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.


You're not considering the ultimate case, the one in which any individual can have many spouses, or various genders, at the same time.

"Have you met my 4 wifes and 2 husbands and our 10 lovely children?"

Ha ha!

The idea that successful women would be okay with a second wife who could focus on child-rearing makes the mistake that they would prefer a second wife to a fulltime employee who doesn't have sexual and spending privileges. Maybe Melinda Gates or Mrs. Trump would make this compromise for lack of bargaining power, but I can't envision any Washington power couples agreeing to it.

Men couldn't easily get credit cards until the 1960s or 1970s, so I'm not sure that credit cards really tell us much about gender relationships.

With respect to the male-surplus problem, sociologically, one might look at the modern African-American community, which already effectively has a shortage of men. The result is a race to the bottom where many women effectively trade sexual services and child-rearing without commitment from the fathers. Would polygamy improve the situation there, or make it worse?

But I don't think there would be a male-surplus problem in a Westernized country that adopted polygamy. What would really happen is that men inclined to have more than two spouses would likely import a good number of Second- and Third-World participants.

It's also a mistake to consider solely the effects of a change from monogamy to polygamy by itself. If the switch were combined with a legalization of prostitution, this would reduce the excess demand for wives. Cf. Posner on the subject of sexual marketplace competition.

The reason why polygamy isn't considered woman-friendly is because of other legal rules. How does one resolve questions of divorce? Community property? Child custody? There's no polygamous society that answers these questions in a manner that favors women. Other than prenuptial contracting, there's no legal regime that answers these questions in favor of wives that makes polygamy economically attractive to the vast majority of men, and a woman who could freely bargain for a prenuptial contract isn't likely to agree to a polygamous arrangement except in the rare instances of the multi-millionaires. (Certainly, none of my modal wives would've tolerated sharing!)

Aside from the fact that a deeply religious country is never going to approve of legalizing polygamy for the sake of the fraction of a percent of men who could afford a second wife (and the multiple women who would benefit from it), one hardly needs a formalized polygamy regime to keep mistresses and love-children on the side in twenty-first century America: witness the stereotype of the NBA star with seven children by five mothers.

There's also the issue of assortative mating. My generation of successful professional men, notwithstanding Maureen Dowd's claims, want highly educated spouses, often with high-powered careers, with whom they truly partner. I would be thrilled if my girlfriend takes a job offer to make 50% more than I do, as she's capable of doing. It's not clear that many would want to trade this model of marriage in for a loveless one where they have a harem of Filipino mail-order brides.

I think the question in reguards to modern america is kind of moot. We're very unlikely to see a resurgance in polygamy...and I also suspect we're unlikely to see a resurgance in hard core monogomy. Mostly I think the concepts of long term permanent relationships are going the way of the dinosaur if looking at the divorce rate is any clue. Expect more fluid contractural personal relationships in general.

Personally though, I like the idea of a line marriage. Makes good economic sense if you ask me.

I am not suggesting that I either favor polygamy for myself or for others. What I find interesting is the concern about it and (usually) the conclusion that it is a bad idea for everyone. The practical problems (if you really want to get serious about scenarios) such as child custody and community property are solvable by applying the same set of rules. Custody? It's the best interest of the child. Community property? You change the divisior.

As to stability: considering the divorce rate, our current bi-polar situation is hardly a model for what works.

Having two women is not something which appeals to me -- ok, a little --but I can't really see that it is anyone's business.

Community property? You change the divisior.

Do you change it to three, or to four? And if you change it to four, who gets the two shares: the husband or the first wife, who may not want to have her 50% rights to community property reduced by the addition of a second wife who may not have the same income levels? Most polygamous marriages will be sequential, rather than simultaneous.

Alex - A couple of thoughts.

First, polygamy has been embraced either by cultures that can be characterized as being overpopulated, or by cultures that desire more widespread population. The quality of the population may be debated.

Second, it is not clear that polygamous societies promote economic growth, but this is an empirical question. Would the industrial revolution have taken place in the West had the Church not been successful in promoting the Christian ideal of marriage and nuclear families? Remember, one of the defining characteristics of Christians in pagan Rome was their desire to remain with a single spouse, something that the Romans found weird. Since then, that Rome is no more, while civilization took root wherever the Christian ideal of marriage took root. Why?

