Should Feminists Favor the Abolition of Dowries?
By Bryan Caplan
According to an engrossing biography of a Saudi princess I was reading, the Saudi government has imposed price controls on dowries. In the Saudi context, this means that the amount of money that men pay the family of the bride is capped at abount 1/3 of its market-clearing value. The princess – a staunch feminist, at least by Saudi standards – sees this as too little, too late. She wants a complete ban – a price cap of $0.
Would an economically literate feminist want to impose this price control? If dowries were the personal property of the bride, clearly not. But what if it’s her parents who keep the dowry? Then at first glance, the Saudi princess’ prescription makes sense. If all men are equally unlucrative for the bride’s parents, then they have no financial reason to make her marry a rich, old goat instead of the dashing young man she loves.
But on second thought, this is way too optimistic. Price controls spark all kinds of non-price competition. If the real sellers are the parents, banning dowries just spurs suitors to figure out sneakier ways to please parents at daughters’ expense. If you can’t offer cash to your future in-laws, you can offer them sweetheart business deals or interest-free loans. In fact, since this is Saudi Arabia, a suitor could offer – as an Nth wife – the hand of his daughter to the father of the girl he wants to marry.
The sad truth is that banning cash dowries is unlikely to make girls happier with their husbands. The main effect, instead, is just to change the way that suitors win over their future in-laws – with some deadweight loss thrown into the mix.
So what should an economically literate Saudi feminist be hoping for? Rather than trying to shut down the marriage market, she should focus on property rights. When parents own their daughters, competition spurs men to make those parents happy. If daughters instead owned themselves, competition would spur men to make prospective wives happy instead. Women would still face a temptation to marry an old goat for his money – as they do in every country – but they would have an incentive to balance pecuniary and non-pecuniary concerns – not sell themselves to the highest bidder.
In short, don’t blame markets for the plight of Saudi women. Blame their parents – and the policies that keep them in the driver’s seat.