Correction appended July 14, 2015.
Despite the fact that no one seems to be making a serious case for legalizing polygamy, opponents have come out swinging in light of the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage last month. One argument against polygamy is that it could threaten distributive fairness—the idea that every man should be given a fair shot at finding a wife. But if policy makers want to ensure a fair distribution of women among men, does institutionalized monogamy go far enough?
Stephen Macedo makes the case for distributive fairness in the Economist last week: “We should design our social and political institutions, here as elsewhere, to secure the conditions within which this opportunity is available to all on fair terms. Monogamy serves this important public purpose.” (Macedo seems open to the idea that legalized polygamy could create a shortage of men, too, even though he acknowledges that polyandry—one woman with multiple husbands—is extremely rare even in societies where it is permitted.)
The distributive fairness argument is premised on the idea that so many women will choose to be the second, third, and fourth wives of wealthy men that lower income men will be left without access to marriage. Monogamy solves this problem by forcing these women to marry men they would never consider if polygamy was an option—men in the lower socio-economic groups.
Of course, in an age when women are productive members of the workforce, the idea that they will enter into any form of marriage as long as a man has a high enough income is unlikely. And in reality, men in the lower socio economic groups are far less likely to be married even within a system of monogamy. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 25% of men with a high-school education or less had never been married, compared to only 14% of men with advanced degrees.
So maybe monogamy isn’t doing enough to ensure distributive fairness. Here are a few suggestions for equally ridiculous policies that might work.
1. Take away the right of women to reject an offer of marriage. The Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, believed that land should be fairly distributed among all men. The principle reason why the Land Ordinances were successful at achieving this goal was that land itself has no say as to whose property it is. The right of women to reject an offer of marriage is leaving many American men without wives, even with institutionalized monogamous marriage. The easiest way to ensure a fair distribution of women among men, therefore, would be to take away that right.
2. Redistribute wealth among men. George Bernard Shaw wrote in Maxims for Revolutionists that polygamy condemns the majority of men to celibacy because the “maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one.” In modern society many men are condemned to bachelorhood not by polygamy, but because many women prefer to have no man rather than the exclusive possession of third rate one. The obvious solution to this distributive fairness problem is economic equality among men.
3. Increase the gender wage gap. Phyllis Schlafly made this argument last year. Reducing the ability of women to provide for themselves would create economic incentives for marriage, increasing the pool of potential wives for men. Limiting the access of women to education would have a similarly beneficial effect at increasing distributive fairness.
4. Restrict access to birth control and abortion for single women. Giving women the ability to control their fertility has not only increased women’s investment in education and attachment to the labor force, but it has also encouraged them to marry at a later age. This increase in age at first marriage, and increased female economic independence, reduces the pool of available wives for men who wish to marry. Any one-man-one-wife policy should consider restricting women’s ability to control their fertility.
Of course I am not suggesting that any government adopt these policies to promote a fair distribution of women among men. But they should make it clear that as long as women have the right and ability to remain single when they do not find suitable marriage partner, the choice of marriage institution—monogamy or polygamy—is extremely unlikely to have any effect on the share of men who are married.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the type of marriage arrangement that is extremely rare. It is polyandry.