Take Buy My Wife. Please!


No money down and 0 percent financing available!

From George Mason's Peter Leeson (of pirate and witch trial fame), Peter Boettke, and Jayme S. Lemke, an economist's defense of the practice of wife sales in 18th and 19th century England when divorce was tricky and wives were property. As the George Mason trio explain, "wife sales were an efficiency enhancing institutional response to the unusual constellation of property rights thatIndustrial Revolution-era English law created." 

From the paper:

Consider an 18th-century English married couple, Hattie and Horace. Horace likes Hattie. His valuation of Hattie-as-wife is £5. But Hattie detests Horace. She values Horace-as-husband -£7. Their marriage is inefficient. Hattie wants to exit the marriage. To do so she requires Horace's consent. Horace is willing to sell Hattie his consent for anything more than £5. And Hattie is willing to pay him that much. But, since she's married, she has no property rights with which to do so. All that Hattie might use to pay Horace is already his. A direct Coasean bargain is impossible.

But an indirect Coasean bargain isn't. Consider Harland, an English bachelor. Harland is Horace and Hattie's neighbor. He likes Hattie more than Horace does. His valuation ofHattie-as-wife is £6. Further, Hattie likes Harland more than Horace. She values Harland-as-husband £1. 

Horace knows this. He proposes the following to Hattie and Harland: if Harland willagree to pay him £5.5, he will sell Hattie to him. Unlike Hattie, Harland has property that isn't Horace's. So this exchange is possible. Hattie and Harland agree to Horace's deal. Horace benefits £0.5, Harland, £0.5, and Hattie, £8. The sale improves all parties' welfare.

Get the PDF here.

NEXT: "Jackass" Alumnus Ryan Dunn Dies From Something Unrelated to Poop, Alligators, or Skateboarding Without a Helmet

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Do they have two for one coupons?

    1. You want to be married to two English women? As Trevanian said in The Loo Sanction, “the prettiest women in the world are in whatever you country you visit immediately after England.”

      1. u mean like in somalia?

        1. may I remind you that there would be no street walkers if not for government-sponsored ROADS!

            1. credit goes to mysteryfish.

      2. They’re not Walmart ugly. That is to say they’re not so ugly I wouldn’t do them two at a time.

      3. I would consider fucking two fives.

  2. How romantic. It is England so Horace and Harland were probably more attracted to each other than Hattie. Hattie should have just ran away to America and found a real man.

  3. COASE COASE COASE COA…oh wait, nevermind.

  4. Even when divorce is legal and women have the same property rights as men? There are other dynamics at play that skew this calculation…and that isn’t being accounted for in this analysis.

    In other words, living with a miserable woman who hates you? Is so unbearable, that millions of men every year choose to give their ex-wives half of everything they own–just so they can walk away.

    1. In other words, living with a miserable woman who hates you? Is so unbearable, that millions of men every year choose to give their ex-wives half of everything they own–just so because the state says that’s the only way they can walk away.


    2. Q: Why is divorce so expensive? A: Because it’s worth it.

    3. Q: Why is divorce so damned expensive?

      A: Because it’s worth it.

      1. I am slower than a constipated ass today.

    4. ken – u mean half of everything acquired WHILE married. u can keep what u had when u were still free.

    5. I would have given my ex-wife EVERYTHING of mine to get away from her.

      Don’t tell her that though 🙂

  5. Hypothetical question: In an anarcho-capitalist society, could you contractually sell yourself into slavery and become someone’s property, as long as you consented?

      1. I am probably naive here, can’t even tell how serious you are. But I have thought on it some, and can’t see how it could be enforced.

        If you get the money from selling yourself, and immediately become a slave, doesn’t the new master immediately own that money, or can’t the new master at the very least confiscate that money?

        If you designate a third party as the recipient of the money, doesn’t that make it a three-way contract? No master is going to give the money first, then hope you turn yourself in. But if you turn yourself in first and the master refuses to give the money, you can’t sue because you are a slave. So it has to be a three way contract. But that implies the third party has some say in you becoming a slave. What if Joe sells Jack as an unwilling slave and gets a pile of money — how can Jack dispute that he didn’t want to be a slave, since he is now a slave and can’t sue, not least because his master could kill him or move him away?

