When the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City last year, some of the dirt that visiting journalists dug up to soil Utah’s good name was the issue of polygamy. Polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse at the same time, especially wives, is against the law. But, should it be?
Opponents of polygamy will point to the abuses taking place in the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, as evidence it should be banned. But, like other moral crimes, such as illegal drug sales, prostitution, and gambling, when an activity is banned by the state, only criminal types will tend to engage in that activity because the rule of law and the rule of economics are not present to control the activity’s abuses.
Polygamists have congregated in an area on the Utah/Arizona border because the remote location makes enforcing anti-polygamy laws expensive and difficult. Because of this isolation, abuses run rampant, with old men marrying dozens of teenage brides. Unfortunately, life in Colorado City will not likely change anytime soon, as Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told People magazine, "There may be 40,000 polygamists in Utah alone. We do not have near the resources to go after [all of them]."
A few radical Mormon offshoot sects, like the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, continue to promote and practice polygamy primarily for religious and criminal reasons, not the economic reasons (a shortage of men) of the Mormons who settled in the West years ago.
The marriage market is like any other. Exchange is made when each party, seller and buyer, perceive that each will benefit from the transaction. Available men and women have value in the marriage marketplace. Some are more valuable than others, based upon: ability to provide for a family, looks, personality, ability to have children, etc.
If there is a shortage of women in a particular area, the value of all women will increase.
Legalizing polygamy, as economist David Friedman wrote in his book Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life, "allows some men who before wanted one wife to try to marry two instead — provided that they are willing to offer terms at which potential wives are willing to accept half a husband apiece. So the demand curve for wives shifts out. The supply curve stays the same, the demand curve shifts out, so the price must go up. Women are better off."
If men can have more than one wife, the price of wives in the marketplace goes up. Because of this increase in demand, with no increase in supply (the number of women is still the same), men must offer more value to women to entice them into marriage and keep them.
Some readers may have trouble with the idea that all women would benefit if polygamy laws were abolished. Friedman crystallizes the argument by substituting cars and car buyers for wives and husbands. "Suppose there were a law forbidding anyone to own more than one car," wrote Friedman. "The abolition of that law would increase the demand for cars. Sellers of cars would be better off. Buyers who did not take advantage of the new opportunity would be worse off, since they would have to pay a higher price. Buyers who bought more than one car would be better off than if they bought only one car at the new price (otherwise that is what they would have done) but not necessarily better off than if they bought one car at the old price, an option no longer open to then."
Because polygamy is illegal, most of the wives in Colorado City are viewed by the state as single mothers. Thus, bigamists collect thousands in government aid every month. It is ironic that taxpayers are supporting the lifestyle of a few deviant men, who hide behind their religious beliefs. Recognition of these marriages would stop this welfare fraud.
With legalization — or, better, the privatization of marriage — there will be a few men (and women) with multiple spouses, but not many. The fact of the matter is most people don’t offer enough value for potential spouses to consider sharing.
A free market would sort out the polygamy issue, but as it is now, because polygamy is outlawed, only outlaws are polygamists.
Doug French [send him mail] is executive vice president of a Southern Nevada bank. This article was first published in the E-Bulletin of the Nevada Public Policy Research Institute.