Economics-Speak: Should Polygamy Be Legal?

You’ve gotta love the Becker-Posner Blog. Each week Gary Becker and Richard Posner, two of the most prominent and prolific public intellectuals in America, take on a random topic in life (literally, any topic) and present their analysis. Then they respond to the 50-100 comments left on each post.

This week they pondered whether polygamy should be legal. I couldn’t help chuckle at some of the following phrases, which is so full of economics-speak that it generated a new business idea: create a reality TV show where economists and lawyers come together and chit-chat in their own languages. Ratings would skyrocket once the college market devises a new drinking game: one drink for each Latin phrase said by the lawyers and one drink each time “price” is uttered by the economists.

Household goverance under polygamy is bound to be more hierarchical than in monogamous marriage, because the household is larger and the ties of affection weaker; as a result, “agency costs” are higher and so the principal (the husband, as head of the household) has to devise and implement means of supervision that would be unnecessary in a monogamous household. (An additional factor is that women in a polygamous household have a greater incentive to commit adultery since they have less frequent sex with, and affection for, their husband, so the husband has to watch them more carefully to prevent their straying.) This managerial responsibility deflects the husband from more socially productive activities….

Especially given the large disparities in wealth in the United States, legalizing polygamy would enable wealthy men to have multiple wives, even harems, which would reduce the supply of women to men of lower incomes and thus aggravate inequality. The resulting shortage of women would lead to queuing, and thus to a high age of marriage for men, which in turn would increase the demand for prostitution. Moreover, intense competition for women would lower the age of marriage for women, which would be likely to result in less investment by them in education (because household production is a substitute for market production) and therefore reduce women’s market output.

4 comments on “Economics-Speak: Should Polygamy Be Legal?
  • Thanks for passing this along, Ben.

    There was a wonderful article in The Economist a few month’s back that talked about polygamy being one of the underlying issues for youth unrest in Islamic cultures.

    Because older, richer men were able to “acquire” many of the younger, available women, many young males become disenfranchised and turn to idleness and anger.

    If you couple this with high unemployment and you get a situation of unrest.

  • Interesting article…

    Yet it seems the topic of “one wife and many husbands” never seems to come up, does it?

    Many have called me a hypocrite for supporting gay rights and/or marriage yet turning my nose up at polygamy. Perhaps it is because polygamy has a nasty side regarding FCLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints) where girls as young as 12 are married off like slaves @ the auction to some man 30 years her senior.

    “American Taliban” is what many refer to that situation as, and I couldn’t agree more.

    Much as you may hate me for saying this Ben, I don’t think a publication like The Economist, or Forbes for that matter, is a good source for social debate. Many times magazines like those tend to look at people–especially women–like numbers without substance.

    (BTW, did you see what some douche bag at Forbes wrote awhile back? Gawker had a field day:

    Last but not least, what lunatic would want more than one wife anyway?

  • While I agree with Jason’s overall assesment about the negatives of polygamy, I must say that Forbes and The Economist are read by those people who shape the social debate of the day. Therefore, reading these insightful publications gives you a glimpse into how some (but not all) of the governing bodies think. As much as we hate what they have to say sometimes.

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