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10/22/2006

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Haris

Professor Becker, I have already admonished Judge Posner, and not it's your turn. Stephen Colbert, in his defense of polygamy, managed to bring up the following argument, and yet it's notably absent in your discussion.
Anyway, the argument is as follows: since some men will have multiple wives, that will reduce the number of available women, it will force the men below the top to improve their relative positions so they too can have wives. This would men that men would invest more in education and actually increase their output; while not all men can improve their relative position, obviously, it could lead to a sort of arms race of men working to be more attractive financially and in other ways. [Colbert recommended working on cuddling skills.]

Nikita Yakubovich

You articulated the reason for the opposition to the poligamy in your article:
"Men who do not have much to offer women would be more likely than under monogamy to remain unmarried"
= men without a wife more likely will to turn to crime/irresposible behavior that damage soceity

Bruce G Charlton

According to standard evolutionary psychology, polygamy amplifies the advantages of the most-advantaged marriage partners: high status men and beautiful young women. The disadvantaged are low status men and unattractive older women.

But that probably applies mainly to traditional societies where divorce is difficult or impossible, women are under the control/ protection of men, and where extra-martial sex is prohibited.

In modern societies, high status men get all the advantages of polygamy by serial marriage and the decline of social sanctions against extra-marital affairs. I presume that this is why there is so little social pressure from this powerful group to legalize polygamy.

So, the demand for legalized polygamy comes from high status men in those parts of modern society which are - in sexual terms - least modernized, most 'patriarchal' - traditional Mormons, and Moslems.

I don't think polygamy will happen (despite the strong libertarian arguments listed by Becker in its favour) because it lacks a strong constituency to push for it. Although if there ever was significant social pressure to legalize polygamy, I think polygamy should be allowed - on precisely these libertarian grounds.

In fact probably the opposite trend may be more likely. The increasing numbers of high status older women are disadvantaged both by serial monogamy and polygamy - either (in serial monogamy) they tend to get 'traded-in' by their high status husbands for a younger wife, or (in polygamy) are forced to accept additional younger wives.

Therefore, I wonder whether there may soon be mounting pressure to roll-back the easy/ no-fault divorce laws, and enforce long term monogamy - but driven by feminist arguments?

happyjuggler0

First off, I take issue with the wording of the title of this week's post. Properly framed, is there a case for letting the government prohibit polygamy?

I see no reason why government should be licensing marriage, or virtually anything else for that matter. Simply letting private registries work is the way to go.

That said, what about polygamy, is it good or bad overall and for individuals?

If one reckons that polygny would be more prevalent than polyandry, then one winds up with a mismatch between males and females, with a "shortage" of females.

Some consequences of this new shortage of females would be more respect towards women, less physical and mental abuse against married women, and a ramping up of desire amongst men to be better off finanically.

Perhaps the biggest positive effect though (in the US), at least for now, would be the effect in the black community which has a massive male shortage right now (relative to women). This has had a devastating effect on black marriage, since as a generalization women want marriage while men like the idea of "playing the field" instead. This in turn has had a devastating effect on black children growing up in single parent homes, without a father figure or a second income and/or full time child rearer.

It also has had a terrible effect on AIDS. Men prefer not to wear condoms, and often (usually?) get their way as a result of the mismatch. With one of the easiest ways of getting AIDS coming from anal sex with someone who has AIDS, and with such forced behaviour in prison being sadly commonplace, what this has in effect meant is a high (relative) percentage of AIDS in the black community from both prison and "unsafe" (i.e. less safe) sex without condoms due to the low male to female ratio.

Polygyny amongst blacks would change this tremendously by leveling the playing field.

As far as the notion of too many men relative to women goes from polygyny, I guess we'll virtually certainly see the effect in China and India (both of which abort pregnancies of female fetuses at disturbing rate) long before any such effects occur here (US), even assuming the government stops overstepping its regulatory bounds and graciously allows consenting adults to do what they want amongst each other.

Matt Howard

Mr. Becker,

Within the space of a paragraph, you quickly digress from the case for polygamy to your uncertainties surrounding gay parenting. These two topics, all too often conflated in the media, are hardly comparable and I am, frankly, surprised that you took the opportunity to combine them in your post and in the minds of your readers. (In a previous post http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/archives/2005/07/on_gay_marriage.html you suggest--without any empirical evidence--that children of gays and lesbians will--most likely--have worse outcomes than children of single parents). How does the case of gay parents impact the case for legalizing polygamy? It clearly doesn't.

