experience a loss in utility. Young women and all future generations will benefit.  However, the future gains are not enough to compensate the losers. This may explain why many African countries experience strong resistance to changing their marriage laws.

Here is the paper, and thanks to Alina Stefanescu for the pointer.  Here is Alex’s previous post on polygamy, which leads you back to mine as well.  Here are more links.

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.

Comments are open.

The economics of polygamy

The new HBO series Big Love presents a polygamous family, raising the obvious questions.  Here is Ted Bergstrom on the economics of polygamy.  Here is Tim Harford on polygamy.  Excerpt:

It’s hardly surprising that in most polygynous societies, the bride’s
family gets large payments in exchange for her hand in marriage. If
polygyny combined with women’s rights, I bet we’d see more promises to
wash the dishes. Not everybody would have to share a husband, but I can
think of some who might prefer half of Orlando Bloom to all of Tim
Harford–including my wife.

In my bones I am a square who believes this arrangement cannot be best.  Economists might question how polygamy makes women worse off, since they can always decline the arrangement.  You might try a story about how the family, not the woman, captures the dowry payment and uses it to help their sons buy more wives (see Bergstrom, noting also that the very presence of polygamy shifts the outcome of the bargaining game with the family).  Or you might try a story about sexually frustrated males who are led to revolt, thus destroying social order.

How about the trade-off between quality and quantity of children?  A genetically talented father with many wives will likely maximize the quantity of children rather than their quality.  This has a long-run negative externality, especially if you believe in the Lucas-Uzawa models of economic growth, or some approximation thereof.  You would rather be in a society with fewer but more talented people.  Switzerland rather than India.  The loser is not the wives but rather the next generation of children.  A piece in the February JPE also notes that the children may substitute for savings and thus polygamy can stunt capital formation; I take this as another version of the same argument.

The bottom line?  We should encourage family structures that spur human capital formation.  Polygamy does not do the trick.  Comments are open…

What’s wrong with polygamy?

Polygamy makes perfect sense to many rich men in poorer countries but it is bad for the economy overall, according to a report called The Mystery of Monogamy by three economists.

The study, published recently by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, argues that mass polygamy, which still exists in sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and Thailand, can make it hard for economies "to break out of the poverty trap".

The practice, it says, allows rich men "to spend their money on quantity rather than investing in child quality" and stretches a wealthy man’s resources across a larger number of children.

The authors also argue that the practice has only died out in the west because it no longer makes economic sense for the middle classes, who can no longer afford more than one wife.

Read more here.  Here is the paper in html, I can’t get the pdf versions to open (addendum: try this one).

My take: I am not convinced.  Polygamy does not contradict the idea of quality children, relative to available alternatives: the kids get papa’s good genes and full-time attention from mama.  Keep in mind if this is worse on average than other options, women won’t want the deal.  If there is a social cost from polygamy, it more likely stems from the young men who cannot find wives and resort to violence and risky behavior.  Polygamy ends when children cease to be a net economic asset.  As society progresses and urbanizes, there are cheaper ways of having sex with multiple women, if that is one’s goal. 

Is plough use persistently bad for female status?

In countries with a tradition of plough use, women are less likely to participate in the labor market, own firms, and participate in national politics.


…societies that historically used the plough are characterized by higher parental authority granted to the father, by inheritance rules that favor male heirs, and by less freedom for women to move outside the house. She also finds that, in these societies, women are more likely to wear a veil in public and polygamy is less accepted or illegal.


Past societal norms, too, are related to domestic violence today: women in societies formerly characterized by bride-price have a lower probability and lower intensity of violence today.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Paola Giuliano.  Among other things, this means that how you treat people today really matters for the longer run.

My Conversation with Rabbi David Wolpe

One of my favorites, David was great, here is the link to the podcast, video, and transcript.  Here is the opening summary of the chat:

Named one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of our time, Rabbi David Wolpe joins Tyler in a conversation on flawed leaders, Jewish identity in the modern world, the many portrayals of David, what’s missing in rabbinical training, playing chess on the Sabbath, Srugim, Hasidic philosophy, living in Israel and of course, the durability of creation.

Here are a few bits:

WOLPE: So as my friend Joseph Telushkin says, “Polygamy does exist in the Bible, it’s just never successful.” David does have many wives, and very strained and interesting and complex relationships with women. David has the most complicated and most described relationships with women of any character in the Hebrew Bible.