I think it comes down to the emotional and human capital that is more likely to be assured when one grows up with a single mother and father.

Ted - Legalizing polygamy is going to happen, because the same arguments that make gay marriage legal will apply to other forms of marriage. So if you want one, you will get the other. In my view, the state should get out of the marriage business altogether. Let private institutions define marriage again, allow competition, and let individuals enter into contracts that make sense to them.

Ted, why do you ask such easy economics questions?

>With respect to the male-surplus problem, sociologically, one might look at the modern African-American >community, which already effectively has a shortage of men. The result is a race to the bottom where many >women effectively trade sexual services and child-rearing without commitment from the fathers. Would polygamy >improve the situation there, or make it worse?

This is the textbook example of a case where we should all be able to agree that polygamy would improve the situation. The problem, essentially, is a shortage of men relative to women reducing the bargaining power of women. If polygamy increases woman's bargaining power, this would make the situation better.

>> Community property? You change the divisior.

>Do you change it to three, or to four? And if you change it to four, who gets the two shares: the husband or >the first wife, who may not want to have her 50% rights to community property reduced by the addition of a >second wife who may not have the same income levels? Most polygamous marriages will be sequential, rather >than simultaneous.

We already have business partnerships and joint stock companies of all sorts. This isn't any different conceptually and economically. Typically, assuming marriages start out as 50/50 partnerships if the first wife doesn't want her stock diluted she can prevent the merger. If her initial stock is less than 50%, she chose not to ppurchase a controlling share in the first place.

I suspect that poly-marriage and improved immigration status are conceptually incompatible. In fairness, there are weak general arguments against legal poly based on the excess cost to undesirable males, and strong ones based on transition costs, which I generally feel should be more emphasized in economics.

"Please note, the relavent populations are the 'marriagable' men and women in a society. If you look at the college attendance gender ratios, it would appear that we can expect a steep decline in the ratio of marriagable men to marriagable women."

Or simply a decline in the ratio of marriagable college educated men to all marriagable men. There's no law that says that a college education will always and everywhere show a profit. As time goes on and the economy evolves, one can expect new routes to success to open up if college doesn't cut it anymore. It's not like the men all become stupid just because they don't go to college.

Re: Charles Hope's comment on religion -- there are some Christian, non-Mormon churches today which practice polygamy. In particular, some of the same African Anglican/Episcopalian churches which are angry about the U.S. Episcopal church accepting gays allow their local followers to practice polygamy. This is in large part due to these churches competing with Islam and traditional African religions for converts; you pretty much have to let your converts bring their wives with them. For the same reason, the Roman Catholic Church has a loophole where sometimes Episcopal priests can convert to Roman Catholic and keep their (single) wives.

Alex has previously posted about religions "evolving" to cope with socioeconomic needs such as lending money with interest. As an Episcopalian, I think the same thing would happen here -- mainline/liberal churches and Western legal systems are already evolving to embrace gay unions, as they evolved many years ago to embrace divorce in spite of Jesus specifically condemning it. If polygamy offered significant utility benefits, the mainline churches and European laws would or will evolve to allow it as well. The fact that they have not done so is IMHO evidence that the demand for polygamy is not that great.

so why did it vanish in Christendom?

This is from the Imagining Australia blog
"The church had an interest in emphasising monogamous marriage - it gained a greater share of inheritances (broad clans mean little is left for the church). But a side-effect of banning polygamy and consanguineous marriage was to reduce loyalties to clan, and increase affiliation with the nation-state."


My impression is that deep down people don't really like each other that much. That as people become wealthier they have less to do with each other. We have gone from extended families to nuclear families to a combination of nuclear families, divorced families and single mothers and fathers. I think this trend will continue. Currently I see people buying larger and larger houses so each member can have more privacy and more and more families split between two or more dwellings even while their marriage or other relationship remains intact. I think that in the future we will see more people living alone and visiting people for social interaction rather than living with them. Although children will live with a parent they will spend much more time interacting with electronic devices than people, a trend that started with the introduction of radio and TV. So while there will be highly sociable people who will want to live and love in groups, regardless of whether or not the law recognizes their relationships as "marriages," I think most people will live alone and some will have on going sexual relationships with several people and some will have several on going parenting type relationships, just as nowadays many people have multiple friendship type relations. Living alone will also become more popular as technology’s ability to provide sexual satisfaction and social interaction increases.