On the subject of gay parenting...In practice married couples weigh the advantages and disadvantages of varying actions—-such as whether to have children. A couple that decides to have children, therefore, would likely produce families with children that are, on average, more wanted; that is, their children would have a conceived value that is greater than most. As gay couples are not prone to accidental or "unwanted" pregnancies, they rationally must weigh their decision to have children as they need to go to greater lengths to procreate (e.g., in vitro fertilization, adoption). Therefore, gay couples on average must necessarily place a higher value on their children than straight couples.

If gay parents, on average, conceive that they value their children more, then it would follow that they would make greater investments in their children's welfare than those who value their children less. This creates a utility-maximizing family structure.

Meanwhile, for you and your readers, here is a link to a recent study by the American Pediatric Association entitled "The Effects of Marriage, Civil Union, and Domestic Partnership Laws on the Health and Well-being of Children"
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/118/1/349 . I hope this is helpful in demystifying this topic for you.

Sam

"Women choose their partners, and refuse to marry men who they do not want to marry, regardless of their parents' feelings or the ardor of suitors. In this world, a woman would not have to enter into a polygamist household if she would not want to."

I think exploitation of women is the reason people reject polygamy. If one examined the the decision-making process of men seeking more wives, and women agreeing to become one wife of many, she would undoubtedly uncover a number of misogynistic artifacts.

In the quote above, I think the biggest shortcoming of your examination is that it ignores a those mechanisms responsible for the actual shaping of women's preferences, as opposed to those keeping us from pursuing the ones we already have. And, of course, the preferences of men matter as well, as in most relationships involve, on both conscious and somewhat subconscious levels, compromise and negotiation.

These are just as important to the propogation of a patriarchal society, even though they often slip through the cracks in a law-and-economics analysis.

Dagny

A big reason polygamy is frowned upon in Utah is because it exploits children. Many underage girls are forced to "marry" older men in polygamist communities. Young boys are also cast away, because they are considered competition against other men in the community. So both young girls and boys, who don't have any freedom to choose how they are raised, are victimized in polygamist communities.

brad

Interesting post, although the speculation that attrative and successful women and mediocre men are the groups keeping polygamy at bay is assuming a lot of rational and informed behavior on what is a social issue.

I think the reason for all the opposition to plural marriage right now is that it is not customary, and thought of as being practiced only be extremely dedicated (to a fault) religous people.

I think there would be harm, and that lots or room for abuse. How would we phase in this legislation? People could get "divorced" without ever actually divorcing and just marry their new mate. People would soon be marrying multiple wives and husbands for immigration purposes. It would also sanction the abuse that is currently going on with those who are in plural marriage now. Health care coverage problems abound. (not a reason in itself, but a reality) Who owes child support after a divorce? all of the spouses?

If people want to live together with 5 different mates, they can, but I don't think that means the government should sanction marriage between more than two people. One may argue that government should not sanction marriage between anyone. Even so, this is not an argument for plural marriage. That would be like arguing for the legalization of one drug for the sole reason that said drug is thought not to be as bad as alcohol.

I would agree that there would be little plural marriage at first. However, after a while, who knows.

Pablo Zumar√°n

Most of culture springs directly from biology.
Trying to find rationales between cultural choices and legal labyrinths does not always produce convincing answers. Evidence of this is that you find the opposition to polygamy "intriguing".

Polygamy is frowned upon in most societies simply because it tends to create a mono-genetic pool among the polygamist's children and grand-children. In this scenario, inbreeding is harder to avoid and genetic problems are reproduced more frequently.

Some people would say that advanced societies have reached a point that is well beyond being influenced by biological, unconscious reasonings. But there's actually no reasoning involved. Disapproval of polygamy is naturally dispersed around social groups much more deeply than opposition to homosexuality: gays naturally bear no fruit, therefore there is no concrete evidence of any evil being done.

The fact that there ARE or have been polygamous societies is a non-argument against the biological view. Powerful men have always acted on private interests rather than those of society at large.

