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.


Why can't authors say polygyny when they mean polygyny?

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Your analysis is very male centric. When marriage offered economic stability to a woman, it arose as a response to a shrinking pool of a available males who could provide economic stability - either through death by war or unequal distribution of wealth. (I.e. Moscow after the war, feudal societies)

Grossbard's argument has some merit: when something has increased value, the transaction costs of ownership change can be higher without wrecking the market.

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Those aren't arguments against polygamy, just observations. If your policy goal was maximising population growth, how relevant would that be? Not much, is my guess.

The consequences noted in the paper (teenage brides, forced marriage, etc.) are not inevitable. They are merely one possible response by the low-value men of a society that could not win brides in the face of competiton from Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton or Tom Brady (any of whom might be in the market for wife #3). Legal rights to brides is the end-run the politically powerful use to make up for their inadequacy in the dating scene.

Because, let's face it, Tom Brady and Bill Clinton don't need to pay a dowry to attract multiple women in a polygamous society like ours. They're drowning in marriage offers.

The other possible policy response by low-value men to competition from Tom Brady and Bill Clinton is legally enforced lifetime monogamy. By limiting the high-value men to one wife, there's more women to go around for the lower-value men.

You'll note that both situations have nothing to do with the bargaining power of women, and are merely the result of choices made by the plurality of men who want wives but wouldn't be able to acquire them in a "free market" for them.

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It increases women's relative value, not so much their bargaining power. It just increases the incentive of men to prevent them from coming out of their control.

Something that increased women's agency power rather than only their value (such as liberal divorce laws) would in fact increase their bargaining power, although, by further increasing their value, might encourage other forms of repression.

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Polygamy seems to me a lot like the whole Gay Marriage issue 10 years ago: People coming up with very convoluted arguments to justify what is essentially their own emotional biases against a lifestyle.

Shoshana Grossbard is just another small minded bigot trying to force her personal preferences on other people at gunpoint. In 10 or 20 years, we will see her and her kind as just as hateful, vile, and evil as the people trying to keep gay marriage illegal.

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And if the first marriage signals wealth, all the more strange why he would need kids as economic security, no?

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Discussions of polygamy need some empirical content. In temperate climate countries where polygamy is acceptable in theory, such as Iran, it is fairly rare because wives are expensive for their husbands to support and children require a lot of paternal investment. These cultures tend toward intense restrictions on women because the cost to a husband of a cuckoo's egg child is high.

In contrast, in tropical cultures where women do most of the farm work and men are not expected to invest heavily in each child, as often seen in New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa, polygamy is common. That's where you'll see some well-to-do but not ultra-rich handsome, charming fellow acquire dozens of wives. Some of his many wives' children are likely cuckoo's eggs, but he's not paying much to support them, their moms are supposed to feed them, so he doesn't care as much.

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From the point of view of GDP per capita, pro-monogamy pro-paternal investment societies (e.g., Europe, Japan) typically outperform pro-polygamy pro-paternal investment societies (e.g., Middle East), which in turn typically outperform pro-polygamy societies that aren't strong on paternal investment (e.g., New Guinea or Africa).

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I've been curious where the fierce taboo on polygamy in western society comes from. It is generally portrayed as some sort of moral depravity (for instance, being where the slippery slope of gay marriage leads). The best answer I can come up with is St. Augustine, who set the agenda for the Catholic church and therefore Europe. Did some obscure theological reasoning really determine a central feature of western culture? Anyone have a better answer?

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efp: "I've been curious where the fierce taboo on polygamy in western society comes from. "

Selection Bias. Think Darwinistic, not teleological. Monogamy survived because it increased fitness of the society, compared to polygamous societies. Not because someone planned it. You were born in a monogamous society because those tended to be more succesful.

For several reasons, some of which are now obscure, initially polygamy became taboo in Europe in the early middle ages. It stuck, because enforced monogamy allowed (most) men to focus on work instead of on competing for scarce women, leading to economic success and eventually rapid growth.

We are now at the end of that development, read Citizen Renegade why & how men are spending more and more time at competing for women.

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@ Chris: "Tyler, polygamy is special because in these societies power still comes from the barrel of a gun. It is brute force and coercion that determines how people act. Because men tend to be stronger than women, they have the power in general. If the men all collude to set up measures to counteract the increased bargaining power of women, what are women supposed to do?"

But if power comes from the barrel of a gun, men fighting men to get women should dominate over some notion that men use their guns to dominate women. In fact, the equilibrium here would be one man left with all the women in the country.

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Everybody assumes that the optimal solution is for women to own themselves. That's fine in very rich societies. But in poor societies, fathers can (and do) choose to kill inconvenient daughters. If society can't protect newborn girls, then the second-best solution is to pay parents who raise their daughters. Banning polygyny might improve the average happiness of adult women. But it would come at the cost of a lot of dead girls.

