Wife Sales: "An Efficiency-Enhancing Institutional Response"


Peter Leeson, Peter Boettke, and Jayme Lemke, all of George Mason University, have issued a new paper called “Wife Sales” (abstract here; PDF here):

For over a century English husbands sold their wives at public auctions. We argue that wife sales were indirect Coasean divorce bargains that permitted wives to buy the right to exit marriage from their husbands in a legal environment that denied them the property rights required to buy that right directly. Wife-sale auctions identified “suitors” – men who valued unhappy wives more than their current husbands, who unhappy wives valued more than their current husbands, and who had the property rights required to buy unhappy wives’ right to exit marriage from their husbands. These suitors enabled spouses in inefficient marriages to dissolve their marriages where direct Coasean divorce bargains between them were impossible. Wife sales were an efficiency-enhancing institutional response to the unusual constellation of property rights that Industrial Revolution-era English law created. They made husbands, suitors, and wives better off.

(HT: Tomas Simon)


Seriously? Seriously stupid. (The idea of this is wrong and absurd.) No husband sales? I'm calling the gypsies.


Not nearly as stupid as the present system, where divorce enriches only the lawyers. Though I agree that husband sales should be included.


I'm not your slave.


(Marriage Belief Stance: Conservative-Agnostic)

Marcus Kalka

This practice of "wife sales" sounds pretty sick to me. The question of whether or not it makes "husbands, suitors, and wives better off" is immaterial given the gross and disgusting sociological aspects of the practice. Further, this practice of "wife sales" raises the question of whether such "marriage" deals were ever really "marriages" to begin with.

Further, I think the underlying premise that "happiness" is the sole goal of marriage is a fundamentally flawed one. Such a premise is an obvious flaw in the above abstract. There are biological and sociological issues that grossly overtake the question of "happiness" in [English and all] marriages. Is the question of "efficiency" in marriages limited to "happiness"? That is debatable. The underlying societal issues and separation of gender rights nullify any sense of the practice of "wife-sales" being beneficial at all.

The worthwhileness of the practice of "wife-sales" is probably dependent on the time period and culture in which the practice is being analyzed. For the authors of the paper, perhaps wife sales "made husbands, suitors, and wives better off", but is the sum of one's existence really about efficiency in property rights? From my perspective, I see the practice as being sick and counterproductive to the marital stability of a society. Whether or not the English once thought the practice of wife-selling to be "efficient", the fact that we no longer sell our spouses at public auctions suggests that perhaps the practice was not worthwhile after all [as the practice was abandoned].


Eric M. Jones

Is this what they mean by "Family Values"?

Troy Camplin

Sounds like a rational response to bad laws and to the culture of the time. One does not have to agree with or approve of the situation that gave rise to such innovations to see that those innovations are rational and condition-improving within that social context.


Bingo. While the idea that you can't get divorced at basically any time, or that only the husband can initiate a divorce, is foreign to most folks in modern, industrialized nations, that doesn't mean that "wife sales" was not a decent answer for the time period and the legal conditions that prevailed.

Would wife sales be beneficial in today's society? Absolutely not. Were the beneficial to the people involved, given the legal and social environment? Yes.


I would be surprised if there are not a number of what are effectively spouse sales in this society. There's certainly a recent well-publicized instance of spouse rental, in which a (now former) Senator paid a husband in order to have an affair with the wife.


Wait, I saw this movie...Robert Redford, Demi Moore...


Have any of the indignant folks denouncing the paper actually read it? I'm guessing the answer is no.


By analogy, slave trade should have been "an efficiency-enhancing institutional response" to slavery : if slaves were, like women, deprived of property rights and rights to "divorce" their owner, the "opportunity" of being sold provided slaves with more happiness. Are you paid for your "research"?

Marcus Kalka

Exactly. Such arguments and lines of thinking as the ones made in the paper could be analogized to any ugly period in human history where one group of humans was treated as sub-human by another group such as slavery or the Holocaust. We could easily craft such scenarios given the plights of the victims involved. Any "efficiency-enhancing institutional response" to any such ugly instance is eclipsed by the social and ethical depravity of the environment. The proper response would have been to assert and affirm human dignity and basic human rights. The lesser of two evils is an evil nevertheless...and evil is inefficient in the long-run.

Jack Huang

It'd be interesting to see a cogent argument that can solidly support the notion that "evil is inefficient in the long-run," especially since "evil" is an inherently subjective label.

Regardless, nowhere in the paper (or in the above excerpt) does anyone claim that "wife sales" singlehandedly swung women's rights in Industrial Revolution-era England across the grand good-vs.-evil line. If you saw that claim in the paper, feel free to quote it. The paper points out a mechanism that arose within an existing political environment which managed to provide some scant measure of marriage power to women.

Further, I'm not aware of slaves having any sort of notable power over being sold to different masters, which deflates the attempted analogy. That's not even mentioning the absurdity of trying to Godwin the discussion, though you're free to illustrate a parallel situation for the Holocaust. What, were Auschwitz prisoners given the power to pick other camps to transfer to?



There is an error on p. 14: If Hattie detests Harold at -7 and likes Horace at +1, she'll be "happy" at -6, not +8.
More generally, the paper doesn't suggest (let alone describe) any evidence about women's happiness after sales (except indirectly, by _assuming_ that sold women didn't use their veto rights). But why wouldn't we say about paintings and clothes that they are "happier" after sales based on the evidence that sellers and buyers are better off after sales ? Perhaps, because we don't have any evidence - neither about paintings' happiness, nor about their being Coasean bargainers.
What the authors could be interested in is to explain 1. why Middle Age's fathers didn't discover faster how to benefit from Coase theorem and continued instead to sale their daughters to neigbours for centuries and 2. how come such an efficient system of sale in 19th century has been wasted by granting property rights to women.



The way I understood p.14 is putting the values in scale, so if you go from -7 to +1 you have moved 8 points forward. But I´ll reread it to see if your description fits better.

Subhakar Rao