Therefore, in social terms, the reason for prohibiting (or at least repressing) polygyny is that it presupposes and proposes a power and caste structure that does not sit well with democratic and capitalist societies. If most of the economy is ultimately moved by sex, then all men must feel that sex is equally accessible to everyone; otherwise, how would companies make any money if the sex motivation were restricted?

Pablo Zumar√°n

Most of culture springs directly from biology.
Trying to find rationales between cultural choices and legal labyrinths does not always produce convincing answers. Evidence of this is that you find the opposition to polygamy "intriguing".

Polygamy is frowned upon in most societies simply because it tends to create a mono-genetic pool among the polygamist's children and grand-children. In this scenario, inbreeding is harder to avoid and genetic problems are reproduced more frequently.

Some people would say that advanced societies have reached a point that is well beyond being influenced by biological, unconscious reasonings. But there's actually no reasoning involved. Disapproval of polygamy is naturally dispersed around social groups much more deeply than opposition to homosexuality: gays naturally bear no fruit, therefore there is no concrete evidence of any evil being done.

The fact that there ARE or have been polygamous societies is a non-argument against the biological view. Powerful men have always acted on private interests rather than those of society at large.

Therefore, in social terms, the reason for prohibiting (or at least repressing) polygyny is that it presupposes and proposes a power and caste structure that does not sit well with democratic and capitalist societies. If most of the economy is ultimately moved by sex, then all men must feel that sex is equally accessible to everyone; otherwise, how would companies make any money if the sex motivation were restricted?

Pablo Zumar√°n

Most of culture springs directly from biology.
Trying to find rationales between cultural choices and legal labyrinths does not always produce convincing answers. Evidence of this is that you find the opposition to polygamy "intriguing".

Polygamy is frowned upon in most societies simply because it tends to create a mono-genetic pool among the polygamist's children and grand-children. In this scenario, inbreeding is harder to avoid and genetic problems are reproduced more frequently.

Some people would say that advanced societies have reached a point that is well beyond being influenced by biological, unconscious reasonings. But there's actually no reasoning involved. Disapproval of polygamy is naturally dispersed around social groups much more deeply than opposition to homosexuality: gays naturally bear no fruit, therefore there is no concrete evidence of any evil being done.

The fact that there ARE or have been polygamous societies is a non-argument against the biological view. Powerful men have always acted on private interests rather than those of society at large.

Therefore, in social terms, the reason for prohibiting (or at least repressing) polygyny is that it presupposes and proposes a power and caste structure that does not sit well with democratic and capitalist societies. If most of the economy is ultimately moved by sex, then all men must feel that sex is equally accessible to everyone; otherwise, how would companies make any money if the sex motivation were restricted?

Anonymous

As a mathematically-inclined lawyer, I find baffling the erroneous claims above that marriage means more to women than to men, or that men trade in their spouses for younger ones.

That's balderdash. Men are not less committed to marriage than women. According to data available at the National Center for Health Statistics, around two-thirds of all divorces in this country are initiated by wives. Most of these divorces are no-fault divorces initiated by wives over the husband's objections, as researchers such as Sanford Braver have consistently found. See S. Braver, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths (1998) (citing both academic and feminist researchers).

You can visit any courthouse in America and see who is filing the divorce actions, and it's not primarily men. Or you can read a couple hundred appellate decisions involving divorce cases and see who the plaintiff was (usually the wife).

According to a story in the past year in the New York Times on page A1, most divorces among older couples are initiated by the wife. So much for the idea that wives are dumped by their husbands for trophy wives, or traded in for younger models.

Ignorance about the basic facts about divorce is endemic. For example, one economist achieved professional reknown and a prestigious prize for applying economics to family law, and coming up with the thesis that divorce laws must favor men over women in divorce, because everybody knows that most divorces are initiated by the husband.

But that assumption was wrong back then a generation ago (even in the 1960s, slightly more divorces were initiated by wives than by husbands), and it's utterly wrong now.

(Among families with children, more than three-quarters of all divorces are initiated by the wife).

So an economist got prizes based on an assumed premise that was utterly false, and easy to verify as false, and thus led to a false conclusion (that divorce laws must rip-off ex-wives, since it's always husbands who are seeking the divorce).

In truth, the husband is statistically far less likely to initiate a divorce than the wife.

Why don't economists who write about family law bother to do a little research first before making uninformed claims that defy obvious reality?

