The economic case for polygamy.
By Tim Harford
Source / Courtesy: Slate
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.
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.