        I really am puzzled by this. It has always seemed to me that you should be able to sell yourself into slavery, but partial slavery doesn’t cut it, and I don’t see how full slavery can be enforced without tremendous abuse.

        1. It’s not all that different from endentured servitude. Used to happen here all of the time. Some rich dude pays your way to America and you work for him for 10 years or whatever until your debt is paid. Very similar to that and was enforceable even though the money had been already paid.

        2. But if you turn yourself in first and the master refuses to give the money, you can’t sue because you are a slave.

          Except the part where you don’t become a slave until the payment is made. If you’re selling yourself into slavery, don’t accept contracts written in crayon.

        3. If you owed a bunch of money and you and your family were about to get tossed in debtor’s prison, selling yourself for enough to pay the loans might be a better alternative.

      2. Good thing we live in a society with an inalienable right to liberty and not an anarcho-capitalist one.

    1. Interesting question, but it only made me think of a further one: in an anarcho-capitalist society, who enforces contracts?

        1. LOL That’s the problem I can see… Would you, as gangs, have strict scruples about only enforcing VALID contracts?

          1. Depends on how much money you have. We will work on retainer. It may be in our best interest to show some level of equity to afford us additional protection from rival gangs.

            1. It’s better to have just one gang supposedly enforcing contracts now? Without competition?

              1. Better for us

              2. That would be me and my posse.

          2. If you’re interested, a lot of that kind of stuff is discussed in Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”. Mainly as it relates to private law enforcement. Fair warning though, it’s a pretty dry read, especially if you don’t read a lot of political philosophy. It’s not for anyone with a short attention span. Even if you don’t buy into his arguments it does make you think about how it all would work.

        2. In which case, you are the government and it isnt an anarchy any more.

          Anarchy is metastable at best. At least minarchy doesnt even pretend to be stable (eternal vigilance and all that).

          1. That is correct. I wouldn’t even call anarchy metastable if that’s a word. It would last until the next power structure (ie government) took it’s place. Power abhors a vacuum as they say.

            1. It very much is a word. A small sphere balanced on top of another sphere is metastable. Its stable until any perturbation.

              1. Perturbation. I’d hate to play scrabble against you. Just like my wife.

                1. I suck at scrabble.

                  My college roommate and I used to tag team solve the Jumble. He would unscramble the words (in about 5 seconds) and I would solve the picture puzzle without needing to know what letters I need.

                  1. That’s ’cause winning Scrabble isn’t about the words. It’s about the stupid little squares on the board, and how to scores those as many times as possible with the best letters.

                    Good players will score 30 points with one tile and a triple word score.

                    1. This. Scrabble is all about position. I have a running series of games against a comp sci PhD on my phone. I’ve beaten him 10 times in a row as, even though we both have good vocabularies, it’s all about knowing the 2- and 3-letter words (most of which you learn from the game, not books) and limiting your opponent’s options.

              2. My definition of metastable is a little off: if the small sphere were balanced in a tiny divot on top of the other sphere, that would be metastable.

                Stable only to a very, very tiny perturbation.

                1. Kind of like the current US budget

      1. …in an anarcho-capitalist society, who enforces contracts?

        The contracts spell out the consequences of breaking them.

        Free-market arbitrators rule when disputes arise, and build a reputation for fairness and expedited service to attract new customers (unlike the current justice system which has no competition.)

        If one party to a contract breaks it and doesn’t voluntarily comply with either the penalty clause in the contract or the judgment of the arbitrator, free-market bounty hunters go after him to collect.

        People would be somewhat hesitant to break their contracts, because a personal credit rating (including trustworthiness) would matter more in a society based on mutual consent. That, and the bounty hunters.

        1. An anarcho-capitalist society, at least my hypothetical one, isn’t a lawless land, but a land where everyone is free to choose his own government. If two individuals from the same government enter into a contract, or a dispute, the law they have freely chosen applies.