Hans Bader
J.D., Harvard Law School
B.A., Economics, University of Virginia

Joe Merchant


The phenomenon I would find most disturbing from legalization of polygamy would be the large harem. Wealth is highly concentrated in certain individuals' hands, and while rare, there is a not-insignificant number of men who could maintain a harem of 100 or more women in a lifestyle competitive with the "Average Joe."

I believe Iran limits wives to a maximum of 4, which would be sensible and not so entirely far removed from "normal" situations. Without such limitations, I could imagine dozens of significantly large harems appearing around the major metropolitan centers, with highly in-equalizing social consequences (i.e., harem wives are implicitly protected by the best lawyers, would likely receive political favor, deferential treatment from police, etc.)

All of this goes on today, but the scale is more modest, and the appearance that anyone can aspire to high social standing remains, after all the only "difference" between "us" and "them" is money.... With uncontrolled polygamy, there would be more difference between the classes, potentially less class mobility, and a breakdown of the "free market/level playing field" of society.

Alexander

A couple possible perverse consequences of legalized polygamy (at least without coinciding changes in the American legal regime):

1. The abuse of spousal privilege. Particularly if combined with same-sex marriage, mafia groups of corporations could conceivably marry each other for the purpose of making their conversations and dealings inadmissible at trial.

2. The abuse of immigration laws. I can certainly imagine a wealthy businessman with certain political leanings marrying a few thousand Chinese women whom he would then place on the path to citizenship.

Just some food for thought.

Lee

Good topic choice. You guys are best when you choose stuff that no one else will touch.

Tom Starke

Does legalization of polygamy open the door to multiple men and women united in a single marriage? I.e. a marriage-sanctioned cult or tribe. One reason two-partner marriages dominate today is people are conditioned toward it from their earliest moments. But if group marriages were legalized and captured a significant fraction of the population, this could lead to a true competition between pair and group marriage paradigms. Which would dominate?

Grumpy Old Man

It's no doubt interesting as a glass bead game to analyze questions like this in strictly economic terms.

It seems to me, though, that economic reasoning can only take us so far. The consequences of an innovation like legalizing polygyny are unpredictable. Social changes of this sort are like gene mutations--occasionally beneficial, and more often deleterious or lethal.

ZZTop

All objections to polygamy are rooted in animus.

KJ

I'm a libertarian with a degree in economics, but I have trouble believing that I have read all these comments, and the post, and not seen one reference to the fact that the overwhelming number of people in this country think polygamy is wrong and immoral. That might, just might, be one reason for the opposition to it. But like most things deemed immoral, there is sound public policy behind it.

First, what models of polygamy do we have? Well, we have oil rich harems. And we have societies of backward knuckledraggers like the guy recently arrested. They forced teenaged girls to marry and discarded young men to the streets. Lives are ruined in this situation, and the believe among even gay marriage activists is that the social fabric would be damaged by this new addition to family law.

Another issue is simply complexity. Libertarians talk all the time about how the govt shouldn't be in the marrying business, but even if we assume that marriage is "nothing more than a contract" (a position that even most atheists don't believe, and no Christian should), most people don't marry with written contracts. Children are typically born. Wealth is accumulated with varying degrees of responsibility and sacrifice. When these contracts require breaking, like it or not, the courts, i.e., the govt, is going to be involved. So the govt makes the rules from which an orderly framework can be derived. You think marital property rules are hard now, try divorcing a man and his 6 other wives. If you take property from him, you take it from them, and their 12 children? How will those rules be written? Is every spouse a equal owner of the property gained during the marriage? Can most men pay the child support for such large groups of offspring? Sometimes.

Look at the world of polygamy today. In America, they are living trailer parks with their wives, several of whom are sisters and were married at 14. In other courties with it, women are chattel.

Society doesn't need a class of young men sent to the streets to fend for themselves without any real hope of marriage or family. The externalities of such a world are depression, crime and an unnecessary subculture. No meaningful discussion is made of this externality problem.

In reality (as opposed to economic pondering) -- this is a dumb topic for a society that considers itself advanced. Polygamy is a step backwards in the evolution of society -- not forward. But it is the logical extension of the gay marriage debate and will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

Richard Mason

Perhaps polygyny is rare even where legal (as in Iran) or where it could be approximated de facto (as in America) because most men opt for quality over quantity.