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Presumably any introduction of polygamy into a Western society would be sex-neutral. I guess I don't see why it's so thoroughly unthinkable that multiple men might become husbands to one woman.

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The tone of this thread is quite amusing. Yes, it is generally assumed by the religious right that polygamists are waiting swoop in behind the homosexuals. Despite some of what is said here, most find that less of a problem.

Would someone explain how polygamy raises a woman's value? What are bride prices like in monogamous countries verses low-polygamy verses high-polygamy societies?

As for the situation in high-polygamy societies, you should study the situation more carefully. This is NOT a home, it is a feudal estate, with the big man as lord, and his wives and children as serfs.

I read an study by a women who grew up Mormon, but left, trying to show that polygamy was good for women. The point that really stuck with me was her observation that polygamous societies are more violent. You can read about that in the Siege of Troy, or in a book about the Avenging Angels. I'm really not sure how increasing violence in a society can be good for women.

As for Western Society and polygamy, this seems to come through Judaism. While Sinaitic Judaism permitted it, there seem to be no happy stories come from it. Furthermore, the later prophets condemn even serial monogamy. This train of thought continues so that by the Roman era, you have a strong preference towards lifelong monogamy. There are some famous pericopes where Jesus opposes or condemns even serial monogamy, and Paul follows this tradition, thus given ideas to the Roman church.

Recently, someone made a post to the effect that strong society morals are a progressive tax on status. The medieval Roman church expended tremendous energy coming up with ways to level status in society, and forbidding divorce and polygamy were among those things.

The claim that monogamy has a societal advantage is an interesting one. I would like to see it supported in more detail, however.

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As Robin Hanson has said, most of the consequentialist arguments against polygamy should also apply to other practices which reduce the relative supply of women, e.g. being voluntarily single.

As I commented on that post, it's not necessarily hypocritical though because the other cases may be quite different. Forcing single women to marry is generally considered worse than not recognising a voluntary polygamous marriage as a means of increasing the supply of women, and I concur. So far as "redistribution of women" goes, anti-polygamy laws probably aren't all that bad.

However, we should still ask ourselves: is preventing polygamous marriage the most efficient means of achieving its ostensible benefits? Perhaps legalising or even subsidising prostitution might reduce the social costs of violence by low status men. Perhaps subsidies to encourage marriage might reduce the number of voluntarily single women in a less instrusive way than forcing them.

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"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. "

This only takes into account one party's goal. If the woman's goal is to gain a share of a very high-income man's income, or a high status man's status then polygamy is also an option.

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ourmyle - why would the wives of Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt, etc, want their husbands to be able to marry other women? It's one thing to tolerate cheating, it's another thing to tolerate another wife. Some women can tolerate other wives, or even like them, and clearly some women can tolerate cheating, but other women don't, even from powerful, good-looking husbands.

Phil M - I think the problem with polygamy is that it does change the meaning of marriage, unlike same-sex marriage. Now, when a guy proposes marriage to you, you know that he's agreeing to send a social signal that he's commimtted to you, and you alone. Obviously many men (and women) cheat on that signal, and some men (and women) start off intending to cheat, but we do recognise that as cheating. With polygamy, the meaning of the single commitment is lost. It's a shame to me that we call polygamous marriages "marriages" at all, they strike me as a fundamentally different social institution.

Doc Merlin: If the woman's goal is to gain a share of a very high-income man's income, or a high status man's status then polygamy is also an option.

Um, no, not if you're the woman who already has that share. Polygamy would mean that I would lose out on my preferential access to my husband's IT skills. At the moment I have 100 percent of the first claim. (When I don't need his services, I graciously permit him to provide support services to his employer, his family, and to my family :). My family comes last because they have other IT geeks. ). Why should I accept a reduction in that share, for only a chance at a share in another husband's time?

Polygamy is grand for those women who don't mind sharing their husbands, but it strikes me as a fundamentally different mindset to the one I have, where our first commitment is to each other (obviously kids change that first commitment in a marriage, and I understand that's often a source of stress to stepparents).

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Consider two of the arguments from among the above comments :
(i) "Omega males" will not find women and hence turn violent.
(ii) Men would object to being one among the multiple partners of a woman.

I see (ii) as being necessitated by, as well as a remedy for, (i). Don't forget that we already have men who marry women who have children from a previous relationship. That is, many men are willing to go against evolutionary tendencies and raise someone else's child, just for the sake of being in a marriage. Thus can one expect multiple omega-males happily marrying one Angelina Jolie, enabling the latter to adopt one kid from each country :-) Being in a polyandrous relationship would also be a great way for men to have sex every once in a while, without having to focus too much attention on one woman.

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Polygamy and strip clubs have three things in common:

1 -- They are both horribly bad for men
2 -- Men yearn for them both anyway
3 -- They are relentlessly portrayed as exploitative of... women.

