Friday, December 10, 2010

Legalizing polygamy

What if polygamy were legalized in a country say like Canada? What would be the result?

Polygamy is close to universally frowned upon in western countries like Canada. But not so long ago homosexuality was as well. And there is what some have called serial monogamy in the west (the great increase in divorce rates), and the liberalization of heterosexual relationships outside of marriage, or even long term relationships. It's conceivable, then that polygamy would become mainstream and operate in an open society where individuals have freedom to make their own choices.

Alternatively, what if polygamy only finds a niche where it already lives? Even though it's illegal polygamy is practiced in Canada, and the U.S. It crops up in cults and is given a religious imprimatur. And it's always polygynous marriages, one man with several wives. These are societies that close themselves off from the world and construct codes and practices that perpetuate polygyny. Like teenage boys being exiled from the community. Child brides. Denying girls an education that would make leaving more attractive. Parents, particularly fathers, determining who their daughters will marry. A system of institutions, values, brainwashing and beliefs is created to keep women in check. Add to this that men are physically stronger. It's curious of course that women in these cult societies very often defend them. I won't pretend to understand that, but we do know that many of us have a tendency to defend what we have lived especially if we have been taught that there is evil outside your community and your community is under siege. And of course by their very nature kinship ties reach across these communities.

Other things being equal women interested in monogamy gain from polygyny because it gives them greater bargaining power -- if a man can take several wives, unmarried men be competing over fewer women, and give them a better deal in life. But other things are not equal. If polygamy were to be legalized there no reason to believe that in the open society polygyny would be greater than polyandry. At the same time we can expect to see a growth in closed societies were polygyny that subjugates women is practiced.

This post was inspired by a recent article in the Globe & Mail:
a professor testified Tuesday at a landmark court case examining Canada’s ban on multiple marriages.

Shoshana Grossbard, an expert in the economics of marriage from San Diego State University, said allowing men to have multiple wives inevitably leads to a reduced supply of women, increasing demand.

But rather than making women more valuable in such communities, she said, that scarcity encourages men in polygamous societies to exert control over them to ensure they have access to the limited supply.
Addendum. The Vancouver Sun has more on Grossbard's testimony:
Economist Shoshana Grossbard admits she was naive when she did her doctoral thesis on polygamy more than 30 years ago at the University of Chicago. Then, she believed that a simple supply-and-demand analysis would explain the economics of polygamous societies. Besides, she says, "I thought it was cool to say that polygamy might be advantageous to women and repeat what Gary Becker (her thesis adviser and Nobel laureate) has said."
Grossbard can't prove it. But the economist says it only makes sense that wealthy, well-educated polygamists might prefer living in Canada to Nigeria or even South Africa - where the president himself has five wives.

And if there is an influx due to immigration or an increase due to inclination, Grossbard is certain there will be pressure to accept the kinds of cultural practices and institutions she has observed in other polygynous societies.
Additional practices associated with polygyny are also discussed in the article.

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Blogger Chiara said...

An interesting post.

Polygyny is practised by a very small minority of Muslims anywhere, and by fringe groups of the LDS ie the FLDS in North America.

In Canada the case is being prosecuted as being against marriage laws which enshrine monogamy. However, the defense is to use the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to argue that polygyny in a religious context, as amongst this group of FLDS in Bountiful BC, is a religious right and therefore should be made legal. Some very conservative Muslims in Canada are hoping that defense will win.

Canada was naive in using this prosecution, though somewhat forced by the head of the community in BC, William Blackmore, appearing on The Fifth Estate, a major CBC news affairs program, and detailing his polygynous life.

The US has wisely, and with more experience in the matter, used other laws to clamp down on such cultish elements: sex with a minor, marriage to a minor, transporting a minor across state or national boundaries for the purpose of sex, welfare fraud, etc. The FLDS group there is more extreme in its practises especially under Warren Jeffs, who broke up marriages and reassigned the partners to new marriages, often taking the wives as his own.

In Canada welfare fraud is part of the economy of the FLDS community. After the first legal wife all the others are by religious marriage only. They and their children receive welfare and family benefits as single mother households. Since mothers have so many children they have a good argument that they cannot afford to work. The housing in the community is constructed in such a way as to allow for the argument that the mothers are living alone.

The welfare aspect, along with poor education for both men and women, are part of the economic burden of this particular group of polygamists.

8:20 AM  
Blogger John B. Chilton said...

Chiara, thank you for you illuminating comment.

6:08 PM  

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