Why polygamy is good for women.

The economic mysteries of daily life.
Feb. 18 2006 2:27 AM

I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

The economic case for polygamy.

After more than a decade of war between separatist rebels and the Russian army, there are not many marriageable men to go around in Chechnya. So, acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, probably not a feminist, proposed a radical step: "Each man who can provide for four wives should do it."

Polygyny (having more than one wife, as opposed to polygamy, which is having more than one spouse) is admissible under Islamic law but not Russian law, so Kadyrov is unlikely to make much progress with his proposal. But what difference would such a law make? It's natural to assume that polygyny is bad for women, partly because most of us would rather have our spouse to ourselves, and partly because we look at a place like Saudi Arabia, where polygyny is not uncommon, and note that women aren't even allowed to drive.

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I'm not quite so convinced. A lot of the knee-jerk reactions against polygyny are from people who can't add up. In a society with equal numbers of men and women, each man with four wives gives women the additional pick of three men—the poor saps whose potential wives decided they'd prefer one-quarter of a billionaire instead. In the Sahel region of Africa, half of all women live in polygynous households. The other half have a good choice of men and a lot more bargaining power.

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 a society such as Chechnya, where there is a shortage of young men, we would expect the reverse effect: Men get to pick and choose, playing the field, perhaps not bothering to get married at all. We don't have good data on Chechnya, but we have excellent information about an unexpected parallel.

A little over one in 100 American men are in prison—but there are several states where one in five young black men are behind bars. Since most women marry men of a similar age, and of the same race and in the same state, there are some groups of women who face a dramatic shortfall of marriage partners.

Economist Kerwin Charles has recently studied the plight of these women. Their problem is not merely that some who would want to marry won't be able to. It's that the available men—those not in prison—suddenly have more bargaining power. Goodbye to doing the dishes and paying the rent; hello to mistresses and wham, bam, thank you ma'am. The women whose potential partners have had their ranks thinned by prison are less likely to marry, and when they do marry, are likely to marry a man less educated than they are. Meanwhile, the remaining men, finding a surfeit of marriage partners, suddenly seem in no hurry to marry. And why would they?

The women's response makes sense: girl power. The women affected do everything to make the most of single life, including staying at school for longer and hunting for more paid work. The American prison system hasn't left them much choice.

When men are taken out of the marriage market by war or by prison, women suffer. The reverse is probably true, too: When women are taken from the marriage market, men suffer. In China, the policy of one-child families coupled with selective abortion of girls has produced "surplus" males. Such men are called "bare branches," and China could have 30 million of them by 2020. Perhaps polyandry—women with multiple husbands—would be the logical response to the situation in China. What will happen instead is that these lonely, wifeless men will end up sleeping with a relatively small number of women—prostitutes—with severe risks of sexually transmitted disease all around.

All this suggests that Kadyrov has a point about Chechnya. And perhaps the new HBO series Big Love will help to rehabilitate polygamy's reputation in the United States. Nevertheless, I am resolutely against the practice of allowing several women to marry one man. We men are downtrodden enough already.

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