Those qualities that can be negative, in David are to some extent positive. One of the things that draws David out of the charge of simple narcissism is that he really listens, he pays attention — he pays attention to women over and over again. He listens to what they say and changes himself because of it. And that’s not a characteristic of men in the ancient world or the modern one that you can rely on.


COWEN: So again, I’m an outsider in this dialogue, but say I were thinking of converting to Judaism and I were asking you about Hasidic philosophy. Now in terms of some social connections, I probably would fit better into your congregation than into a Hasidic congregation. But if I ask you, on theological grounds alone, is there a reason why I should be hesitant about Hasidic philosophy? From the point of view of theology, what do you think is the greatest weakness there, or your biggest difference with it, given how much you like Heschel?


COWEN: How would you alter or improve rabbinical training?

WOLPE: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Let me just mention one area. When I speak to rabbinical students, I tell them all the time that the single most valuable commodity you have as a rabbi . . . you can answer that yourself, and then I’ll tell you what I think: your voice. Most people are going to come in contact with you when you speak to them. Not all of them, but most. There’ll be more people who come to your services than the number of people at whose bedside you will sit as they die.

And yet, most rabbis — most people — don’t know how to speak.

There is much more at the link, including about Israeli TV, where to visit in Israel, whether King David parallels Trump, the future of biblical commentary in a world of context-less social media, whether Canadian Jews are more likely to stick with the faith, whether Los Angeles is underrated, what is beautiful and significant in Islam, and the Iran nuclear deal and the settlements, among other topics.  Self-recommending…

And again, here is David Wolpe’s most recent book David: The Divided Heart, which was the centerpiece for the first part of the discussion.

*Just Married*

That is the new and highly intelligent book by Stephen Macedo, and the subtitle is Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy & the Future of Marriage.  I balk at only one of his conclusions: he is pro-gay marriage, where I agree, but he does not believe in legal polygamy.  For instance he argues there is no polygamous orientation comparable to a same-sex orientation, rather polygamy is a preference.  He views polygamy as unstable, and also as leading to distributive injustice, with high status males reaping excess gains.  Furthermore the historical record of polygamy is often negative.  Here are relevant comments from Will Wilkinson, who (like me) is convinced by Macedo on gay marriage but not polygamy.  Is polygamy going to be such a significant practical problem that we ultimately have to in some way wield the coercive apparatus of the state if people insist on trying to practice it?  Would polygamous-equivalent contracts be not just left unenforced but also banned?  I don’t quite see how a liberal doctrine gets you there.  Furthermore, might polygamy make more sense in some eras than in others?  (“Not your grandfather’s polygamy!”)  I still wish to defend the presumption for some notion of freedom of contract.

Practical gradualism vs. moral absolutism, for immigration and revolution

After reading Alex’s post I was a bit worried I would wake up this morning and find the blog retitled, maybe with a new subtitle too.  Just a few quick points:

1. There is a clear utilitarian case against open borders, namely that it will — in some but not all cases — lower the quality of governance and destroy the goose that lays the golden eggs.  The world’s poor would end up worse off too.  I wonder if Alex will apply his absolutist idea on fully open borders to say Taiwan.

2. Alex’s examples don’t support his case as much as he suggests.  The American Revolution compromised drastically on slavery, among other matters.  (And does Alex even favor that revolution?  Should he?  Can you be a moral absolutist on both that revolution and on slavery?)  American slavery ended through a brutal war, not through the persuasiveness of moral absolutists per se.  The British abolished slavery for off-shore islands, but they were very slow to dismantle colonialism, and would have been slower yet if not for two World Wars and fiscal collapse.  Should the British anti-slavery movement have insisted that all oppressive British colonialism be ended at the same time?  You may argue this one as you wish, but the point is one of empirics, not that the morally absolutist position is generally better.

3. Gay marriage is like “open borders for Canadians.”  I’m for both, but I don’t see many people succeeding with the “let’s privatize marriage” or “let’s allow any consensual marriage” arguments, no matter what their moral or practical merits may be.  Gay marriage advocates were wise to stick with the more practical case, again choosing an interior solution.  Often the crusades which succeed are those which feel morally absolute to their advocates and which also seem like practically-minded compromises to moderates and the undecided.

4. Large numbers of important changes have come quite gradually, including women’s rights, protection against child abuse, and environmentalism, among others.  I don’t for instance think parents should ever hit their children, but trying to make further progress on children’s rights by stressing this principle is probably a big mistake and counterproductive.

