An Economic Case for Polygyny?

“And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice. An-Nisa 3

The historian Thomas Carlyle famously described economics as the ‘dismal science‘ and I am sure it is a sentiment shared by anyone who has to wade through a few semesters of macroeconomics. However, there is a great deal of work being done by economists in some surprising areas. Research into polygyny is one of those surprising, and interesting, areas where economists have applied their ‘dismal science’ to good effect.

In A Treatise on the Family, Gary Becker (whose blog makes for fascinating reading) argues that it is preferable for a society to allow polygyny than to enforce monogamy. His reasoning is that by allowing men to marry more than one woman, it would increase the demand for women. This, in turn, would mean that the ‘price’ that a man must now pay for a wife increases. Of course, by ‘price’ one does not mean only the mahr (dowry), in the case of Islamic marriage contracts, but, more importantly, the overall ‘package’ that the man must offer his prospective wife. For example, the quality of life that he can offer the prospective wife, his status in the society, or his physical appearance (less attractive women could attract disproportionately handsome men).


It is a view shared by David Friedman, who writes:

If polygyny were introduced and nothing else changed, then it seems likely that women would be worse off–except for those who prefer to share the burden of putting up with a husband. But when polygyny is introduced, something else does change; the demand curve for wives shifts up, and so does the price for wives implicit in the marriage contract. Those wives who end up with one husband get him on more favorable terms–he must bid more for a wife because of the competition of his polygynous rivals. Those who accept polygynous marriages do so because the price they are offered is sufficient to at least balance, for them, the disadvantage of sharing a husband.

Tim Hartford, the ‘undercover economist’, whose column in the Financial Times makes excellent reading, states the case in far more simple terms.

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

Of course, as Becker noted, it is not always the case that the high prices being paid for a bride in such a society would translate automatically into better conditions for the wife. In the case of societies where women do not have ‘property rights’, the girl’s family will ultimately benefit from the payment; using it to pay for wives for the girl’s brothers. In societies organised on Islamic principles, women do have property rights and so it would be expected that there would be an improvement in women’s welfare. Interestingly, this would also be the case in a Western democracy such as Australia, United Kingdom, or United States. Of course, for a variety of cultural rather than economic reasons, it is doubtful that any Western nation will be legalising polygyny any time soon; gay marriage, perhaps, but certainly not marriage of a man to two or more consenting women.

If the legalisation of polygyny in a society would lead to women being offered more in terms of mahr and overall benefits, including an improvement in the quality of husband that they might be able to marry, then the opposite seems to be the case in societies where polygamy is illegal yet still practiced. Whilst I am unable to find any study of polygyny in Western Muslim communities, my observation, particularly from discussing the issue with American Muslims, is that the men who practice it are often not the top strata of prospective husbands — in terms of economic status and education — that one would expect.

Likewise, the women who enter such relationships, as second, third or fourth wives, are not receiving the ‘high price’ that they would receive if the marriage market was, for want of a better term, a ‘free market’. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear of men who have married additional wives only to leave them on welfare and having to explain to an incredulous government official how she — a woman in hijab or niqab — is continuing to have babies without the apparent intervention of a husband and why she should therefore receive a single parents benefit. This is, of course, to say nothing of the frequent injustices that additional (or even first) wives must endure when faced with husbands who don’t understand or care to understand their Islamic responsibilities towards them. For example, not spending time and money equally between wives.

With polygyny outlawed, the number of men who might otherwise enter such relationships are limited to those who are willing to endure the social stigma attached to it, and are willing to accept the opportunity costs of forming a family that has no legal recognition under local law. This, in effect, means that it is those men who have ‘less to lose’ who are most able or willing to engage in these sorts of relationships. At the same time, it is likely that there are many more men who might see benefit in a polygynous relationship but refrain from doing so because of its illegality.

Given the general nature of Muslim society, in which men are more likely to work, it is unlikely that women who might otherwise consider a polygnyous relationship would be dissuaded by these factors. It is more likely that the women who refrain from making themselves available for polygynous marriage do so because they simply cannot accept the idea of sharing their husband or a range of other social and emotional reasons. Therefore, we can assume that were polygyny to be legalised, the number of women who might consider such a marriage would, at least until the form of marriage gained more mainstream acceptance, be fairly constant. In other words, it is unlikely that there would be a sudden rush of women seeking to be second wives if the legislation were changed.

The net effect of this would be an increase in the number of men seeking second wives with little change to the number of women who were available to be second wives. The result of this increased demand from men but constant supply of women would be that these men would need to offer these women substantially more than they are now in order to convince them to marry them.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Western governments should rush to legalise polygyny, but I am simply offering some economic arguments as to why the conventional wisdom — that polygyny is harmful to women — may be wrong. It is also interesting to note that some of the problems that Muslims see with ‘underground’ polygynous relationships nowadays could probably be solved were such marriages to be legalised.

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