Given the sum total of what a man has to offer in the relationship market, including not only his financial resources but his personal qualities, his affections, his waking hours, et cetera, it stands to reason that he can either win just one woman who is much in demand, or multiple women who are individually less in demand.

My feeling is that most men would derive more self-esteem and more social status from driving a more expensive car (or car which was more desirable by their own lights) than from owning two or three less desirable cars of the same total market value. Only the sultan who is already driving a Rolls Royce, and has nowhere to go in improved quality, has much inclination to start building a stable of Rolls Royces.

Becker raises this quality-over-quantity effect with respect to children, but I suspect it applies to an even greater degree to concubines.

Note that this effect ought to be stronger in a liberal society where women have their own economic resources and their own human capital, are perceived to have important personal qualities, and are more valued as individuals (or more precisely, span a larger range of value). In a backwards society where women are viewed as more interchangeable or merely as a means to children, polygyny ought to be more popular.

pbuck

I feel surprised that your comments ignore polygamy's religious justifications. Since Mormon and Muslim religious traditions promote polygyny, one would expect many (perhaps most) American polygynous marraiges to spring from religious beliefs, not wealth.

This population will not be constrained by family size since its traditions promotes large families. Its wives will have a harder time divorcing their husbands because these same traditions taboo divorce.

Less tangible, but of great importance, is the problem that religious polygamy promotes female deference to male superiority. One can deduce this from the way that these religious traditions encourage polygyny and but do not allow polyandry. Or one can interview a polygynist's wives and experience first-hand the extreme and disturbing deference they give to their husband; comparable, perhaps, to beaten-wife syndrome.

Polygamy founded upon your wealth principles might avoid these effects, but I think it impossible to discriminate between religious and non-religious polygamy.

mlaussade

It's about time that someone inquire into the effects of the deadweight loss of monogamy.

Haris

pbuck

Wealth is still the key determinant in polygyny. In the cultures you mentioned, men are responsible for providing for the family. Without sufficient wealth, these men simply couldn't afford large families. Women wouldn't be encouraged/forced to marry men simply for the sake of marrying - their families would want them to marry men who can provide for them and more. While such religious beliefs are probably necessary for polygyny, they are by no means sufficient.

Sage

Then here is an article where a woman calls it the ultimate feminist lifestyle, and she should know.

http://www.4thefamily.us/feminist_polygamy

Then there is the idea that early Utah women in plural marriages were somehow seen as property, or less than a person. A bit of study into women's suffrage will show that is not reality.

Women, Polygamy and the Right to Vote
http://www.4thefamily.us/women_polygamy_vote

Rattan

Some empirical information may assist this inquiry. There are societies today that are polyandrous or are within a generation of being so.

Further, polygamy is being practiced every day even in the USA, except it carries the label of extramarital affairs or serial marriages and the like.

Empirically, the difference between relatively unrestricted but enforceable contract terms being puzzled over by Mr. Becker contrast with the contracts available today.

The available contracts tend to make one party in an affair, typically the rich male, even more powerful than they would be if polygamy were to be legal. And the spouses will have few remedies.

As an example, in India polygamy is legal for most communities that elect to practice it. Hills in the North and the East typically have polyandrous pockets while the plains are mostly polygynous. The stick is that government jobs restrict non-muslims from having multiple partners. This means that a government employee cannot freely get a second wife (or husband) unless everyone stays quiet and cooperates. It is a hard act, but it does happen on occasion. As a private citizen, you can marry as many women or men as you like. It should be noted that women are more likely to accept a co-wife because their progeny is more easily identified, creation of which is the ultimate or most significant driving force in these unions.

From the default contract term aspect, this makes life harder as there needs to be a default wife or huband to inherit (the eldest one or matriarchy based inheritance and the like), to care for a spouse, manage the household and the like.

The conflict that ensues in most cases results in one man-one woman unions with affairs and an occasion divorce on the side, which provides the needed readjustment of rights by the courts. This is the favored model whether in India, Iran or USA. Its fitness and adaptibility makes it better.

That said, there is even less reason to criminalize polygamy as evidence indicates legalizing does little harm. It may be worth the trouble to collect more data from other societies to better understand the case for criminalizing polygamy given that like dope it is everywhere regardless.

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