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In a polygamous society, the most powerful woman is the mother of the most powerful men. This was true in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, arguably the most sexist society on the planet, when the most powerful person in the country, not just among women, was Assa as-Sudeiri, the favorite wife (by then widow for 30 years) of the nation's founder, Abdul-aziz (aka "Ibn Sa'ud"), who was the mother of the "Sudeiri Seven," who included kings, defense minister, and a bunch of other heavyweights. She had them competing for her favor, and she ran the country from a hospital bed for several years (in a hospital built just for her by one of her sons).

The biggest downside of serious polygamy is all the loose men who don't get a woman. They often end up causing a lot of trouble.

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Maybe the right way to think about this is that men invest in creating coercive institutions when their bargaining power is low. The mechanism is related to Acemoglu and Wolitzky, where labor scarcity encourages employers to invest in labor coercing technologies like slavery.

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"The biggest downside of serious polygamy is all the loose men who don't get a woman. They often end up causing a lot of trouble."

Are there not hordes of loose men in Westernized economies?

"Why can't authors say polygyny when they mean polygyny?"

I think this is an apt point. What people seem to be describing here is are the effects of a patriarchy, not necessarily polygamy.

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Polygamy ends when children cease to be a net economic asset.

It's likely that societies themselves end when children cease to be a net economic asset. Birth rates in nearly all Western countries and Japan are far below replacement levels.

Pundits chatter about economically or ecologically unsustainable practices of modern societies, but demographically unsustainable practices are mostly a taboo subject.

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So glad my ideas are generating a good discussion. will be back soon
Shoshana Grossbard

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I must admit I am stumped by this claim that polygamy (polygyny) will cause violence among low status men who supposedly can't get women. Is it possible really to attribute the cause of violence among low status men as an inability to get women, or directly attribute it to polygyny? The assertion of Dr. Henrich is that monogamy brings stability to men and causes them to invest in the one wife and their set of children. However, what we see in the U.S. is a high divorce rate and anything but long-term monogamy for many, many people (indeed, men simply need to swap out an older wife for a younger version, and "high" status men do this quite frequently). Do the varied family arrangements that now exist in the U.S. and other western nations where marital monogamy is legally preferred and somewhat enforced bring about male stability in long-term commitments, or is that supposed benefit really a fantasy? We can't really rule out the fact that violence and criminal conduct, instability, etc, may be in and of itself a cause for women to select OTHER men when given a choice, better opportunities, education, etc. Why should women be denied the privilege of choosing to share a better, more successful male, if she wants to? What is the cause of violence among men in the U.S. and Canada currently? With the prevalence of domestic violence, rape and murder largely committed by men against women (though sometimes committed by men against men, women against men and women against women), and the equally prevalent internet sexual predators who prey on young women, I don't see that these harms have been remedied by enforced monogamy (enforced, btw, only through marital restriction, and threat of criminal penalties when either attempting to marry legally, or cohabiting with, more than partner). These social harms ALREADY exist and are very prevalent, and what do they say??? Do we attribute these harms to monogamy? If we are going to tie social harms to polygamy, why are we not evaluating and scrutinizing as critically the value of monogamy and its attendant social harms, if indeed we can draw those kinds of conclusions. Why is it in the U.S. that we tout feminism and value equal rights for women but when women are raped, assaulted, or murdered, the perpetrator is almost always her intimate partner (or an association), not a stranger. I call this FAILURE. We have not achieved female equality though we claim it as a value. I'm sorry, but I don't believe EVERYONE is entitled to a partner/spouse. A man who beats his wife is not "entitled" to a wife, unless we are going to argue that some women need to be sacrificed as "collateral damage" to promote the general stability of men. I'm not willing, but some of these arguments come close to that for me.

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The other contortion is the argument that when a congregation decides to practice polygamy, it somehow brings a firestorm of sociological catastrophes upon the rest of society. This argument is both stupid and not founded in fact.

You are being a bit disingenuous here.

Among the dissident Mormon groups who practice polygamy, it is a common practice to marry off teenage girls to older men. Left to their own devices, however, teenage girls would rather sleep with teenage boys. Since their own teenage sons (collectively) are romantic rivals and potential cuckolders, the solution adopted in practice is to simply expel those boys and young men from the polygamous group, for the slightest of infractions or even entirely imaginary pretexts.

These young men, homeschooled on a diet of fundamentalist religion and little else, are often unemployable after being cut loose and become a burden upon mainstream society. Most drift and some end up joining gangs.

Arguably, no differently than industrial smokestacks, these polygamous groups create externalities with their "emissions" and unsustainable practices, and can therefore legitimately be regulated on much the same grounds.

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I was questioning what is up with that bizarre gravatar??? I do know 5am is early and I'm not wanting my finest at that hour, but I hope I don't seem like this! I would nonetheless make that face if I am asked to do a hundred pushups. lol Anyway, in my language, there aren't much good supply like this.

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