Entirely trivial question.
Polygny or polygyny? My dictionary says the latter: is this another one of those mysterious differences between English and American?

"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."

But even in those societies, only a small percentage of men have more than one wife. Even there, one man/one wife is the norm, and always has been. Polygyny (even where legal) is very much the exception, not the norm. And 'approve of polygyny' is not the right phrasing. 'Tolerate' would be more apt, I think.

Also, it's not the case that we don't permit polygyny or polyandry in the U.S. or elsewhere in the west. It's just that it is not legally sanctioned. One can live with and have sex and children with any assortment of adults one chooses, but the state will not officially endorse more than one of those relationships (at a time).

Tim: "polygyny." This is not English vs. American; it is a spelling error. There are other variations on this in the original post and scattered replies ("polygny," "polgyny," and so on).

I assume that most of the posters are men because the assumption is polygyny, with only the most passing glances at other multi-partner marriages. From whence comes the belief that legalizing polygamy will lead to (mostly or only?) the one sort of multi-partner marriage? I know no good example in the modern world that has allowed all the options. If either spouse can veto a new one, I see little evidence that women are more likely to share. Perhaps such data exists. Also, might the most stable multi-female marriages involve no men at all?

How much of the discussion of polygamy is driven by heterosexual male wishful thinking, or fear that he will be the unlucky bachelor who ends up with no wife? And why is that the so-common assumption: no wife, rather than one member of a polyandrous marriage? Some people have tossed out equations for men marrying multiple lower quality women; we might assume the same equations applying to women collecting men. And so on with multiple members of both sexes.

A 19th-century Utah woman who was one of four wives left a journal entry that offered one of my favorite views on polygamy. She wrote that she loved her husband very much and thankfully only had to love him one week a month. ;)

The point could be that polygamy reduces genetic diversity. In other species it does. Now whether that's an good or bad thing varies.
And hey, equallity time here, what about women with more than one husband?
Also the wives themselves would not be equal to each other; instead they would fall into a pecking order and do you know how vicious women are to each other when it comes to establishing and maintaing that pecking order.

Monogamy is a cartel arrangement among men to compete merely over quality of wife, but but not over quantity of wives. Monogamous societies thus tend to feature more cooperation among males than polygamous societies. Males in monogamous societies tend to be better at forming cooperative organizations for business, war, and politics, than the males in polygamous societies, and that's probably not a coincident. Nor is it likely a coincidence that monogamous societies are nicer places to live.

Polygamy is not identical to a guy having two or more girlfriends as sexual partners.

If a guy tells all of his three girlfriends that he is having sex with all of them and these three girlfriends continue to maintain relationships with him, that really isn't polygamy, by my definition.

Polygamy is when this guy asks all three of these girlfriends to marry him, all three agree to do so and (most importantly) the state agrees to recognize all three marriages as legal civil marriages.

As for why most people who cheat on their spouse try to keep it a secret from their spouse......

Did you ever consider the possibility that if the spouse knew that cheating was going on that he or she might file for divorce based on infidelity?

I think we have been a bit lazy in our definition of polygamy here.

The ick factor is very high.

It's bad enough we expose ourselves to all of our
partners sexual interludes but now we widen the net
to include wives 2/3/4?

What about limiting by income/assets? How many will
end up on welfare? Discrimination?

As to highly-educated college women marrying beneath
them, just because you're educated doesn't mean
you're smart. Look at what the colleges are
turning out now.

Just because you get your hands dirty and might have
never gone to college doesn't mean you can't pull in
six figures a year - I'm married to 1. And a lot of
them are good, decent, honorable men. If those
highly-educated women turn their nose up at them,
they're going to be bitter old biddies. Hello, MoDo.

And once you allow gay marriage and polygamy,
paedophilia isn't far behind. Very slippery slope here.

It is all about sex with no consequences, guilt
or responsibility w/the 60s generation.

