The New York Times - Economix blog January 24, 2011
The Economics of Big Love
By NANCY FOLBRE
Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The laws of marriage emerge from a process of collective negotiation, informed (though certainly not determined) by consideration of their social and economic impact. Advocates for gay marriage, like my University of Massachusetts Amherst colleague Lee Badgett, argue that it has positive consequences for society as a whole.
Five of the 50 states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) plus the District of Columbia now grant same-sex couples the right to wed.
Other rules of marriage are subject to contention. A law prohibiting polygamy in Canada is now under review by the British Columbia Supreme Court for possible violation of religious rights guaranteed under the Canadian constitution. While the case originated in controversies regarding the community of Bountiful, founded by a breakaway Mormon sect that advocates plural marriage, it also has implications for Canada’s many immigrants from Muslim countries.
While there is little support for legalization of polygamy, or, more specifically, polygyny (one husband, more than one wife) in the United States, the HBO television series “Big Love” (now its fifth and final season) has modernized its cultural image.
Many reactions to the possible legalization of polygyny ride on its implications for women. Some economists, including the Nobel Prize-winner Gary Becker in his “Treatise on the Family,” have argued that polygyny should increase the demand for women and enhance the efficiency of the marriage market.
Government restriction of marriage contracts limits individual choice. In principle, the prospect of enjoying more than one wife could spur men to greater competitive efforts with one another. Some women might prefer to share a rich husband than to have a poor or unemployed husband all their own. Indeed, as income inequality among men increases, the potential benefits of polygyny for young and beautiful husband-seekers probably go up as well.
Intense economic stress, like that typical in many areas of Russia, can also lead some women to wish they had the option of officially sharing a husband.
But polygyny is strongly associated with policies and practices that have distinctly ugly consequences for women as a group and as individuals, too. Shoshana Grossbard of San Diego State University, who completed her graduate work under Professor Becker’s direction and once shared her mentor’s views, recently made headlines with expert testimony opposing legalization of polygyny in Canada.
As she points out, polygynous marriage often gives elder men the right to coerce young women into submissive relationships and to control them and their offspring. Indeed, polygyny is more attractive to men the greater the benefits they can derive from it; the desire to maintain control over younger wives motivates efforts to reinforce patriarchal authority.
Still, the possibility that polygyny could be extracted from its patriarchal matrix lingers, demanding serious consideration. Status of Women Canada, a government agency, has published a fascinating series of research reports on polygamy’s implications for women and children, concluding that its effects vary enormously according to context.
The controversy connects to a larger debate concerning the co-evolution of legal institutions and economic growth. The psychologist Kevin MacDonald mobilizes considerable evidence suggesting that the social imposition of monogamy in Europe in the early Middle Ages reduced inequality among both men and women, reducing social conflict and contributing to successful economic development.
Gay marriage also fits into an economic-demographic narrative. Strong cultural and religious sanctions against homosexuality emerged in a context in which rapid population growth was economically advantageous and gradually weakened as both actual and desired fertility rates declined.
No one fully understands these complex social dynamics. But the historical links among polygyny, patriarchy and inequality seem very strong. And monogamy — whether heterosexual or homosexual — probably has some equalizing effects for both families and communities.
We may want to regulate Big Love for the same reason we want to regulate Big Money — to hold ourselves together better.
This article was found at:
Stop Polygamy in Canada website has notes taken by observers in the courtroom as well as links to most of the affidavits and research the court is considering in this case.
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