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…


I see little reason why a free-market would choose only polygyny or polyandry, and therefore, not suprisingly, imagining scenarios regarding only one of these is unlikely to lead to good things.

I think it'd be more interesting to look at the economics of other forms of polygamy, such as the various group marriage types described in Robert Heinleing novels, such as "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress".

I also think it's foolish to mix up other details of societies that have polygamy with how polygamy might work in our society. I see no reason that polygamy would necessarily lead to dowries making a come-back. Nor do I think it's difficult to recognize that polygamy in Utah, where the participants are by definition willing to break the law primarily for religious reasons, is not a good case study, as the main comment on Tim Harford's piece implies. The illegal and immoral acts of outlaw-fanatics is unlikely to shed much light on legal polygamy in our society.

"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."

I bet not. Husbands promising to wash the dishes is NOT AT ALL what we see in existing societies that practice polygyny. As Tyler suggests, the enhanced value tends to translate not into enhanced status or power for the women but lower status and a tendency to treat women as high-priced property of male-dominated families and clans. And women who 'destroy their own value' (through unauthorized romantic activity) are treated as harshly as escaping slaves who were thought to be 'stealing their owner's property'.

What is far more likely to enhance female power (and lead husbands to treat them well) is independent earnings that enable a woman to leave and live with no official husband rather than leave and sign up as the Nth wife of Orlando Bloom. As, indeed, we see--the modern societies that offer women greatest independence also tend to produce the best treatment of them in marriage.

It is *so much* easier to augment quantity of kids with five wives rather than one. Or so I would think.


I would agree with Nancy. The Middle East is the major area where Polygyny is still practiced. From statistics I've seen only about 4% of the population practices it. For those of you questioning Tyler's point about quantitiy of children versus quality, I think the implicit point is that fathers in polygynous situations will spend less time and fewer resourecs on their many children. Of course if you ahve an increadibly talented father with an enormous number of resources this might not occur. In addition, I would suggest that if people were allowed to freely choose men could only enter polygynous arrangments if they were willing to accept women of substantially lower quality then themselves. To see this imagine that quality of men and women is distributed uniformly [0,1]. Assume that people practice assortive mating, i.e they want to be with someone of similar or greater quality then themselves. Further assume that in a polygynous situation them apply a 1/n factor to the quality factor of their mate (since they only get 1/n his time). AS this simple model implies evena high quality (say 0.99) can get one high quality woman or two women of quality <=0.49 or four women of quality or 4 women of quality <=0.24 etc. Of course with different distributions the results might not be so stark. With an exponential distribution it might make sense for very high quality men to marry several women particualrly if there is some uncertainty associated with quality. However, I think the basic point holds. More of lower quality fewer of higher quality.

All of the data is antecdotal, of course, but the stories that are told about professional athletes (especially pro basketball players and Steve Garvey) would seem to support Tyler's argument about quantity over quality - although you can fairly ask what we should use as a comparison on the "quality" level.

"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."

But there's a positive externality from genetically talented fathers having more kids, and from genetically less talented fathers having fewer kids.

Now the genetically talented father might be having his kids from several genetically less talented women, but his genes still contribute, and those women would otherwise be having babies with genetically less talented men, so there's an overall improvement.

For the reasons Ken gives, I think that any conclusion about the quantity/quality divide would have to assume quite a bit more than we know about the relative importance of genetics vs. the importance of investment/attention/etc.

Most of the comments seem to have in mind a society with relatively equal income distribution. but if you have a society with extremely unequal income distribution wouldn't you have a situation where the man that could afford multiple wives would also be able to provide his children a much richer educational--social environment then the much poorer male that could not afford multiple wives?

Of course this also goes to the comments about nature vs nuture.

Why couldn't we also have situations in which one wife has several husbands?

The quality vs quantity argument seems to be missing a crucial lower bound. If the system of gender relations results in the number of children per woman falling below the replacement rate then the system will not be sustainable. Relatively wealthy nations with Enlightened gender relations find their populations dwindling even though the resources per child are higher than many parts of the world. At some point the extra quality (measured by resources and/or genetics)doesn't compensate for quantity.

From whence comes the notion that the man with several wives is genetically superior and produces genetically superior children? Reducing the number of males who reproduce reduces the genetic diversity of the population. Recessive genes that may be rarely a problem would become common enough to produce significant genetic problems as it becomes more likely that a child inherits two copies of a bad gene. Polygyny is just another name for inbreeding.

Doesn't all this talk about "genetic quality" vs. quantity imply a one-dimensional view of quality? Isn't that an absurd way to think?

Given two people who differ in intelligence, talents, health, physical abilities, hair color, etc. it is meaningless at best to discuss which is "genetically inferior." And it is truly frightening that this thread just skips past the issue.

Theer is an economic point here as well, though it is dwarfed by the moral issue. Doesn't a diversity of talents lead, among other things, to a more prosperous society, as individuals are able to profitably specialize and engage in trade.

"You would rather be in a society with fewer but more talented people."
Maybe, but I'd really like to have two wives.

"Men are much too competitive and jealous to share women with other men. Women are different."

I might suggest that most women would also be less than excited about sharing. This is the first time I have heard the idea that women are neither jealous of nor competitive with each other, though, so perhaps there is novel support for the claim.