Judaism had already moved very far down the road against polygamy by the time Christianity came along. If you read scripture, you see (after the patriarchs) a strong bias towards monagomy. In the prophets, you even have G-d condemning trophy wifing! Couple that with Paul's restrictions against leaders having more than one wife, and you're pretty well there.

In the US, the ban on homosexuality has always been primarily religious. As we have become more secular, the specific religious conviction has gone, while the general worldview (ick factor) has moved more slowly. Note that it is the courts (isolated from public opinion) not the legislature which has generally forced legal recognition of homosexual relationships. Since the religious opposition to polygamy is indirect, the arguments fall back on more general societal concerns.

The courts will impose polygamy before the end of the decade, barring a serious backlash.

It's worth splitting out:

a. The phenomenon of some men and some women getting multiple partners. Mostly, it seems to be men getting multiple partners, for reasons that go down to biology and what paid off in evolutionary terms.

b. Legal recognition of the fact that some men and a few women have multiple partners.

Item (a) isn't going to go away, because we're not going to return to policing peoples' private sexual and romantic behaviors. The social effects of this will be much the same whatever happens to (b), just as is the case with gay marriage.

The issues regarding (b) mainly center around whether the state should send a message that polygyny is okay, whether doing this would lower the cost of polygyny so much that it became much more common, and whether the contractual and legal issues would be too hard to resolve.

Well, there's no question that the contractual and legal issues could be resolved. There often wouldn't be clean resolutions, but that's no different from normal marriages, is it? And using the law to teach the citizens right from wrong seems incompatible with a free country. So does having the state try to micromanage private sexual and romantic decisions by tinkering with the rules of marriage, though that's not as bad as sending in a SWAT team to arrest people for having affairs or sleeping with the wrong adult.

Monogamy is good for men and good for society. Why good for men? Monogamy allows for the supply of women to men to balance relatively evenly (there is slight imbalance but it is small). Men without wives (substitute access to sex if you wish) are willing to kill or rape to get access to sex. In a polygamous society the men with wives will always have to be watching out for those who lose out in the game for wives. Giving up some access to sex with more than one woman for the safety of having a much smaller number of men without wives is good for both men and women overall. But it benefits males overall.

It is good for society because males with some access to sex (we never have enough access even when married do we?) are less prone to violence and other non-social behavior. Less violence, killings and rape benefit society as a whole. Those few women who would have had access to higher level males as the 2nd or 3rd wife lose out, but they are a minority of the population class as a whole.

The economic argument follows from there. A man with regular access to sex contributes more willingly to the society as a whole than a man denied access to regular sex, making him on average more productive.

There's enough high school stuff going on w/o adding
30-40- y.o.s to the mix.

There's names for men like that.

A different perspective from my Israeli kin: the Bedouins.

My understandng is that polygamy is still practiced in the Negev desert for obviously economic reasons. Basically, the land can't support the Bedouin population, so for as long as anyone can remember young men are expected to leave the tribe and find employment else where: guarding caravans, seasonal agricultural work, whatever. But the work is often dangerous. Those young men that are successful return to the tribe and marry to the degree their wealth allows.

But why send men? Remember, (1) Bedouins are surrounded by other cultures richer and denser, and (2) culture is primarily passed on by mothers. You see this clearly in Western Societies in the fact one of the most powerful predictors one's political affiliation is mother's (not father's) political affiliation.

Polygamy allows the Bedouins to acquire economic resources from surrounding societies while conserving the cultural resources that allow them to continue as an independent culture.

Disclaimer: This is from family chit-chat, not first hand knowledge or academic study.

"If a guy tells all of his three girlfriends that he is having sex with all of them and these three girlfriends continue to maintain relationships with him, that really isn't polygamy, by my definition.
Polygamy is when this guy asks all three of these girlfriends to marry him, all three agree to do so and (most importantly) the state agrees to recognize all three marriages as legal civil marriages."

_De facto_ polygamy is a more common situation. It happens when an Alpha male is dating two or more women at the same time (he might or might not be married to one), yet none of the women know about the others. Each women considers herself "taken" and won't even look at other men. The losers in this scenario? Non-Alpha males who can't find women because a few studly Alphas are taking more than their share.

