09 December 2015

England Used To Be A Lot Like ISIS

For over a century, English husbands sold their wives at auctions. We argue that wife sales were an institutional response to an unusual constellation of property rights in Industrial Revolution-era English law. 
That constellation simultaneously required most wives to obtain their husbands’ consent to exit their marriages and denied most wives the right to own property. In doing so it precluded direct Coasean divorce bargains between spouses that could dissolve inefficient marriages when wives’ valuation of life outside their marriages was higher than husbands’ valuation of life inside them. To overcome this problem, spouses used wife sales to conduct divorce bargains indirectly. Wife sale auctions achieved this by identifying and leveraging “suitors” — men who valued unhappy wives more than their current husbands, who unhappy wives preferred to their current husbands, and who had the property rights required to buy unhappy wives’ right to exit marriage from their husbands. The resulting transactions enabled unhappy wives in inefficient marriages to exit those marriages where English law otherwise prevented them from doing so.
This is the abstract for Boettke, et al. "Wife Sales" (Review of Behavioral Economics, 2014, 1: 349-379) via the Legal Theory blog whose proprietor notes: "Today is not April First and I did not make this up."

Many of the things we now find most appalling about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) involve corporal punishments, the reinstitution of slavery, its treatment of women, and its treatment of religious minorities, all of which are not that much different than the law of England in the early days of the Industrial Revolution through the Victorian era.

This revelation should give us hope that current practice is not destiny for even the most hardline Islamic countries today, even if they remain Islamic (just as England remained Christian).  And, this historical fact should also cause us to be humble in assuming any inherent ethnic moral superiority.

While I would happily defend the legal regime in modern Western countries as superior to those of the Islamic state, I would also argue that this superiority is the product of cultural innovations that are relatively recent in history which are not exclusive to any one group.

Also, while I again, would argue that the modern Western regime is superior to that ISIS legal regime, it could very well be the case that institutions that we find abhorrent are bad mostly for different reasons than conventional wisdom would suggest, and that they might address problems within the ISIS legal regime as a whole in ways that are not widely understood, in much the same way as the economic analysis of Wife Sales in the linked article explains that benefits of that institution to men and women alike in the legal context in which they took place.

Finally, of course, the existence of Wife Sales, reminds us that what is commonly viewed as "traditional marriage" is a much younger legal institution than is commonly acknowledged.  Older forms of "traditional marriage" would be virtually unrecognizable as such today.

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