          If two individuals from different governments enter into a contract, they choose the governing law. In a dispute, they choose a neutral third-government arbitrator they both agree on.

          Gangs get ruthlessly eliminated by cooperating bounty hunters hired by business people who have an incentive for law and order.

    2. We have a long way to go before we’ll ever need to cross that bridge.

      But if someone were to rack up debts so large that their labor could never repay those debts? …and the anarcho-capitalist society decided to enforce that debt anyway?

      They wouldn’t call it “slavery”–they’d call it something else.

      We hold people responsible for the choices they make–sometimes for the rest of their lives too. But we don’t call them “slaves”.

      We call them “prisoners”. We call it a “life sentence without parole”.

      1. But if someone were to rack up debts so large that their labor could never repay those debts? …and the anarcho-capitalist society decided to enforce that debt anyway?

        Debt bondage has been recognized as a form of enslavement. Every society that has abolished slavery has some form of bankruptcy law that allows a person to seek relief from a debt burden that is not repayable.

        1. Except for bankruptcy-proof student loans in the USA, backed by Uncle Sam because getting millions of lower-income college kids hooked on black tar heroin was too obvious.

        2. The question is whether anarcho-capitalist societies would necessarily choose bankruptcy over slavery.

          Different anarcho-capitalist enclaves might answer that question differently.

          There are other options as well. …debtor’s prisons, debtor’s colonies like Georgia was.

    3. What, precisely, do you mean by as long as you consented ? It can be taken in very different ways.

      1. Well, in defense of prostitution for example, our bodies are our property. Therefore, since we own ourselves, we can sell the use of our bodies temporarily for money. What would stop you from going one step further and selling our body, our property, not just for one hour or evening but permanently?

        1. Okay, so you meant permanently. What, in that case, is to prevent you from changing your mind and breaking the contract? Only the use physical force on the part of the purchaser. But does your prior contract oblige you to endure this physical coercion indefinitely? If so, on what grounds did you ever claim to be free in the first place? Why did the purchaser not just enslave you without bothering about the contract?

    4. See The Unincorporated Man for a good sci-fi treatment of a world where everyone has.

      1. I’m reading that right now (SF recommended). I liked it at the beginning, and the ideas are interesting, but it’s a little stiff, plot-wise. I’m particularly unimpressed with the declaration that certain challenges presented by the antagonist are really difficult to overcome, when, in fact, they seem rather weak. The good guys keep saying, “Oh, he really got us there!” while I keep thinking, “Not really.”

        Still a ways to go, so I’m withholding my final judgment.

    5. Only those dumb enough to do so would do so without coercion, so maybe it isn’t a huge issue.

    6. No.

      Any contract must be capable of being terminated by either party. (The penalties for termination may be onerous, but they cannot be infinitely binding.)

      1. And if the termination clause is too onerous, you terminate and immediately file for bankruptcy.

    7. In an anarcho-capitalist society, could you contractually sell yourself into slavery and become someone’s property, as long as you consented?

      In an anarchist society, there are no laws against anything, so the answer is obviously yes.

    8. All persons of moral standing agree that it is wrong to sell one’s future without any recourse unless you think it would help pay for college.

    9. Anarcho-capitalist society? Any able-bodied young person can run down to the local recruiting office and sell themselves into indenture servitude right now.

  6. And economists wonder why normal people look at them so strangely.

    1. What’s the utility of normalcy?

      1. I was at an interesting party the other day, and I can attest that the utility of normalcy was negative. It would merely prevent one from having the best possible time, under the circumstances.

        1. 99 times out of 100, normalcy is the futile attempt to make an impression on people who really don’t give a damn. I’ll stick to my Zappa CDs, thanks much.

          1. The remainder is happenstance.

          2. normalcy is the futile attempt to make an impression on people who really don’t give a damn.