Arguably this situation is different from lemonade because in most situations legislation to equalize outcomes has the effect of greatly worstening the average outcome. If Alice couldn't attract Bob's customers, she would make worse lemonade or would charge more for it. If there was no profit motive, most economic activity wouldn't take place. There is no obvious and large deadweight loss from legal monogamy.

A lot of good points, but I think the practical side of things is being overlooked:

1)Polygamy or plygmy or whatever the heck you want to call it is going to lead to a real shortage. Most men cannot afford to take care of more than one wife, plain and simple. Almost all blue-collar and the majority of white-collar men fall into this category. The really well-off white collar men might have 2 wives. The rich will have 5 or more wives. This means that most of you people are living in a fantasy land, because a)you will have one wife even if polygamy is allowed because that's all you can afford or b)you will have no wife because the well-off guys have taken them. The way I've presented these numbers may not seem big, but there are a lot of 40 year old middle-managers and engineers and doctors who can afford to have 2 or more wives..... that's a good part of the population (maybe 10-20%) that are going to be without wives.....

2)Andygamy or whatever the multiple-husband thing is called is simply not giong to happen. My sister explained this to me nicely when talking about a different topic: guys want many girls, girls want only one guy. Why? Because you way "I need this" and he will tell you to go to the otehr guy. That guy will tell you to go to the third guy. The third guy will tell you to go back to the first guy. That is every girls nightmare. We want one guy, we know he's responsible for taking care of us, and we know who we have to harass to get something done.". There is a reason why multiple-male marriages have been rare in history, and I think that basically sums it up.

3)For those of you who talk about having casual sex on the side with no problems... here's a question, who are you going to have casual sex with? The pretty girls? Well, you had better be a good looking, high status male because that's who they are going to be giving it up for. But wait, then you'd already have multiple wives. So either you are getting the uggo's , or nothing at all. This is completely wishful thinking.

4)Have you noticed how most of the women in the polygamous areas are somewhat uneducated and (quite possibly for that reason) dumb. What woman would agree to having the polygamous marriage? Most would have the monogomous marriage with a low-status male... not likely. Women are going to marry up no matter what the cost. Either they are stupid and will just accept it, or you are going to have one hell of a catfight and sabotage on your hands. Unless of course you like the stupid, uneducated women who get married at 13 to guys that are over 30 and manipulate them like dolls. Do you not see a problem with this.

The thing that I dont get is how you guys think that this will be good for you. I'm a freaking engineer making 70 a year. Im the guy who would have multiple wives because I'm good looking with a good car and would afford it, and even I am against polygamy. WHat makes you think most of you would so much as get a look from a woman. Truth be told, most guys (and women for that matter) get married simply because the good ones can only have one, and then you work your way down from there. What the hell makes you people think you'd ever get sex, ever get married, and if you did by a girl of any decent caliber.

Grow up people. There is a reason why violence and gangs are so high in sexually imbalanced society. Just because you guys live in a fairlytale doesnt mean it's not going to happen.

I'm an engineer. I will get multiple wives. But that means I'm taking them away from someone else. Not only does that make me sick, it also means that the guy with no wives just might shoot me and steal my wives.... lose-lose!!!


From reading the Old Testament of the Bible I got the strong impression that polygyny became the norm because of a persistent shortage of males due to battlefield casualties. If a tribe is to "multiply and inherit the Earth," the wombs need to be kept busy. Parts of Mosaic law required polygyny under some circumstances.

So I would argue that polygyny is likely a social adaptation in warlike societies.


Just stumbled on this site.

Lots about men, their resources, their needs and, even, I see, a wife being unselfish enough to allow hubby his other little female possessions.

Hmmn. Something going for that. I earn a good income - more than most men I know – i could probably afford to keep, say three husbands: let's say one for laughter and intelligent conversation, one brawny one to do the heavy lifting and one young sex-God. Yup, sounds OK to me.

"Good sex" is a highly individual and unique experience. How you perceive sex has a lot to do with what you've learned about it, how it's viewed by your society or culture, and what value you place on it as a part of your life.
In the context of an ongoing sexual relationship, good sex can mean knowing what you want and what your partner wants, knowing how to talk about it comfortably, and never being forced to do anything you don't want to do.

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