5. The strength of tribalist intuitions suggests that the moral arguments for fully open borders will have a tough time succeeding or even gaining basic traction in a world where tribalist sentiments have very often been injected into the level of national politics and where, nationalism, at least in the wealthier countries, is perceived as working pretty well.  The EU is by far the biggest pro-immigration step we’ve seen, which is great, but we’re seeing the limits of how far that can be pushed.  My original post gave some good evidence that a number of countries — though not the United States — are pretty close to the point of backlash from further immigration.  Rather than engaging such evidence, I see many open boarders supporters moving further away from it.

6. In the blogosphere, is moralizing really that which needs to be raised in relative status?

Addendum: Robin Hanson adds comment.

And: Alex responds in the comments:

Some good points but only point number #5 actually addresses my argument. I argued that strong, principled moral arguments are most likely to succeed. Point #5 rests on mood affiliation. I know because having a different mood I read the facts in that point in entirely the opposite way. Namely that it’s amazing that although our moral instincts were built on the tribe we have managed to expand the moral circle far beyond the tribe. Having come so far I see no reason why we can’t continue to expand the moral circle to include all human beings. The open borders of the EU is indeed a triumph. Let’s create the same thing with Canada and then lets join with the EU.

Do not make the mistake (as in point #2) of thinking that the moral argument only succeeds when we make fully moral choices. It also succeeds by pushing people to move in the right direction when other arguments would not do that at all.

Assorted links

1. More on old vs. new Keynesianism.

2. An old style socialist analysis of racism in Madison, Wisconsin.  And what are the whitest job categories in America?  #1 is veterenarian.

3. Can we unwind wealth illusions without pain?

4. Polygamy over space and time.

5. How Twitter marries man and machine.  And Ten Questions Consumers Should Ask When Choosing a Robo-Adviser.

6. A caustic piece on the fundamental political flaw behind Obamacare.

Assorted links

1. Carrying costs > liquidity premium, German dead body edition.  Raise the price of a donation, I say.

2. Liquidity premium > carrying costs, German live body edition, disintermediation; “He meets 10 to 15 women a month.”  Recommended, I read it twice.

3. Jeff Sachs toys with the idea of a three-child limit for Nigeria (for fathers?  mothers?  probably de facto just the latter, then won’t it boost polygamy?).  In any case it would be a huge tax on rural Nigerians and it is a very bad idea, not to mention a massive violation of personal liberty.  Wouldn’t a more right-wing thinker have encountered a firestorm for a similar proposal?  (Addendum: a related set of links and commentary from Chris Blattman.)

4. More on Robert Caro.

5. Me in El Diario, on El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, sister cities of a sort, a wonderful near-controlled experiment on how the law influences our food (in Spanish).

*A Convergence of Civilizations*

That’s the new book by Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd and the subtitle is The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World.  I read it as offering three major messages: a) there is no unique pattern for Muslim demographic evolution, b) there is more civilizational convergence than divergence, and c) the demographic data we observe explain a good deal about various Muslim countries.  Here are some specific points:

1. In 1998-1999 about 55 percent of married women in Burkina Faso lived in polygamous relationships.  In the Muslim parts of Nigeria, rates of polygamy can run forty to fifty percent, as opposed to about thirty percent in the Christian parts of Nigeria.

2. Demographically, Iran is very much a Western country with a 2.08 fertility rate, and the authors strongly hint that Iran has a reasonable chance of modernizing as Turkey has; the authors also worry that Turkey has not made a complete demographic transition and thus is vulnerable to backsliding.  In general the authors seem to believe that the modernizing properties of Shiism are underrated.

3. Less than five percent of Uzbek or Tajik women are unmarried at age thirty.  In Morocco it is 41 percent unmarried at age thirty, in Tunisia it is 54 percent, 50 percent in Lebanon, and a staggering 58 percent unmarried at age thirty in Algeria.

4. Palestinian birth rates are not as high as they are often made out to be: “If one takes Israel and the occupied territories together, one can grasp the absurdity of the demographic confrontations: The high fertility rate of Israeli Arabs is an internal threat to the Jewish state, whereas the high fertility rate of the Jewish settlers threatens Palestinian predominance in the West Bank.” (p.67)

5. In Shiite Azerbaijan, there are almost twice as many abortions per woman as live births, 3.2 to 1.7.

6. Among the Muslims of Europe, the Kosovars are arguably the least religious but also the most demographically conservative.

7. The Muslim Malays seem to have combined high birth rates with relatively high status for women.

Speculative throughout, as they say, but always interesting.  Here is one short but accurate review.  For the original pointer to the book I thank Chris F. Masse.  Chris also points us to the DSK prediction market.

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