  7. By the way Katherine, I’m sure you’d go for at least $5,000,000.00. I’d be free with a box of pencils.

    1. That may be your asking price, but I think you would have to offer cash for the other party to take you.

      1. You get coal for christmas.

  8. “Horace benefits ?0.5, Harland, ?0.5, and Hattie, ?8.”


  9. When I read the foregoing discussion, I felt I was going to be sick. My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow. I just couldn’t breathe, because this kind of bias makes me physically ill. I had to stop reading or I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.

    1. If you have an opinion, spit it out.

      We don’t give a rat’s ass about your physiology.

      1. I think it’s supposed to be some kind of obscure joke. I sure as hell didn’t get it though.

        1. The Harvard Woman’s response to Larry Summers’ statement about women being on a steeper bell curve with regards to science and math.

          1. Ahhh. Got it. Gotta love the Ivy league. No shortage of false indignation there.

          2. Way to reinforce the stereotype, Nan.

        2. I had to look it up too. Nan Hopkins was some Harvard professor who got hysterical when Larry Summers pointed out that girls are worse at math.

          1. Oh, thanks. So, no new fainting-couch bot, then. Bummer.

    2. See, this is why girls suck at math.

      1. We suck because we’re good at math.

        1. No, it’s just that you ain’t messin’ with no broke niggas.

    3. Please tell me Nan Hopkins is the new anonbot. Next time it will be posting as “Flan Xupkens” and getting the internet vapors over whatever topic is at hand.

  10. Katherine,

    Great article. Did they keep track of these sales in a formal way? Such a list would be a great source for family history researchers.

    James Drake

  11. So *that’s* what The Mayor of Castorbridge was about.

  12. I’m seeing all sorts of problems with this article.

    What role does Hattie’s consent or her valuation of the two mates play into the bargain?

    From what I can tell, whether Hattie benefits or not is entirely irrelevant to the exchange.

    Suppose that it was Harland that wanted to “upgrade” his wife, say to a younger model. Say Hattie values Horace at 5 and he values her at 2.
    On the other hand, Harland values her at 6. So Harland pays Horace 4 for her, and everyone is happy? No … Suppose Hattie values Harland at 1 or 2. It’s better than being single, but it’s still a net loss to her.

    From what I can tell, as long as Hattie’s consent is not required for the divorce, then how it benefits her is completely irrelevant to the bargain. Why even bother mentioning Hattie’s preferences in the example at all?

    1. I think the assumption was that Hattie did have some leverage in that she could initiate a divorce in which she may or may not have benefited, however, this alternative solution worked better for all parties. Now whether or not that is true I don’t know. I’m guessing your assumption is more correct.

      1. Or more likely she could not be forced to marry someone else but the solution was better for her than being divorced and also less hassle for the husband. She could have said (maybe) no deal, you’ll have to divorce me to get rid of me.

      2. I read about this sort of thing before, and if memory serves, it was only legal if the woman consented to the transaction.

        1. Still, given the legal codes at the time, the woman’s bargaining position is greatly reduced.

          The example thus seems cherry picked as one where the woman benefits a lot. But it needn’t benefit her much, if at all.

    2. I believe the ability of an unhappy woman to make the life of the nearest man an unholy living hell is both (a) true across all of time and space and (b) all the leverage needed.

      1. “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

  13. But what if Hattie prefers Hermione, and neither one of them owns any property?

    1. As long as they can’t get legally married the institution of Holy Matrimony will be protected from all worldly vicissitudes. Says so on the label.

  14. Hattie values Horace at ?5
    Horace values Hattie at ?1
    Hattie values Harland at -?1
    Harland values Hattie at ?5

    Harland offers Horace ?3

    Horace benefits ?2
    Harland benefits ?2
    Hattie loses -?6

    Net, they’re worse off. The fact is, the woman’s benefit here has no effect on the transaction. It might be nice if the buyer and the wife would be a better mutual fit than the seller and the wife, but to me it seems like most of the benefit would be captured by the men, and while the benefit for both men would necessarily be positive, that’s not true for the woman.

    1. Hattie vetoes the transaction.

      England was a civilized country, Hattie had to agree to the transaction.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.