The polygamy problem

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Or several, in many places in the world.

We don’t realize how common this is — men using wealth to get multiple wives (and more sex). But why buy cows if you can just buy the milk? Buying sex, in many places, is neither easy nor socially acceptable, whereas polygamy can be. It’s indeed widespread in Africa, the Arab world, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

Some men attract multiple partners through charisma. And it’s endemic among religious gurus. Joseph Smith may have concocted Mormonism just so he could one day announce God’s polygamy plan (for him). But mainly, it’s simply wife-buying. There’s typically a “bride price” (the converse of a dowry), paid to the girl’s family.

Where that’s practiced, it militates toward older husbands and younger wives. Men may need time to accumulate the required sum; and then will want to invest it in the youngest possible (most nubile and fertile) girl. And most families need to sell their daughters before they can afford wives for their sons.

Love and romance? Since when did that figure in marriage? Only since modern times, actually, and mainly in advanced societies.

Polygamy is a factor keeping societies from becoming advanced. It plays havoc with societal stability. There are only so many women to go around (especially in male-obsessed cultures that practice selective abortion and female infanticide). But even without that, for every man with three wives, two others will have none.

Did you ever wonder, regarding those Mormon sects with multiple wives, what happens with all the men necessarily left in the lurch? The answer is simple — they’re kicked out. The elders who call the shots use various pretexts to banish young men who don’t suck up enough, so they can monopolize the girls and build their harems.

But most polygamous societies can’t just make their excess males disappear — and that’s explosive. Young men barred from sex will do almost anything for it. This makes such societies hotbeds of violence and turbulence. They’re actually the ones most likely to spark wars. On one NGO’s list of the world’s 20 least stable countries, polygamy is practiced in every one.

Take South Sudan, embroiled in a horrific civil war. Ethnic antagonisms, weak institutions, and oil wealth for greedy politicians to grab, are all factors. But rampant polygamy is a big one too, with the rich and powerful able to hog much of the bride pool, leaving legions of poor young men decidedly uncheerful. Give them guns, and what happens?

South Sudan is cattle country. The bride price ranges between 30 and 300 cows — nearly impossible for most young galoots. Unless they steal cows. And consequently that too is rampant in South Sudan, with thousands killed annually in cattle raids.

A similar pathology explains the success of Boko Haram and Islamic State in recruiting. Not just in the next life are jihadists promised virgins. These organizations capture women and parcel them out to their fighters. Many are fighting for sex, not God.

But if for many men polygamy is bad, it isn’t good for women either. Though it’s easier to get husbands, being treated as a commodity is not conducive to a rewarding marital bond. A wife must compete with other wives for a husband’s good graces. Men who can just buy wives have little impetus to treat them well. And women get trapped in bad marriages because divorce requires refunding the bride price.

Further, having multiple sex partners detracts from a man’s parental devotion. A study of 240,000 children in 29 African countries found that those in polygamous families are far likelier to die prematurely.

Some people argued that allowing gay marriage is a slippery slope to polygamy as well. Libertarianism does say let people do what they want if no one is harmed. And maybe Western democracies with advanced legal protections can avoid polygamy’s harms. Bigamy is banned because it’s usually a kind of fraud, with a victim, but what about consensual polygamy, with women of course being allowed multiple spouses too (minimizing the surplus male problem)? However, consent in this sphere can be a very dicey proposition; and polygamy opens such a can of worms, societally and culturally, that prudence suggests great caution.

Or perhaps multiple marriage should be allowed only for gays — as a kind of affirmative action, compensating for all the time they couldn’t marry at all.

(This essay owes much (including, I confess, the opening) to an excellent feature article in The Economist.)

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