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…


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