Let's not forget sexual dimorphism. Human males are slightly bigger than females, which biologically means that humans are adapted to have about 3 females for each male given what we see in other mammals. That's not necessarily an argument for polygamy being good; nature is not necessarily evolving us to be in the optimal capital formation units. But it's something to think about.

A recent copy of Utne had information related to this topic:

Why are several people assuming that the primary causal direction is polygyny --> low women's rights, rather than vice versa?

I'll at least offer a suggestion:

We should also be considering the bargaining position of women when, instead of most of the "good men [being] gone", they are essentially all still available. Combine polygyny with high individual rights for women, and you seem to get a situation where a woman risks comparatively very little in breaking off an unsatisfying present arrangement. (Although support for non-biological children present a complication, which goes to genetic/memetic issues vis a vis parenting.) If the women become more mobile, then the men's arrangements naturally do as well. So perhaps low rights for women under polygyny ends up being a necessary strategy to prevent harmful instabilities in family structure.

Oh please. As if international IQ comparisons are a useful guide to the effects of cultural differences. Why not single out cousin marriage and diet, which we have reason to expect to impact IQ, rather than the details of family structure, which we have reason to expect not to.

And Japan has unusually high levels of cousin marriage by Western standards.

You miss the obvious question of "What is the optimal polygomist family structure to be sure that one always has a willing hetro-partner when desired?"

If God had intended for Adam to be a polygamist, it would had been just as easy for God to have made for Adam a woman from each of his ribs, instead God took only one rib from Adam and made Eve, thus God gave Adam one wife, and both became one flesh.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

When a Christian couple decides to wed, they will gather in the presence of the congregation to enter into a life lasting covenant by taking the vows of matrimony.
In the presence of God and all present, they will promise to “love, honor, cherish and protect each other, forsaking all others and holding only unto each other until death.†

Immediately after the wedding ceremony has been consumed, the newlyweds are bound for life by the Commandment that says, "You shall not commit adultery†, The Christian couple is forbidden to have sexual intercourse with no one else, except with each other.

By fomenting polygamy you are deliberately corrupting and defacing the holy word of God, it’s the same as you claiming after looking into the blue sky, that the sky it’s not blue but that the sky it’s actually green.
You are being controlled by your own sinful nature and you are molding God and his Commandments to accommodate your own depravity and self-dilution.

Matthew 15: 18-19 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality (fornication, homosexuality), theft, false testimony, slander.

Romans 8:13 For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

God, the Creator and the Ruler of the universe has declared that polygamy is a sin; you or anyone else in the universe will not be able to nullify what God has declared to be a sin. No amount of squirming, jumbling and blurring the scriptures will justify your depravity. Jesus is commanding you to repent or perish.

Mark 1:4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Matthew 4:17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

John 8:11 "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

Luke 13:3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

God gave men the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions; God is not suggesting you to keep his Commandments, God is commanding you to keep his Commandment.
You are not only living outside the will of God but you are also perverting the word of God, by promoting polygamy and leading others into sin. God will judge you most severely if you don’t repent.

God is not asking you to repent and turn away from your depravity, God is commanding you to repent and turn away from your depravity. God is not a democrat who rules by majority vote, neither is he interested in your opinions about his Commandments; nor does God needs anyone approval of his Commandments.
God is commanding you to be obedient to him by keeping all of his Commandments, no questions asked.

Hebrews 13:4 Marriages should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

1 Timothy 3:2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife

1 Timothy 3:12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.

Titus 1:6 An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.

The believers are not any different from the earthly leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ, who are commanded to be the husbands of one wife; as a matter of fact, the whole world it’s under God’s dominion, and the whole world it’s being judged against God’s Commandments.

I am praying for you, that you may turn away from your depravity and surrender your will to God, who can forgive all of your sins and turn your life around.
You can’t fight against Jesus Christ and his Church; your kind and you, have been defeated and rendered powerless since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You and your followers are deluded, deceived, spiritually death and hell bound, only Jesus Christ is able to save you.

Jesus Christ came down from Heaven as the God-Man to die on a cross, and his redemptive work was completed after he was resurrected from the death.
Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world, he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but you must receive Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth, and you must abandon and turn away from your life of sin in order to have eternal life.

John 3:5-8 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

After Jesus blessed resurrection from the death, Jesus not only divided time in half, but he also drew a line in the sand, thus forcing humanity, the subjects of his kingdom, to choose sides, a person will either stand with Jesus, or will crawl on the outside with Satan and eventually will be tormented in hell forever, and God will say, " you did it not my way, but you did it your way"
What are you going to do with Jesus Christ? Are you going to embrace him as your savior? Or are you going to reject him and at any moment find yourself in hell being tormented forever and ever? I know that you are thinking it’s all nonsense. What if you are wrong? Are you willing to risk a temporary life of sin for eternal torment in hell?

Revelation 21 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral (the fornicator, adulterer and homosexual), those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur (also known as hell). This is the second death.†


I've personally known a few children of polygamous AND polyandrous families and to be honest...the children from polyandrous families fare much better than those of polygnous families and one of the biggest reasons why is because the children who share the same mother but different fathers always tend to get along with each other and are bonded better than those who share the same father but different mothers...

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