The Right Coast

February 08, 2005
By Gail Heriot

One of our regular Right Coast readers has pointed out that in my original post on the Conference on the Meaning of Marriage, I had promised to write something about polygamy and then got carried away by the topic of same-sex marriage instead. OK, then, let me say a couple of things about polygamy ...

The conventional view of polygamy (or at least polygyny) is that it strenghthens the hand that men are dealt in life while weakening the hand of women. That strikes me as wrong (though I am hardly the first to say so). Let's make the dubious assumption that appears to be implicit in this view--that a man is better off the more wives he can get (at least if that's what he wants), but that a woman is better off if she can be the sole wife. Under that view, some men are better off in a polygynous world and some men are worse off. When the numbers of men and women are roughly equal, if a man who is perceived by women as "highly desirable" will be able to attract more than one wife, some other poor guy will get no wife at all. Polygamy ensures that there will be a surplus male population with nothing to do. (And that, of course, is a reason to oppose it right there. Surplus male populations tend to make trouble.)

The effect for women is the same: Some are better off and some are worse off--though the game is not all or nothing the way it is for men. In a culture in which monogamy is the rule, women who are considered very desirable as wives can usually attract men who are considered very desirable in the marriage market. Women who are considered less desirable as wives may attract men who are considered less desirable as husbands. Most though not all people find someone. Switch to a rule of polygyny, and all bets are off. Some highly desirable women will be able to negotiate for a monogamous husband (though they may have to give up something for it). Others may settle for a husband who keeps his option to marry another. Highly desirable women may therefore as a group be worse off. But women lower on the marriageability totem pole may correctly regard themselves as better off. Under the monogamous regime, they could marry only men who are not already taken (and who are willing to marry them.) Now their option have multiplied. They now include married men who are willing to marry them. In other words, they don't have to marry their no good bum of a boyfriend unless all thing considered they think they're better off with him than with a "shared" higher status husband.

Polygyny survived for centuries in some cultures, so I figure it must have served some purpose. On the other hand, it appears to have zero support today beyond a few nut cases. Why? I'll try to offer my guesses on that tomorrow.