The WSJ has a story today that we are increasingly likely to hear in some version. The one-child policy and preference for boys has led to a well-documented shortages of marriageable women in China, particularly in some parts. In this story, brides marry rural men, extracting a bride-price, and then running away with the money. There are other things that happen too - abductions of women in rural villages, the renting out of a farmer's wife to other farmers who cannot find wives. It is a social issue that is only now beginning to hit adult Chinese society in full force. There is an extremely important and good book on the implications of this surplus of males in China, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, by Valerie Hudson and Andre den Boer (2004). (Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has written on the economic implications of this for regions of China and India, as well as a superb series - published in Spanish, as it happens - on European health and retirement, in the Madrid Revista de Libros.) As the WSJ article notes:
Thanks to its 30-year-old population-planning policy and customary preference for boys, China has one of the largest male-to-female ratios in the world. Using data from the 2005 China census — the most recent — a study published in last month's British Journal of Medicine estimates there was a surplus of 32 million males under the age of 20 at the time the census was taken. That's roughly the size of Canada's population.
Now some of these men have reached marriageable age, resulting in intense competition for spouses, especially in rural areas. It also appears to have caused a sharp spike in bride prices and betrothal gifts. The higher prices are even found in big cities such as Tianjin.
A study by Columbia University economist Shang-Jin Wei found that some areas in China with a high proportion of males have an above-average savings rate, even after accounting for factors such as education levels, income and life-expectancy rates. Areas with more men than women, the study notes, also have low spending rates — suggesting that many rural Chinese may be saving up for bride prices.
A moderate libertarian like me has read Heinlein, of course, and even read long sections of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress aloud to his adoring, or anyway somnolent, child until she took over and finished it herself. So my operating assumption has generally been that a shortage of females in a suitable place - a penal colony on the moon, for example - would mean that women would be able to command a suitably high marriage price, and contract for favorable plural marriage conditions. My (lapsed) Mormon background rendered me quite unoffended by the concept of plural marriage as such.
Exposure to the wider world, however, has left me persuaded that abstract libertarianism must sometimes give way to the realities of cultures and actual conditions. My view today is that - drawing on conversations with Eberstadt in which he noted that he, too, had read Heinlein - it was far more historically common, and almost certainly the more common direction of things today, that in a world with scarcity of women - especially in a world of scarcity of females and yet a cultural preference for male births - the result would be increased treatment of women as property. More valuable property, yes, but increasingly as property precisely as the perception of its value increased.
The authors of Bare Branches have noted that a surplus of males unable to find mates is the social equivalent of plural marriage in which a single male has exclusive reproductive access to multiple wives. The effect is to create, as in China, India, and other places with similar cultural patterns combined with modern technology, the imbalance in the sexes. Again, my moderate libertarianism gives way to social realities - no doubt informed by my Mormon upbringing, which left me on the one hand the least offended person in the world by the idea of polygamy, but on the other hand a very detailed understanding of what it means in practice, for women but also for surplus men and boys. Indeed, there is a very good and persuasive paper by Thom Brooks arguing - contra Martha Nussbaum and others - that a society of multiple wives and a single husband is inherently and necessarily an inegalitarian one. Here is the SSRN abstract, courtesy Legal Theory Blog:
Thom Brooks (Newcastle University - Newcastle Law School) has posted The Problem with Polygamy on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
• Polygamy is a hotly contested practice and open to widespread misunderstandings. This practice is defined as a relationship between either one husband and multiple wives or one wife and multiple husbands. Today, 'polygamy' almost exclusively takes the form of one husband with multiple wives. In this article, my focus will centre on limited defences of polygamy offered recently by Chesire Calhoun and Martha Nussbaum. I will argue that these defences are unconvincing. The problem with polygamy is primarily that it is a structurally inegalitarian practice in both theory and fact. Polygamy should be opposed for this reason.
The inequality that is baked into a society in which one husband has multiple exclusive wives is perhaps not primarily or necessarily about the wives, if one makes (extremely, fantastically heroic assumptions, in actual social fact) about their freedom to choose, and if it included the right to divorce not only the husband, but other wives (however that might work in some idealized world). The intrinsic inequality is about the mateless men, deprived of the opportunity to even have a chance to marry and have families and children. I don't recall offhand the numbers, but it only takes a quite small percentage of men with three or four wives to create something approaching the imbalances of regions of China or India. It is in a certain sense an inequality far worse than mere economic inequality - although almost always deeply embedded and intertwined with it.
The point is not that the mateless men have a right to have a wife, but instead they ought, in an egalitarian society, to have a right to be able to compete for one in the marriage market. Equality of opportunity, not necessarily equality of result. And of course it goes the other way around; a society in which large numbers of women were deprived of the ability even to seek a mate would be equally unattractive. The reality, however, as Brooks points out, is that although one can talk about multiple husband societies, in actual social practice and history it is extraordinarily rare, to the point that it is more of a philosophical distraction than useful discussion.
But even framing the argument in this abstract way in a certain sense misses the social reality - it is not really the right way to debate the question, I think. The granular look at how these social arrangements work in fact, on a large scale, and not as a matter of abstract theory, is the proper starting place. Have there been any decently economically egalitarian societies that have not been relatively monogamous? And if so, what were they like?
This form of argument cuts against the libertarian grain, alas - but having a pretty good sense of what the breakaway Mormon sects, the fundamentalist Mormon sects in Arizona and Texas, actually do in actual social practice ought to count for something. It is an argument for taking the social realities of the fundamentalist Mormon groups into account as well as abstract libertarian theory, and the same being true for Muslim polygamy, or polygamy in other cultures and societies being gradually brought into this one through the interflow of populations.