The Babylonian Marriage Market:

People talk a lot about inequality of income, but there are other forms of inequality. In a society where most women get married and who they marry largely determines the rest of their lives, inequality in the characteristics that men value in a wife, most obviously physical attractiveness, may be more important than inequality of wealth. An  attractive woman has her choice of husbands, an ugly woman may be unable to get an offer from even one. In a society with bride price and dowry, the parents of an attractive woman can collect a sizable bride price while other parents, if they want to marry off their daughter, may have to provide a sizable dowry.

Herodotus describes an economist’s solution to this particular form of inequality. The attractive woman sells for a high price, but the price is paid not to her in the form of a particularly desirable husband or to her parents as bride price but to the pool of cash that will be used to buy husbands for the less attractive brides. Wealth redistribution on the marriage market.

There are two problems. One is that there is nothing to guarantee that the market will clear, that the total collected for the more desirable brides will be the amount needed to buy husbands for the less desirable. It might be less, in which case some remain unmarried. It might be more.

The other problem is more complicated. Pairing up couples is not merely a question of who gets the better partners, who the worse, not solely what economists describe, in other contexts, as a question of distribution. It is also a matter of who fits with whom. I once estimated that the woman to whom I am still married, forty years after I met her, was about a one in a hundred thousand catch–for me. But I did not have to bid her away from competing suitors by promising to obey her lightest whim, or even to wash the dishes, because when I met her there were no competing suitors–I was the first man she ever dated. For some odd reason, not every man, hearing a woman give a clear and correct explanation of a point in calculus, falls in love on the spot.

Matching up husband and wife is not merely a problem of distribution. It is also a problem of allocation, getting the pairing right, forming couples each member of which has the characteristics the other values. The Babylonian marriage market does half the job, since how much each man is willing to bid for a particular bride depends in part on how well she matches what he wants. But there is no bidding from the other side, nothing to make it easier for a woman to end up with the husband she wants than with one of the ones she doesn’t. The auction makes sense only in a world where everyone, or at least every woman, has about the same preferences in potential marriage partners.

Contrast that to the way we do it. Marriage is by mutual assent of the partners. Each marriage includes an implicit price in the form of its implicit terms–how much each is expected to do, how much control each will have over joint decisions such as where to live or how many children to have and how to bring them up. If I value the woman I am courting more than my rivals I will be willing to offer her a higher price for her hand. If she values me more than she values them, she will be willing to accept a lower price from me than from them. Seen through the simplifying lens of economics it is a market transaction. Like other market transactions, it tends to allocate in a way that maximizes the summed value to the parties. But like other market transactions, and unlike the Babylonian auction, it does nothing to eliminate the inequality that comes from the fact that some people are more desirable marriage partners than others.

The market model of marriage has, however, at least one serious problem, illustrated in the next story.