One of the most interesting of the (ridiculously) long list of documents my daughter had to provide in order to work here in France was a letter stating that she would not enter a polygamous marriage. Polygamy is illegal in France, so you might think this pledge is as redundant as pledging not to become a pickpocket. The laws in France, it seems, are no more effective at preventing polygamy than they are petty thievery.
The truth is that marriage laws across the globe are impotent when it comes to preventing men and women from forming polygamous households. That’s a problem if we believe that developing nations would be better off in terms of national income if monogamous marriage became the norm. So the question becomes, how to encourage monogamy in places where the laws have failed.
Economists have believed for a while that one way to encourage monogamy is to make education freely available to women. In theory, educated women have more say in their marital arrangements because they are better equipped to support themselves if they either choose not to get married or they choose to leave a husband who is seeking additional wives.
That's a good story but it only works if there are wage paying jobs for educated women. If women can only earn their income by working the land (a vocation that largely belongs to men) then it really doesn’t matter how educated they become. Polygamy will still persist.
New evidence using data from Cote d’Ivoire (where polygamy is both illegal and widespread) suggests that these economic factors aren’t just important for the marriage decisions of women, but for men as well. Educated men who earn a greater proportion of their income from waged earnings are significantly less likely to take multiple wives than are less-educated men earning their living off the land.
The authors of this study end with this suggestion:
These results can perhaps guide policy makers to enact changes which push the equilibrium towards a more monogamous outcome, which is typically associated with less poverty and higher rates of economic growth.
That all sounds perfect, but there is one small problem – how do countries end up with an educated population that earns less of its income in agriculture? They industrialize, that's how.
So the recommendation really is this: if they want to encourage economic growth, the poorer nations of the world should become wealthier nations because, as wealthier nations they will be blessed with everything they need to become even wealthier.
In fairness, while we probably already knew this, it is worth being reminded that many of our beloved marriage institutions, like monogamy, are enshrined in law because our economic conditions have created an environment within which they have flourished.
As an aside, what is up with the French and their wedding bands? Last time I walked along the right bank of the Seine I witnessed not one, but three, different women surprised to find men’s gold wedding bands lying in plain sight on the sidewalk. The best performance art in this town, if you ask me, is by petty thieves taking advantage of the fact that foreigners are easily convinced that French men can’t hang onto their wedding bands. Clever, clever.
Eric D. Gould, Omer Moav, and Avi Simhon (June, 2012). “Lifestyles of the rich and polygynous in Cote d’Ivoire.” Economics Letters, Vol. 115(3): 404-407.